9. Case study in Uruguay

UTEC is a public university with a technological character, focused on research and innovation, and offers careers in engineering, arts and applied sciences. It has branches in eight regional departments outside the capital city of Montevideo (Colonia, Mercedes, Rio Negro, Paysandú, Durazno, San José, Maldonado, Rivera), and 4 000 students. The university’s ambition is to foster technological development across countries and establish strong links with local communities and the productive sectors. 

UTECinnova is a department of innovation and entrepreneurship that aims to stimulate crosscutting capabilities, and foster research linked to the productive sector, whilst offering a technological services platform. The department aims to develop 21st-century competencies in students by offering a range of career paths based on a wide range of electives. In addition, all majors at the university require students to demonstrate a set of professional competencies, which include entrepreneurial aptitudes, and is offered to students on any career track with business ideas. Extracurricular activities at the university include hackathons, innovation weeks centred on problem-solving workshops and the 2018 Start-up Weekend, which allowed participants to receive support and feedback on their idea as well as foster exchanges with major enterprises. 

UTEC is part of the Uruguay Emprendedor entrepreneurship network supported by the National Agency for Research and Innovation (ANII) and supports the development of local ecosystems. UTEC is collaborating with ORT University’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as part of the “ARENA emprendedora” project, which aims to enhance the entrepreneurial skills of women on the Durazno, Mercedes, Paysandú and Rivera campuses.  

The university also hosts Lab-A UTEC, a lab and space dedicated to digital technologies where students, professionals, artists and the community can exchange. The lab has a presence on three campuses: Durazno, Frey Bentos and Rivera. The lab also encompasses an incubation programme for technological entrepreneurship ventures. It offers a space for the design of electronic programmes and prototype conception, as well as support on how to obtain seed funding.  

Furthermore, the Program for the Promotion of Research, Development and Innovation (IDEI) (Programa de Fomento de la Investigación, Desarrollo e Innovación) supports research, development and innovation and organises workshops to support creativity innovation, problem-solving, decision-making and collaboration. It also organises technological innovation projects with the industry sector, particularly enterprises in the agri-business sector.   

Over the space of two months, the university was able to transpose all activities to a virtual format of some kind, adapting most courses to student modalities. Lab activities were particularly difficult to adapt, however, and the adaptation process led to new types of virtual courses. The university also reported that sustaining human contact was challenging, particularly when it came to keeping in touch with entrepreneurs. This was managed by implementing regular virtual catch-ups with teams developing an entrepreneurial idea. 

One of the university’s future ambitions is to encourage the development of strategic research groups of an interdisciplinary nature, based on better identification of demands and gaps in the industry. There is also a desire to develop technology transfer offices (TTOs), which work on industrial property.  

As a technical university, promoting technology transfer and innovation is a central part of its mission. In the university’s strategic plan for 2021-25, the creation of a technological service platform and a technology transfer unit is highlighted. The university has a knowledge transfer strategy that is tailored to the needs of the ecosystem. Through its 11 campuses located across the country, it aims to bring education to remote territories (80% of the higher education offer is located in Montevideo) and enable higher participation of adults in the higher education system (which is low at 20%). The university also tailors its curriculum, research and transfer activities to adapt to the demands of local stakeholders. In fact, each campus was created to respond to local demands.

Knowledge transfer activities are decentralised and carried out at the campus level. Each campus is located in a productive region. For instance, the campus located in the north of the country on the border with Brazil has a different specialisation in order to adapt to the productive industries present there (logistics and commerce) compared to the campus located in the southwest on the border with Argentina which links its activity with the export industry focused on dairy and agri-food products. Meanwhile, the university’s geographically central campus specialises in sustainable development and renewable energy.

Each campus has the freedom to conduct its transfer activities through the channels considered appropriate and has a designated “transfer co-ordinator”. The university regularly provides analytical services, consultancy and contract research to local businesses and the government. It also has open labs accessible to the community. Its main partners are private sector companies and local governments, but collaboration also takes place with national government agencies (such as the National Agricultural Research Institute and the National Patent Office). The university also collaborates with international entities and has recently developed a partnership with a coding boot camp, 4Geeks Academy, which offers coding and artificial intelligence courses in a short (four month) highly intensive format pioneering this modality among Latin American universities. This initiative is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and is carried out in consultation with the private sector.

Stakeholders reported during the interview a high degree of co-operation between campuses, despite their different specialisations. The Technological Services Platform (managed at the central level) includes dedicated personnel to support engagement activities and advise all campuses on technology transfer.

Staff are able to benefit from an extra payment for their participation in projects and services related to transfer activities. During staff evaluations, knowledge transfer is considered as important as teaching and research activities. Academics also receive compensation if they agree to relocate to a city different to their city of origin.

At present, a key difficulty is identifying the needs of the productive sector ecosystem. Traditional industries present in the country (for instance the agriculture industry) do not have the capacity to absorb technological innovation. In addition, most local businesses are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with no previous experience of working with academic institutions. The university also faces internal obstacles such as incomplete policies and guidelines to promote knowledge transfer. There is also a lack of resources allocated to knowledge transfer, no specific budget line and no legal services to support the development of intellectual property. The university reported its ambition to incorporate staff with technological expertise.

As evidenced by the analysis carried out by MIT D-Lab and Santander Universities as part of its Participatory Innovation Ecosystem Mapping of the innovation-driven entrepreneurial economic ecosystems of Montevideo, UTEC is a significant player within it.

Fifteen universities were identified within the Montevideo ecosystem (Tedesco, 2022[1]). Of these, seven are knowledge generators and eight are enablers. The University of the Republic, ORT Uruguay University, UTEC and the Catholic University of Uruguay have a solid position in the ecosystem, and they are considered gravitational centers.

It is worth noting that UTEC, despite not having a physical academic presence in Montevideo, given it is focusing its efforts on other parts of the country, is a fundamental actor in Montevideo’s ecosystem structure, indicating its potential as a redistributor of resources from the entrepreneurial and innovation pole of the capital to the rest of the country.

Reference

[1] Tedesco, M. (2022), “How and why to study collaboration at the level of economic ecosystems”, D-Lab Working Papers, MIT D-Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

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