SCIENCE FOR SOCIETY
Change can be risky – but those with the courage to embrace new developments and ideas can reap great rewards. The Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja (UTPL) in Ecuador has leant this through experience. “Modern society is transforming rapidly and dramatically, and that poses many diverse challenges for the future,” says Juan Pablo Suárez, the specialist technical university’s Vice-Rector of Research. A university’s role, he adds, should be about equipping the next generation with the knowledge, creativity and confidence to embrace new challenges. “Forward-thinking universities need to constantly reinvent themselves, adapting to changing social and economic needs.”
UTPL embraces this aim by expanding its course, career and postgraduate programme. It supports entrepreneurship from the classrooms, developing centres of innovation and working with businesses and local communities. “This university is trying to change the style of higher education here in Latin America,” Suárez explains. “With aspirations to become a leading international university, we have made a lot of changes that enable us to conduct research, seize emerging opportunities and make a real difference in business and industry.”
A CULTURE OF INNOVATION
UTPL’s flagship innovation is its Scientific and Technological Park (PCyT), which opened in January 2018 following six years of conceptual development. Designed to promote and nurture innovation and entrepreneurship, PCyT primarily responds to regional needs in south Ecuador, focusing on four key areas: industrialisation of food products, technology and artificial intelligence, technology in learning, and biotechnology and pharmacy.
“In Ecuador, this is a very new and exciting approach,” says Suárez. “Nationally, we have very few big companies, and we want to extend those that exist, changing the ecosystem of innovation here. We think our university can be a vehicle for enhancing productivity in the region. To that end, we have started to work with local companies to innovate and create new products.”
It is a collaborative concept that comes alive on the campus of the university, with coworking rooms and laboratories for research and innovation. It is strengthened through an entrepreneurship centre, a space destined to incubate, develop and promote entrepreneurial ideas. “We’re creating a culture where students are welcome to create and innovate, and making sure that businesses know we can work together very productively,” says Suaréz. “We never work in isolation; we are always collaborating in relevant sectors and work with companies to answer market needs – so industries are working together with the university.”
As an example, Suárez mentions a drinks company with whom UTPL students are developing new commercial products. “The PCyT connects all the university’s new initiatives to conduct research and innovate together with companies in the public, charitable, and private sector, and with local communities,” he says.
UTPL is also capitalising on students’ desires to launch their own independent businesses. “We are incubating a number of small start-ups that are emerging within the university,” says Suárez. “PCyT enables us to teach our students to embrace innovation and think to the future.”
Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja understands that some students are better-prepared for change than others – and Suárez says that part of a university’s role is to open young people’s eyes to new opportunities, giving them a push in the right direction.
A course module working within PCyT is therefore a mandatory requirement for all UTPL students. “They all have to pass a programme on innovation and entrepreneurship before they are able to graduate, regardless of their field of specialism,” says Suárez. “The idea is to give all students a sense of this way of thinking and an idea of how they might innovate and work entrepreneurially in future. While some say they are not interested in this type of thing, we know it’s important for them to have that insight and to open their minds to creative and collaborative new approaches.”
While UTPL is working closely with local companies and communities and tackling regional issues, it has international ambitions. “We want our research and innovation to have a big impact, both to bring new products and ideas to market, and to enhance the global reputation of the university,” says Suárez. “It’s why we have brought in new staff and new expertise to help elevate the university.”
UTPL is working with international bodies too, including the CAF development bank of Latin America, which is supporting a university programme in international patent applications, and the NORCAT innovation centre in Canada, which specialises in developments in the mining sector. “This is relevant to us in Ecuador,” says Suárez, “so we are keen to bring in new mining technology over here.”
It’s an exciting time for the university and for the country. “I have seen an evolution over the last 19 years and the main change at the university – which has come about quite rapidly – is today’s focus on research and embracing innovation.”
EVOLUTION AND INNOVATION
For the university, the effect has been overwhelmingly positive and transformational, but it has taken courage to get there. “When an institution makes significant change, it is quite difficult at the beginning,” says Suárez. “People worry that it will not be possible to compete in the international arena, and they are frightened to take risks. But if you motivate your staff, they start to realise that they can make their mark and contribute to change. They start publishing their articles in international journals, and the university does progress for the better.
“Today, I can say that we have made a real effort to reinvent the way we think and change the outlook for the south of Ecuador,” says Suaréz. “I am proud of that. We are achieving great things which, in time, we hope can be replicated across the whole of Ecuador and beyond. It feels good to be working with people at the university to help instigate this. Most importantly, the students are full of excitement. I can’t wait to see where they will lead the university next.”