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Pharma exec: Local R&D activity could flourish under right conditions

Frank Gutiérrez, general manager of Merck Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and Health Secretary Lorenzo González share a light moment during the Merck Health Innovation Awards ceremony earlier this month.

Puerto Rico has one of the world’s most competitive manufacturing foundations, but one of the most underdeveloped research and development economies, which poses an inarguable need to establish mechanisms to foster the right conditions for it to flourish, a high-ranking manufacturing executive recently told News is my Business.

Frank Gutiérrez, general manager of Merck Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, said while there are inititiatives to develop projects in R&D that are headed in the right direction, it is up to all interested parties — government, academia and the private sector — to create the conditions for more such activity.

“Innovation plays a key role in our company’s 100-year history. For that reason, we try to create that culture in every country where we operate, as we believe it is part of our corporate social responsibility,” Gutiérrez said. “We all benefit from a healthy science and technology industry, because the more of it there is, the more jobs are created that directly impact the economy, as among other things, they are well-paid jobs.”

In its quest to build a dynamic S&T community on the island, for the past four years, Merck has sponsored its Health Innovation Awards competition, to recognize outstanding organizations and individuals in the fields of clinical research, research in science and engineering, education, journalism, and environmental protection innovators whose work has positively impacted local quality of life.

“These projects help to motivate local talent and creates opportunities for them,” said Gutiérrez. “But this is not just about innovating and patenting projects, but also about creating the conditions to make use of those patents to take the project from concept to a commercial product or service.”

“That is what ultimately generates wealth for businesses and society as a whole,” he said.

Creating that environment to generate a healthy number of R&D projects and patents is still in early stages in Puerto Rico, when compared to other countries that have been able to quickly encourage patent creation.

“There’s certain infrastructure already in place, but we still have a way to go in Puerto Rico. The challenge is to establish a tight collaboration between the industry, academia and the government. Some countries have created innovation clusters to group the three sectors to create this type of environment,” he said. “We need to see municipal and central government, colleges and companies stepping up to collaborate to develop the island’s life sciences sector.”

Although there are laws in place to help support an R&D culture, he said the private sector has an additional responsibility to act as the so-called venture capitalist to help drive innovation and patent growth.

“At Merck we believe that S&T, innovation and patent development should begin at a much more ‘micro’ level, by creating micro businesses and micro areas of innovation,” said Gutiérrez. “We have to start working local projects, with local resources and the commitment of companies that are committed to this effort.”

Through the annual awards ceremony, Merck pursues motivating grassroots organizations to develop their own projects that could eventually be monetized and economically viable.

Among the winning proposals submitted for this year’s Merck Health Innovation Awards competition was a clinical research project related to endometriosis and infertility, and a study of “The role of the Saharan dust in the exacerbation of asthma and cardiovascular disease in Puerto Rico.”

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 30 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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