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A new era of science and innovation dawns in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro recently met its constitutionally mandated goal of allocating 2% of its net revenue to science for the first time.Credit: lunopark/ Shutterstock

Rio de Janeiro may be among the smallest of Brazil’s 26 states, but it’s also an economic powerhouse, second only to São Paulo, its larger and more populous neighbour to the southwest. Like much of Brazil, Rio is rich in resources that support manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, mining and energy — sectors that benefit from robust investments in science and technology.

Federal investment in research and development (R&D), however, has been inconsistent over the years, according to Eliete Bouskela, a physician-scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, so scientists and entrepreneurs have increasingly turned to their state governments for support.

Since 1980, the Carlos Chagas Filho Foundation for Research Support of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ) has been the primary public funder of science, technology and innovation in the state. FAPERJ’s influence over the last four decades has bolstered Rio’s academic and entrepreneurial standing, says Bouskela, who is the first woman to serve as FAPERJ’s scientific director. Rio recently met its constitutionally mandated goal of allocating 2% of its net revenue to science for the first time, and more than 1.8 billion reais (US$375 million) has been channeled to the scientific community through grants and other forms of aid since 2021.

“The stability we’ve achieved in funding has gone a long way towards showing where our priorities lie,” Bouskela says, adding that she is optimistic about the agency’s future. “We have so much room to expand.”

The building blocks of success

Bouskela directs a comprehensive portfolio of funding opportunities aimed at increasing Brazilian research competitiveness and diversifying the state’s workforce. While most of Brazil’s scientists are employed by its universities — making the country the world’s 14th-most-prolific producer of scientific publications— it has not been as successful at translating its academic excellence into real-world innovations, she says.

FAPERJ is looking beyond areas where Brazil has traditionally excelled and pushing into new spaces, putting out funding calls for scientists studying high-impact disciplines like precision medicine, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, vaccine development and infectious disease. In particular, the agency is putting a spotlight on neglected tropical diseases that often fail to attract investors but are pressing public-health concerns in Latin America, such as malaria, yellow fever, Chagas disease and Zika.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Bouskela says, instilled the lesson that the country cannot rely on importing to meet its needs. During the pandemic, FAPERJ led a task force that accelerated funding to study SARS-CoV-2, generating more than 300 million reais for research, technological development, clinical trials and small enterprises. FAPERJ president Jerson Lima Silva expressed his pride in the “resilience and ingenuity” of the local scientific and entrepreneurial community. “Within months, we’ve forged comprehensive and multidisciplinary networks dedicated to combating the virus,” he said.

The agency is also improving its relationships with collaborators and seeking a voice in wider discussions around science policy. “Once we had more stable funding, the first things we did were to help people inside Brazil to survive and to support their research,” Bouskela says. “In this next phase, we’re hoping to restart international connections.”

FAPERJ representatives have sat in on strategy calls for the European Union’s innovation funding programme, Horizon Europe, and recently negotiated agreements with France, Switzerland and Italy to exchange talent. Another initiative, the Luiz Pinguelli Rosa Program, which pairs at-risk scientists from conflict zones with researchers in Rio’s institutions, has achieved notable success in promoting collaborative research and support (Nature 604, 227-228; 2022). Within Brazil, FAPERJ is partnering with 19 other states as part of the Amazon+10 Initiative to support sustainable development in the Amazon.

All of these efforts will require a diverse workforce, and FAPERJ has listened to the needs of its base. Across Brazil, women are underrepresented in most STEM fields, and research has pointed to a lack of flexible work systems and gender-sensitive labour policies as barriers1. Rio’s technology sector has likewise struggled to attract diverse talent.

In 2023, FAPERJ released calls prioritizing women and Black and Indigenous scientists, the latter in partnership with the Serrapilheira Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the natural sciences, computer sciences and mathematics. The agency has also amended its grant policies to support women who choose to become parents, mandating a review period of five years instead of four in recognition of the fact that productivity often dips for a time following a birth.

Funding agencies must continue to encourage diversity in all fields, Bouskela says. “Having people from different backgrounds, ethnic origins and genders improves and broadens the discussion” around the future of science, technology and innovation in Brazil, she adds.

Support that spans a career

One of the researchers whose work has been advanced by FAPERJ is Mychael Lourenço, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Lourenço was an undergrad when he first received funding from the agency, which helped him navigate his early lab career, while fellowships during his PhD and postdoc funded his investigations into connections between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. FAPERJ remains one of his lab’s largest funders today, supporting the science, but also the students and staff that make up his 15-strong team.

The agency has been “incredible at helping us get things done, especially during times when the federal government couldn’t fund science or was not interested in funding science,” Lourenço says. “I’ve been able to build a successful research programme on that peace of mind.”

Lourenço’s research touches on the molecular underpinnings of memory failure in Alzheimer’s and the identification of possible biomarkers or drug targets. While many researchers have studied the association of proteins such as amyloid and tau with the disease’s most debilitating symptoms, Lourenço and his colleagues are instead looking at how this buildup creates broader protein-synthesis disruption in the brains of patients with the disease2. “We’re investigating what happens to the brain when the whole factory is working poorly,” he says.

The group is currently studying a protein called irisin, produced during exercise, which seems to be linked to healthy brain function but is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s and depression3. In animal experiments, removing irisin from the brains of rats caused them to develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, which were reversed when the protein was reintroduced4. “We suspect irisin is probably acting at synapses to strengthen the connection between neurons and support their communication,” Lourenço says, making the protein a promising target for future translational research.

FAPERJ’s support for Lourenço’s fundamental science has been crucial. “We know that many discoveries are either made by chance or by investigating basic mechanisms,” he says. “It’s really important to fund basic science, because this is the foundation for everything that comes after.”

Freedom to innovate

Mychael Lourenço's lab is investigating the molecular underpinnings of memory failure in Alzheimer's disease.Credit: Courtesy of FAPERJ

It’s not just basic science that FAPERJ is interested in supporting, however. At the other end of the innovation pipeline, the agency’s technology branch funds a portfolio of nearly 100 initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between academia and entrepreneurship and boosting technological innovation in Rio.

Participants in FAPERJ’s Doctor Entrepreneur programme, for example, receive two years of funding to parlay their research discoveries into new companies. Almost 50 start-ups have been created so far, encompassing fields from microbiology and nanotechnology to food science and oncology. WeBiome, a company launched in 2022 by Federal University of Rio de Janeiro microbiologist Rafael José Marques Peixoto, is pursuing new treatments for depression by manipulating the intestinal microbiome, while NanoOnco3D was launched in 2021 by metallurgical engineer Jéssica Dornelas, also of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to advance 3D cell culture, bioprinting and microfluidics technologies, aiming to drive down drug-development costs.

Other opportunities include the Researcher in the Company programme for early-career scientists, which places master’s and PhD students into existing micro, small and medium-sized enterprises to carry out R&D projects. Now in its fourth cycle, the programme has completed placements for nearly 250 students in companies throughout the state.

The Smart Favela programme, meanwhile, funds social and environmental projects in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, as well as start-ups that need support to scale up. A prominent example of the latter is Carteiro Amigo Express, a business that delivers mail to the residents of Rocinha, the second-largest favela in Brazil. Initially funded by FAPERJ, the business gained further support after being featured on Shark Tank Brazil, where entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to secure investment from a panel of venture capitalists.

Aquilino Senra, a nuclear engineering researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and FAPERJ’s director of technology, says these and other FAPERJ-supported projects serve a dual purpose: they build new relationships between scientific institutions and private companies, creating opportunities for students and researchers in Brazil who might otherwise take their talent out of the country; and they also create a safety net to push innovation in new directions. It’s expected, Senra says, that some projects will fail, and FAPERJ accepts that as a cost of advancing science and technology.

“Too often, investors will accept only very small risks because they don’t want to lose money. But in technology, perhaps you have to lose money,” he says. “To make truly innovative products, you have to have freedom — freedom to develop, freedom to support and freedom to make mistakes.”

Moving forward, FAPERJ plans to pursue new partnerships with Brazil’s federal government. The agency’s funding pool can support much larger initiatives, “but until now, we haven’t had too much cooperation,” Senra says. In the future, FAPERJ will fund technology initiatives at the earliest phases of development before transferring oversight to the federal government at later stages, when roughly 80% of the total costs are typically accrued.

“Nothing comes easily, but I think in the next decade, we are going to have a situation that is much better than we had 10 years ago,” Senra says. “These alliances will push us into a new era.”

To find out more about how FAPERJ is funding the next generation of science and innovation in Rio de Janeiro, visit us here.


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