Transforming young lives in Brazil with science education and innovation

September 2018

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa’s journey as an inventor sprang from her childhood experiences of the tannery near her home. The daughter of a tanner and a housemaid, Harvard-trained Professor Félix de Sousa has gained national acclaim in Brazil as an advocate of science education and for her work in enabling young people from marginalized communities to realize their potential to invent, create, and become entrepreneurs.

Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa is a serial inventor. She hold 15 patents and has gained national acclaim in Brazil as an advocate for science education and for her work in inspiring marginalized young people to realize their potential (photo: Courtesy of Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa).

Professor Félix de Sousa, the holder of multiple patents that are all related in some way to the leather-footwear sector, discusses her current research and shares her views on the importance of science education and the role that intellectual property (IP) rights can play in strengthening Brazil’s innovation landscape and long-term economic performance. 

What drew you to chemistry?

I fell in love with chemistry at a very young age. My father worked in a tannery in the city of Franca in the state of São Paolo, Brazil. My family and I lived in a house near the tannery, so every day I watched the workers mix dyes and process leather hides. For me, the white coat worn by the tannery chemist was the most beautiful sight. The tannery was a big part of my world and my childhood ambition was to become a chemist, wear a white coat, and work in a tannery.

What are you working on at the moment?

We’re working on several research projects. One is looking at ways to create artificial skin with different levels of pigmentation. Another is exploring the use of artificial bone tissue for remodeling, reconstitution, and bone transplantation. A third project is developing artificial gingiva to correct aesthetic defects. And we’re also developing antimicrobial fabrics to make clothing for patients and medical staff to minimize hospital infections.

Tell us about some of your other inventions.

Over the years, I’ve undertaken many different research projects and have become something of a serial inventor. My research has led to the creation of artificial human-like skin, bone cement made from the by-products of the leather-and-fishing industries, antimicrobial footwear, and flame retardant clothing for firefighters. I have also developed organic and organo-mineral fertilizers from solid waste from the leather-footwear sector and green, eco-efficient cement that reduces energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions (see box).

Photo: Courtesy of Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa.

What inspired you to do this work?

My research has been inspired by the need to find ways to manage the large amount of waste generated every day by the leather-footwear sector in Franca and the challenges people working in that sector have to face. My work on artificial skin, for example, came about after I witnessed a serious accident at a local tannery where a worker suffered burns on 95 percent of his body. My other inventions have been similarly inspired by the need to find effective solutions to overcome hardships experienced by my students and their families.

My work on developing organic fertilizers sprang from a childhood desire to minimize the environmental impact of the leather-footwear industry and improve the local environment for children living in and around the tannery. These fertilizers are an alternative use of the solid waste produced by the sector and give farmers a low-cost source of nitrogen to fertilize their land. The goal of reconciling environmental protection measures with social justice and economic efficiency also inspired my work on developing “green” cement.

What were the main challenges you faced?

There have been many challenges. For a start, people could not understand why someone with a post-doctoral degree would choose to teach, let alone develop a scientific research program, in a technical school. Unfortunately, in Brazil, many researchers with higher academic degrees frown on technical schools. Their view is that scientific research can only be undertaken within large universities and research institutes. But my work with technical schools has demonstrated that it is possible to develop cutting-edge research and secure patents within these schools and with the help of socially-vulnerable students. 

Research projects led by Dr. Joana D’Arc Félix de Sousa:

Artificial skin

Artificial human-like skin developed from by-products of the leather industry can be used for patients requiring skin transplants, including burn victims, patients with chronic wounds, and other dermatological pathologies. Artificial skin also offers a lower-cost way to test cosmetic and pharmaceutical products without using live animals.

Bone cement

Developed from recycled waste by-products from the leather-and-fishing industries, this material favors minimally invasive surgical techniques for remodeling bone mass, bone transplants, and treatment of bone tumors. It can also be used in treating fractures, orthopedics, orthodontics, and various specialist areas of dentistry.

Antimicrobial footwear

Antimicrobial footwear inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi. The movement of the shoe causes the release of antimicrobials embedded in the shoe’s leather upper and lining which prevent mycoses, foot odor, and fissures. The shoes activate blood circulation and create a dry and comfortable environment for healthy feet.

Personal protective equipment for firefighters

Clothing made from sustainable hide with superior water-resistance and flame-retardant properties helps protect the health and physical well-being of Brazilian firefighters.

Organic organomineral fertilizers

These fertilizers are a by-product of the solid waste produced from the leather-footwear sector. They provide a new, low-cost source of nitrogen for farmers to fertilize their land. Their production helps improve the environmental credentials of the leather-footwear sector.

Green cement

Green, eco-efficient cement reduces the energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with traditional cement production by replacing 80 percent of the clinker normally used with leather calcareous filler extracted from leather off-cuts from footwear and automotive factories. The formulation produces high-quality, reliable cement and reduces energy emissions by up to 94 percent, thereby improving the environmental footprint of the leather-footwear sector.

How would you like to see the innovation landscape evolve in Brazil?

I would like to see the Government overhaul its approach to education. With the cut in the federal science budget, Brazil’s research community can no longer rely on government funding or public money alone. We have to work with the private sector and with industry. While that can be difficult, it’s not impossible. Better industry collaboration can help transform the country's innovation landscape and boost technological development and national patenting activity.

By protecting their work with IP rights scientists can get a return on the time, energy, and investment made in developing it.

Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa

Brazil needs to invest in providing quality basic education. That means investing in infrastructure and in teachers and teacher training. Policymakers also need to craft a coherent policy for science, technology, and innovation and define priority areas for action.

Can you explain why it is important for scientists to be aware of the IP system?

Scientists need to be IP-aware so they can protect the new knowledge they create and are in a position to license and commercialize that knowledge to support further research initiatives. Scientists tend to simply publish their work and pay little attention to protecting it with IP rights. This leaves them exposed. If someone with deep pockets takes their work, applies it, and makes money from it, they have no legal means of claiming any of the financial returns that flow from the technology they developed because they didn’t protect it with IP rights. With a patent in hand, researchers can commercialize their technology and decide on the terms by which to transfer it, through a licensing agreement, for example. By protecting their work with IP rights, scientists can get a return on the time, energy and investment made in developing it. They may even generate a surplus with which to make new investments in their area of knowledge.

How many patents do you hold? Are they protected internationally?

I hold 15 patents and have protected a number of my inventions, including a process for extracting collagen from tanned leather residues (WO2006130937), in different countries using WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). The PCT is advantageous because it provides applicants with more time – up to 30 months from the date of filing the first patent application with the national IP office – to consider whether or not to proceed with processing their application, taking into account the results of the informal patent search that is available under the system. Moreover, the provisional publication of an application under the PCT offers applicants some protection prior to the actual grant of a patent in different jurisdictions.

Tell us about your work with young people and the CurtEENDEDORISMO project. 

I set up the CurtEENDEDORISMO project in the State Technical School (ETEC) in Franca, in 2013. The city is known for its footwear sector and suffers high levels of environmental pollution, unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy. The project engages young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and tries to awaken their interest in innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I prefer to work with socially-vulnerable young people – those involved in drug trafficking and prostitution – because they are often marginalized. The project aims to reduce school dropout rates and increase students’ self-esteem. The program’s Technical Course on Tanning, for example, adopts a new teaching and learning methodology to promote a new form of entrepreneurship. It gives students an opportunity to learn, in practical terms, how to use Brazilian fauna and flora in the artisanal and sustainable tanning of exotic edible skins (chicken, fish, pigs, and cattle). It opens their eyes to a whole range of opportunities for employment and income generation.

Why is science education so important?

Science education is the way to build a better world. Through education, a child acquires the tools to realize their innovative and creative potential. An investment in Brazil’s youth will strengthen Brazilian society and the country’s scientific and technological performance.

Unfortunately, the education system tends to fail children in deprived areas. These young people do not get an opportunity to acquire the skills they need to earn a decent living. All too often, young people – particularly young men – without the skills and learning capacity that a solid science education provide end up turning to crime, believing it is their only option. Science education helps reduce inequalities and creates opportunities for talented young people to realize their potential, irrespective of their social background.

Investment in science education from an early age is the key to building a democratic, economically productive, more humane, and sustainable society. Encouraging scientific research in schools helps young people realize that they too have the capacity to create, innovate, and build a business. As they see the practical value of their lessons, dropout rates fall, and students acquire the security and confidence to decide their own future. It is only through education that effective social transformation can be achieved. Science education is the way to build a better world.

What sort of impact is the project having?

Up to 2017, around 100 students benefited from the project. Some of them helped invent new technologies, while others improved existing technologies with their innovations.

This year, 20 students are benefitting from scientific initiation fellowships and are developing 15 new inventions. The fellowships and the research projects are privately funded. We are particularly grateful to LYRA Navegação Marítima, a company based in Rio de Janeiro, for its financial support in making it possible to realize our dream of transforming lives through science education.

In 2013, Professor Félix de Sousa set up the CurtEENDEDORISMO project in the State Technical School (ETEC) in Franca. Through her work she is demonstrating that it is possible to develop cutting-edge research and secure patents in technical schools and with the help of socially-vulnerable students (photo: Courtesy of Professor Joana d’Arc Félix de Sousa).

My aim is to replicate the project throughout Brazil. Including young people in science initiation activities teaches them fundamental skills, like logical thinking, that will serve them well in their professional lives, whether in industry or academia. The students are also an important barometer of the quality of the courses offered and the performance of the teachers. They’re an essential component of our pedagogical model.

What needs to be done to improve levels of IP awareness among Brazil’s youth?

Unfortunately, few young Brazilians know about IP. However, it is very important that they understand that IP is a link between knowledge, technological development, and trade. They also need to know how to protect the new knowledge they create, and that by using the IP system, they can recoup the time, energy, and effort invested in its creation. Creating new knowledge involves a great deal of investment, and IP rights are the best way to recover that value. Brazil’s National Institute of Industrial Property has an important role to play in improving levels of IP awareness among young people. Lectures or mini-courses that emphasize the advantages of protecting knowledge in schools across Brazil would be very helpful in this regard.

What advice do you have for young people with aspirations to invent or create?

Never give up on your dreams. If you do, you reduce the chances of finding happiness and increase the chances of disappointment and frustration. Always set goals and keep working to achieve them. Ignore those who don’t believe in your ability to achieve your dream. Regardless of the obstacles that arise, keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Young people need to understand that they can be successful through learning. Skills can be learned. That means all young people can achieve their goals. I’m a living example of this. I went through innumerable difficulties, prejudices, and humiliations, but I never stopped dreaming. Have faith and use your setbacks as tools to win in life.

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