The Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust is on schedule to announce the recipients of about $2.2 million in funding earmarked to fuel the development of projects by local scientists and researchers in a wide field of sectors, agency Executive Director Iván Ríos-Mena told this media outlet.
This year’s first grantees should be announced in April. In all, about 15 projects will be awarded $150,000 in seed funding, he said.
“We had 300 applications come in, and it really took us by surprise, because we expected maybe 50 applications,” he said during an interview with this media outlet. “We purged that number down to 250 and chose 44 complete final proposals to move on to the second round. Now we’re evaluating them.”
The Science Trust opened the request for proposals and received applications for projects in the fields of information and communications technology, aerospace, biotechnology and life sciences, medical devices, clean technologies and/or renewable energy, and electronics, among others, he said.
“This grant cycle is serving as a metric for us to get a feel for what’s happening out there and to begin structuring, for the first time, that research ecosystem in Puerto Rico that, frankly, has not been there,” he said.
“We received an interesting mix of project proposals from public and private universities as well as the private sector and nonprofits,” he said, noting that the funding is typically used to finance costly lab and development legwork.
The Science Trust is a government agency that receives funding through the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company and from the money collected through the rum excise tax. The agency is currently working on proposals to diversify its revenue sources with which to develop “many more innovative projects,” Ríos-Mena said.
As part of its mission to turn science and technology into engines of economic development in Puerto Rico, the Science Trust is actively pursuing the area of commercialization of projects — to help in the process of lab-to-market.
“The Trust has the mission of creating a technology transfer structure that can help public and private universities by determining where we can be the most valuable in that process,” Ríos-Mena said.
One such area is securing patents for products. Historically, the Science Trust has provided funding and legal assistance to carry out the analysis of product patentability.
“But we’ve put that on hold in favor of doing something more structured and comprehensive, which is the technology transfer initiative underway,” he noted. “Part of that process is to generate an inventory of the intellectual property projects out there, especially in universities. This way, we can help innovators protect their ideas.”
He said the Science Trust should have that structure ready by year’s end, to begin a formal technology transfer pipeline.
He also said the Science Trust wants to launch specific projects to foster an entrepreneurial culture in science technology, to help put a plug in the drain of young talent that often chooses to leave Puerto Rico in search for opportunities elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Science Trust is also reactivating its relationship with the island’s pharmaceutical industry to “learn what they need and identify obstacles,” particularly in the area of clinical research, which has shown a drop in recent activity, he said.
“The development of pharmaceutical products is an important aspect of clinical research and Puerto Rico has seen that drop. We have a project to collaborate closely with the industry to identify the obstacles that have caused that drop and what we must do to increase activity in clinical trials,” he said.
A steering committee that includes members of trade organizations, including the Pharmaceutical Industry Association, Induniv and companies, is working on determining current status of clinical research in Puerto Rico, to subsequently generate a roadmap of steps to take to improve conditions, he said.
“There are clinical trials happening in Puerto Rico, but the majority are by private companies. Increasing that number represents greater growth opportunities for pharmaceuticals in Puerto Rico, as well as a way to attract new companies to the island, he said.