"We want SisNANO labs to provide a good interface between industry and academic researchers," says Flavio Plentz, a professor of condensed matter physics and the lead co-ordinator for micro- and nanotechnology in Brazil’s science ministry. "We want people working in industry to feel that if they want to make a development involving nanotechnology they have the infrastructure, the staff and the equipment."

Plentz points out that the last 10 years has seen significant investment in nanotechnology in Brazil, and as a result a number of labs offer the very best infrastructure for pursuing advanced research in the field. In addition several networks have sprung up between nanoscientists working in different public universities. "Researchers were already connected," he explains. "But industry was not."

Focused funding

SisNANO helps companies who lack the necessary equipment to develop nanotechnologies because it makes existing facilities available at a highly subsidized rate. As Plentz points out, "Building labs takes lots of money."

Plentz explains that SisNANO is an important part of a wider programme called the Brazil Nanotechnology Initiative. The first main action of the initiative is to provide a better infrastructure for experimental work.

During 2013–2014, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation is investing R$50 m directly into SisNANO labs. Further funding amounting to R$29 m in 2014–2015 is being used to engage the SisNANO labs in another Brazilian programme called SIBRATEC (Brazilian System of Technology), which is focused on providing services and funding innovation projects with industry. The goal is for the total investment in the Brazilian Nanotechnology Initiative to reach R$300 m per year, with R$150 m per year being invested directly into SisNANO.

A key point in the SisNANO strategy is to focus federal investments on those labs that already have the necessary equipment and expertise because this should deliver the best return on investment. A public call in 2012 invited labs throughout Brazil to apply to be part of SisNANO, promising successful applicants priority federal funding in return for making their facilities available to other organizations. External users might include other public and private universities in Brazil or abroad and, in particular, scientists and engineers working in industry.

"We selected institutions with a mature nanotechnology research infrastructure, as well as existing connections with industry and projects in innovation," Plentz explains. 50 labs applied in response to the public call, and 26 were selected to be part of SisNANO. These labs also demonstrated clearly focused research, such as agricultural applications of nanotechnology or electron microscopy characterization of nanomaterials.

Time is money

Of the 26 labs selected to take part in the project eight were designated "strategic labs" and the remaining 18 "associated labs". Plentz explains that the strategic labs already had a direct link with the government, listing as examples Embrapa, a research organization run by Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture; the National Centre for Nanotechnology Research, which has links with the science ministry; and the Brazilian Metrology Institute, which is linked with the Institute of Commerce. Whether the lab’s status is strategic or associated determines the minimum percentage of time that their equipment must be available for external users: 50% for strategic labs and 15% for associated labs.

As pointed out in our previous article on nanomaterials research in Brazil, when it comes to research equipment it’s not just a case of what you have but also what you do with it; state-of-the-art equipment generally requires a high level of expertise to be used effectively. As Plentz emphasizes, "The staff of the lab must also make a commitment to train and help external users."

Current state of play for SisNANO

Two years on from the public call, and just a year since the labs were selected and preliminary systems put in place, the project is steadily gaining momentum. "Labs have already received funding to pay postdocs and buy equipment," says Plentz. "Now we are in the phase of getting the system organized – these are already mature labs, but we are working to enhance them."

While the system was motivated by the aim to make nanotechnology lab equipment more accessible to companies in industry, the SisNANO agreement does not dictate how the open lab time is split between industry and other academic institutions. However, there are clear aspirations to significantly increase access to these open labs.

"Today we already have 190 companies using labs from SisNANO, and our aim is to increase this to 1000 companies in five years’ time," says Plentz. He points out that increasing the usage by such a degree will require a significant level of administrative investment. "Our main challenge is good management and connections between people in the project, so that users know what equipment is available and what the capabilities are."