University based applied R&D: promising results and new challenges. A regional perspective




This paper is based on recent Chilean experiences of joint R&D projects between universities and companies. After more than 10 years of sustained investment, very interesting results arose: new products and processes related to major economic and social sectors were developed, technology based businesses increased, there were an increasing number of patents, and an increased momentum of cultural change in academia. This analysis also considers other Latin American experiences in this area, concluding with a proposal for a regional framework for applied R&D.


The world is undergoing a transformation in which almost all human activity is being revolutionised. Globalization, knowledge creation and diffusion and educated people are the main driving forces that are shaping new societies, both local and global.
Among these activities, research and development based within universities in developing countries faces a particular challenge: how to participate in the wealth creation process that those societies urgently need. The main universities in Latin American countries usually have some R&D activity that is linked to objectives and patterns coming from universities and other entities in developed countries (mainly the European Union and USA). But only rarely is R&D work connected to the local needs of wealth creation.

In the last decade, interesting changes have occurred which can be exemplified by the experiences of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries. This paper documents these emerging processes and. The situation in Chile is focussed on to ground the general analysis.

Global perspective

Developed countries around the world that are entering the knowledge-based society have similar characteristics and national/regional strategies:

They heavily invest in education at all levels in order to build the human capital necessary to develop an educated and skilled population that create, share and use knowledge.
They create an appropriate set of economic incentives and institutional regimes to create an enabling environment, including a regulatory and economic environment that enables the free flow of knowledge, supports investment in information and communications infrastructure and encourages the entrepreneurship central to a knowledge economy.
They create a strong and effective national innovation system, promoting research and development to bring innovations to the market, thus rationalizing government funding for R&D, improving support for innovation and networking, and encouraging greater cooperation and interaction of the various stakeholders: industry, university, government and private research organizations, as well as foreign entities.
In the pursuit of a more prosperous, secure and sustainable world, developing countries are seeking to enhance their human, institutional and infrastructure capacities. International organizations like UNESCO, World Bank (WB) and InterAmerican Developing Bank (IDB) are mounting major efforts in technical capacity building in developing countries. Their aim is to develop a solid base of technologically prepared people who can compete internationally and who will improve their economies and the quality of life in their societies. Such a base will facilitate the influx of foreign capital through: attracting multinational companies to invest in developing countries; assisting in making the most of foreign aid funds; and providing a basis for business development by local entrepreneurs.

The case of Chile: FONDEF R&D experiences and results

It is illustrative of the changes that are occurring in university based R&D to examine the experience of FONDEF. This governmental instrument invests in R&D projects among universities, companies and technological institutes. It assigns resources on a competitive base in several fields: agribusiness, mining, forestry, fishery, aquaculture, industry, information and communication technologies, building, water and energy, health and education.
To be competitive, institutions and companies need to create competitive teams, usually with the participation of universities and companies from other countries that specialise in the area in question. FONDEF finances less than 60% of the total project budget and companies are required to invest at least 25% of the budget themselves. The projects therefore need to be pre-competitive in order for cooperation to be feasible.

After less than ten years of continuous improvement of the FONDEF instrument and its application to a growing base of universities and institutions (more than 40 by 2005) and companies (more than 500 by 2005), the following results were observed:

Science and technology impact

Cultural change: almost 50% of Chilean researchers have now experienced this kind of R&D activity and are now familiar with new ways for doing applied research and finding new goals for their projects, and transferring these experiences to new researchers and students.
Building new science and technology capacities to world-class standards, attracting and training people and developing infrastructure.
Building trust and knowledge in companies to encourage them to work with universities in R&D projects with mid and long-term objectives
Increasing science and technology assets.
Socio - Economic impact

Value creation process: by 2003 more than 273 new products and processes were developed from 159 projects (about 150 million dollars of R&D budget total) with a projected value of 5,1 times the amount invested
“Virtuous” process development among universities, companies, technologies and other institutions and attraction of investments for the transfer of technology to market and society
The capacity to focus on problems and opportunities in specific countries; improvement of existing products and processes as well as development of new ones; development of “clean technologies”; development of “integrated production technologies” etc.
New technologies and innovations that are transforming entire economic sectors, aquaculture for instance.
Institutional impact: contribution to the renovation of the university’s mission and strengthening of it’s institutional capabilities; international cooperation and participation; increasing the employability of scientists and technological workers in productive sectors.
As a consequence of this evolution, new programmes have been created to deepen R&D and innovation activities. In all of them, universities are playing an important role:

Fostering intellectual property rights (IPR), particularly patents
Birth of thematic programmes: Genome Chile applied to vegetables and mining; information and communication technologies applied to education; red tide; world class aquaculture; science, technology and innovation information systems; ICT international centre in high performance computing; R&D in public health policies.
Technology based consortia between universities and companies, from Chile and abroad, in several fields: biotechnology applied to forestry, fruit-culture and agribusiness; drug development for catastrophic diseases; unmanned airplanes.


The Chilean case shows that it is possible to have university based R&D activity simultaneously related to wealth creation (and linked to industry) and complying with international mainstream science and technology quality standards. As a consequence of the evolution described above, universities in Chile are facing a huge challenge. On one hand R&D activity is growing and there are more opportunities for wealth creation. But researchers are limited in number and more of them are required. Time to train them adequately them is not always available, and the possibility they might be attracted to other countries needs to be considered. More world-class researchers in universities will lead to major changes in research universities and also to transformations of other universities. In both cases, academic staff must be trained and retrained to effect necessary changes.

Universities need to assume the challenge of transitioning to a knowledge economy in a more aggressive way as should technology-based companies both from local countries and abroad.

Chilean universities need to strengthen their skills in fields in which they want to be leaders and compete with universities from abroad (forming world class R&D teams with critical mass).

In the other fields Chilean universities need to cooperate with universities and technological institutes from other countries to form research associations and networks.

Developing countries in general must accelerate the creation of policy frameworks, economic incentives, human capital, infrastructure and innovation capabilities in education that will make it possible for them to participate at regional and global levels.