A LIVING LAB
“TECHNOLOGY IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING AND UNIVERSITIES OFTEN DON’T FOLLOW THE SAME RHYTHM. WE AT PORTO DIGITAL FILL THIS GAP WITH FREE COURSES ON SUBJECTS HIGH ON MARKET DEMAND FOR OUR EMPLOYEES AND STUDENTS FROM OUR PARTNER UNIVERSITIES.” CIDINHA GOUVEIA (right) Project Manager Porto Digital and GUILHERME CALHEIROS Director of Innovation and Business Competitiveness Porto Digital
Porto Digital is deeply invested in Brazil's IT and creative economy. One of the biggest tech parks in the country, supports many sectors within the economy, thanks to the scale of IT services that is being exported out of the park. Situated just off the coast of Recife in northern Brazil, the STP has a whole island to itself, where it routinely rolls out and tests projects under development in its companies. For everyone who works there, it's like living in an “uber” lab.
Guilherme Calheiros, Director of Innovation and Business Competitiveness, and his colleague and Project Manager Cidinha Gouveia explain that Recife was a natural choice for a digital STP and it all happened quite organically. “The city has very good academic institutions and houses one of the most important public universities reputed for its IT courses, in particular. And though some of the most brilliant IT engineers were being nurtured there, the students would head to the more developed south after graduation in search of better jobs. We wanted to keep those people in the region and that's how Porto Digital was born,” Gouveia explains.
Recife Center for Advanced Studies and Systems, known by its Portuguese acronym, CESAR, their first company and the core of their R&D strength, was born out of supporting projects of university students after they graduated. In 2001 Porto Digital was born and the many companies that were starting to spin off from CESAR came under its umbrella. Government funding and tax benefits soon started attracting other tech companies, both from within and outside Brazil. While most of these companies deal in software services, CESAR continues
to remain a powerhouse of innovation and is often contracted by companies to develop projects from them. “Recently CESAR was contracted to develop drones that can monitor electric lines and transmit data of disruptions and maintenance needs.” Gouveia says. “The contractor is now looking to manufacture those drones on a large scale.” If the contract stipulates so, CESAR will hold partial ownership of the intellectual property (IP) and choose to further improve on that technology, churning out more companies. “More than 30 companies have come into existence this way,” Calheiros says.
Porto Digital's job is to support the companies to become more competitive and break into markets in Brazil and abroad. And this is a tough job. Because, though the Brazilian market for IT is very big, almost 70% of it is being served by international companies and local companies find it hard to compete with them, says Calheiros. Many of those tech MNCs like Accenture, IBM and, Microsoft have a presence in Porto Digital and, though they make up only a third of the companies there, they employ a large chunk of the people working on the island. “They share space with growing Brazilian tech firms like Stefanini and Serttel,” he says. Serttel is one of the STP's better known success stories. The mobility solutions provider began operations in Porto Digital and now earns an annual revenue to the tune of $100 million (QR365 million). “Their first product was a public shared bike system,” Gouveia remembers. “They first rolled out ten stations within the island to test the product and iron out the glitches. As a tech park, we love to contract these technologies as it improves the environment of the STP and benefits other employees of the 250 companies working there.”
With a solid product in hand, Serttel sold the technology first to the city of Recife, setting up 70 bike stations, and soon expanded deeper into the country, in cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro .
It was the first-of-its-kind solution in the country and the residents of Porto Digital got a taste of it before anyone else. And this is not an isolated case either; rather it's the norm. Right now a car sharing system, a parking space locator and public transport information software are all being tested on the island. The employees are constantly exposed to new innovations being developed by their neighbours, before they are fixed and implemented in the outside world, and this has an energising effect on the whole community.
While these stories are evidence of what a valuable jumping board Porto Digital can be, the trials don't stop here. “The first problem in trying to take our companies international is the language,” Calheiros says. “It's not like in India where everyone speaks English. Our engineers have to learn it and then translate their solutions to that language. This involves a lot of training (which Porto Digital provides). The other problem is funds. Brazil, and especially our region, doesn't have strong funding mechanisms. We give funds during the early stages but our companies face problems when they need more to scale up.”
But Porto Digital's IT incubator is always fully occupied and its other one - focusing on creative technology – is starting to find big name partnerships.
In its efforts to stimulate a creative economy in the region, the STP is supporting artists and engineers who are into design, gaming, filmmaking, etc. Gaming is one of the key fields with a lot of traction; there are companies working alongside Microsoft on Xbox games. “We created Proto Media where we invested in a state-of-theart studio that'll help filmmakers create high-quality movies. This kind of equipment is available at only one other place in Brazil, within the confines of the country's largest TV network. But now, for a nominal price, anyone can use the facilities to create pieces with international quality audio and video,” Gouveia says. “It's been very popular with students and amateur filmmakers and 27 films and documentaries were made here in one year alone.”