In October, I got a call from Yves Berthelot, our Vice Provost for International Affairs. He’d been invited to participate in a Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce economic development trip to Brazil, but he was going to be in Singapore at the time. He knew that I had a special interest in Brazil… would I like to go if he picked up the travel expense? Easy decision!
I joined a delegation that included representatives from Atlanta manufacturing companies, software companies, and a law firm. The Chamber had spent a lot of time setting up meetings for all of us, so we wound up with a pretty densely-packed week. This was my fifth trip to Brazil (the second representing Georgia Tech), so I wound up with an entirely-unjustified reputation as an expert on the local business, government, and academic situation.
If you read the papers, you know Brazil is booming. You can read the stats elsewhere: #6 economy in the world (just passed Great Britain). A strong currency. Land area bigger than the lower 48 states. A population equal to ours in 1970. Seemingly boundless natural resources. And, oh, they just struck oil. Enough oil to make them potentially the world’s largest producer (outstripping the Middle East) by mid-century.
And not nearly enough engineers. The whole country only graduates 30,000 engineers per year. They need at least twice that many. They plan to grow engineering matriculation dramatically but—as our friends in Athens are learning—one does not simply walk into creating a new undergraduate engineering program. It’s expensive and time-consuming.
So I was there wearing two hats: One representing all of Georgia Tech, where I mostly talked about education, and one representing EI2, where I mostly talked about collaborative research and innovation policy. There are significant opportunities for us in both areas.
Wearing my education hat, I was pleased to learn about Brazil’s new “Science Without Borders” program: a nationwide scholarship (tuition, travel, and stipend) to send 100,000 STEM undergraduates to universities abroad over the next three years. That’s an amazingly ambitious goal, and it will lead to excellent global connections for the next generation of Brazilian business leaders. Georgia Tech currently only has a few dozen undergraduates from Brazil; SWB should increase that by an order of magnitude.
Wearing my economic development hat, I met with three large companies: Embraer, Vale, and Petrobras. In each case, they’re wrestling with significant technology challenges in areas where Georgia Tech is strong: Advanced materials. Logistics. Simulation. Information security. Or, as a senior executive from Embraer’s R&D division told me, “we’re interested in everything!”
Georgia Tech has a strong history of hosting research collaborations with industrial partners. At Centergy, we have three in the building right now: GE Energy, Panasonic, and a Korean consortium. Is it possible to have similar collaborations with Brazilian companies? Of course. We’ll start small, but the potential is huge.
I also met with representatives from the University of Campinas and the São Paulo state research agency, modeled on the U.S. National Science Foundation. Both Unicamp and FAPESP have a strong focus on commercialization of research… just as we do with VentureLab and I-Corps. We’ve learned a lot that we could share with them. We just have to figure out a way to get paid.
There’s money available. I mentioned that Brazil has struck oil. It’s a lot of oil… But it’s hard to get to. 200 miles offshore and under five miles of salt, rock, and seawater. Just to focus on one of countless details: that’s beyond the round-trip range of helicopters. What does it do to your logistics plan if you now have to stage aviation fuel on your deep-sea oil rig?
To their credit, Brazil has decided not to simply lease the fields to BP and Shell and collect royalties… They’re going to get the oil themselves. That means working backwards from the drill rig through the logistics chain through the universities and all the way back to K-12. They plan to invest $300 billion over the next ten years. (By comparison, in current dollars, that’s equal to THREE Apollo projects.) Think back to what Apollo meant for the U.S. back in the 1960s. Now multiply by three.
That means a lot of engineers. A lot of research. A lot of cross-border collaborations.
And, quite likely, the first 21st-century superpower.
Collaboration between Georgia Tech and Brazil will mature over many years… but the possibilities are endless. They’re in our hemisphere, Delta has non-stops from Atlanta to multiple Brazilian cities, and most U.S. universities are single-mindedly fixated on Asia. We have the potential to be one of the key collaborators for the country’s best companies and universities.
At our last quarterly meeting, David Bridges prepared a map showing all the countries around the world where EI2 has current clients or collaborations. I’m expecting us to add some dots in Brazil soon.
And if you know an undergraduate or high school senior, feel free to pass along my standard advice nowadays: “Study engineering, learn Portuguese, and move to Rio. You won’t regret it!”