SILVIO MEIRA

Brazil,

Dissatisfied with the poor performance of Brazil in the field of information technologies and software development and convinced that the country had enormous creative potential, Silvio Meira created the Recife Centre for Advanced Studies and Systems (CESAR) in 1996. A unique, public-private non-profit institute which has become an extraordinary catalyst to innovation in software development, academic excellence, and private sector investment in the region. 

This profile below was prepared when Silvio Meira was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

Dissatisfied with the poor performance of Brazil in the field of information technologies and software development and convinced that the country had enormous creative potential, Silvio Meira created the Recife Centre for Advanced Studies and Systems (CESAR) in 1996. A unique, public-private non-profit institute which has become an extraordinary catalyst to innovation in software development, academic excellence, and private sector investment in the region. 




THE NEW IDEA

Silvio has achieved synergies in the transfer of knowledge in information technology between universities, businesses, and society. CESAR integrates innovation centers in Brazil into a knowledge network, which is able to rapidly implement software development projects connected to the future without jeopardizing quality. This network is transforming Recife—a city generally associated with low development, violence, and poverty, into the largest hub for technological software innovation in the country. 

Silvio first created a world-class academic center as a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco, convincing colleagues to participate with him in forming the leading university and think tank for software development in Brazil. Then CESAR formed an even more ambitious partnership with the state government to begin a software development park, Porto Digital (Digital Shore), which has attracted major investments from leading companies.

In addition to founding CESAR, Silvio also stands out as a business entrepreneur who has been one of the major promoters of a model of technological development with regional diversity. He is also one of the creators of Porto Digital, a new generation “Silicon Valley” in Brazil: An environment of entrepreneurship, software innovation and business information technology and communication, which brings together, more than 150 companies and 5,000 employees in the Northeast. Silvio’s goal is to reach 200 companies in 2015, 20,000 employees and revenues of up to US$1.3B—12 percent of the state’s GDP. 




THE PROBLEM

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are societal engines that generate breakthroughs in what have been century-old ways of producing information and communication processes. From the creation of NASDAQ to the exponential growth of virtual social networks hosting more users than the population of entire countries, there is no denying that this technological revolution is having a very important impact on most aspects of life. 

Nevertheless, in Brazil, significant advances in the field of technology are few and far between. This is due, firstly, to the fact that most Brazilians still have a limited and utilitarian view of the potential of ICTs to change the way we operate. Partly as a result of this lack of interest in and understanding of their potential, Brazil invests very little in innovation and technological development.

Second, for these technologies’ full potential to be exploited, it is necessary for the country to create a fertile environment for entrepreneurship and innovation. Unfortunately, the Brazilian business culture remains reluctant to take risks, and prefers old models of industrial development as opposed to models that generate new technological infrastructure, such as software technology.

While Brazil has been benefitting from the new type of knowledge generated by the global market of ICT innovations and solutions for years, it has only recently begun to go after these new opportunities. To become a real protagonist in this field, Brazil will have to cease being a mere consumer of imported technologies. There are currently 100,000 vacant jobs in the computer science industry because the country lacks qualified professionals in this sector.

For the country to participate and bring value to the technological revolution, it must think and act decisively and differently. Investments in ICT innovations are costly and risky and investors in innovation and entrepreneurship are still in an embryonic stage in Brazil. This lack of capital and skilled professionals ensures that new companies in this sector rarely get out of their pilot phase and become stagnant within three years of beginning their operations.

In addition, when ICTs have been developed and used, they have often found themselves to be unequally distributed, privileging the country’s richer regions such as the Southeast. An important opportunity for regional integration and development is therefore being lost. 




THE STRATEGY

Very few technology parks around the world concentrate on software as their core competence, and most of them emerged from academic and business centers. Silvio had a unique vision as a social entrepreneur, academic, and business entrepreneur—to create an academic learning center, an applied research software center, a business incubator, and a software development park. 

The motor of this new model of development is CESAR, whose expertise ranges from chip design and the construction of embedded systems up to design, development and operation of information systems, mobility, performance and security applications, software reuse, methods and processes for software engineering, testing and operating systems, among many areas of the ICT value chain.

To create CESAR, Silvio relied on Professor Henry Etzkowitz’s Triple Helix model, ensuring constant interaction between academia, research and development institutions, and society. The Triple Helix enhances the creation of centers of excellence, collaboration and competitiveness, that in turn help generate new innovations applicable to daily life. This structure has been operating through a unique methodology Silvio developed called apreendimento (a word bringing together the verbs “to learn” and “to entrepreneur”). This methodology has become the organization’s true nerve center through which CESAR’s managers and staff become allies and together learn in entrepreneurial ways where calculated risks, and above all, errors are allowed and even welcomed, since they are the basis of innovation.

In 2000 Silvio realized that CESAR’s knowledge should be applied to benefit regional development in the Northeast of Brazil. He created Porto Digital (Digital Shore), thus transforming the drug and prostitution ridden historic center of Recife into a leading software technology hub. Local companies have thus become neighbors of multinationals such as IBM, Microsoft, Motorola, and Samsung. Porto Digital brings together 150 companies which employ approximately 5,000 people and earned R$450M (US$270M) last year. 

Today, CESAR alone employs approximately 670 people, and indirectly reaches more than 10,000 people who benefit from the secondary job opportunities created as a consequence of the economic development CESAR is bringing about. To ramp up the training of new professionals who will catalyze regional development and ensure the continued growth of the organization, Silvio created Cesar.edu, the education unit of the organization. Its mission is to train new generations of professionals, through educational programs directed toward the market, allied to well-established methods and procedures to address the practical and updated inclusion of professionals in the business environment of ICT. 

The basis for knowledge generation is supported by a team of outstanding teachers with both practical and academic experience, who design, create, evaluate, and systematically review the institute’s curriculum, ensuring that it remains cutting-edge, and constantly feeding in CESAR’s own innovations. Cesar.edu offers technical courses for high school students, undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as classes designed specifically to respond to the demands of companies. It has already trained 230 students (around 50 Ph.D. students per year). One of Silvio’s greatest impacts has been to build an unprecedented bridge between universities and businesses.

After transforming Recife into a hub for technological innovation in the Northeast of Brazil, CESAR has become an organization of national relevance. The center maintains offices in Sao Paulo, Recife, Curitiba, and Sorocaba. The Curitiba branch was recently accredited by the Ministry of Science and Technology to perform regionally sanctioned Research & Development activities in Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. The goal is to bring CESAR’s approach to ICT innovations and its excellence to the high-tech ecosystem that is on the rise in Southern Brazil.

For Silvio, a technology hub worked after 25 years. At 55, his vision is to ensure that the next 15 years of Porto Digital and the work of CESAR wil continue throughout Brazil. To ensure Porto Digital’s leadership and relevance, Silvio is working on his next innovation. He is beginning to develop a network of investors in technology-based companies to solve one of the main bottlenecks of scientific and technological development in the country: The provision of strategic investments in the field. Silvio is launching a fund of seed capital, with R$20M (US$12M) in funding, in partnership with FIR Capital of Minas Gerais. This will add to CESAR’s existing fund, with investments currently between R$500,000 and R$1M (US$300K to US$600K). The Ministry of Science and Technology, the main source of public funding available in this field, current investments range from R$200,000 to R$300,000 (US$120K to US$180K).




THE PERSON

Silvio was born in Taperoá, interior of Paraiba, in the impoverished Northeast of Brazil. With much effort, he managed to graduate in electronic engineering from the Technological Institute of Aeronautics, the country’s most prestigious institution in the field. After a master’s degree in computer science from the Federal University of Pernambuco he pursued an academic career.

Like many of his fellow professors, Silvio furthered his studies abroad and did doctoral studies under one of the five most brilliant professors in computer engineering in England. When he left for England, he dreamed of becoming the number one software developer in Brazil and one of the best in the world. After completing his Ph.D. and turning down dozens of jobs outside of Brazi, he realized his true ambition was—to create a hub of software excellence in Northeast Brazil which could become an economic engine of regional development and attract the best software talent.

Silvio enlisted a few of his close friends and colleagues and they began to teach state of the art computer science at the Federal University of Pernambuco. Their students quickly became globally competitive and highly qualified at a time when Brazil was focused principally on importing foreign products and solutions. Several companies realized how precious these skills were and began to invite Silvio’s students to work at the headquarters of most banks in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Silvio and his colleagues were then faced with the paradox of training top notch professionals in the Northeast, who then “migrated” to the rich states of the country. Faced with this evasion of talent, they began working on solutions to enable the local market to absorb these new professionals. But as the market was stagnant, Silvio was compelled to create an initiative that would secure a space for research, development, and the creation of businesses in his own region. This is how CESAR was born. Silvio and his team began to address the real demands of society regarding ICT solutions, and at the same time they attracted new customers in the field. Since then, CESAR has grown to become the biggest hotbed of software innovation and entrepreneurial training in Brazil. 

Since its inception, the institution has achieved a series of recognitions that have changed the ecosystem of information technology both in the Northeast and nationally. These include the prize for most innovative FINEP research institution in Brazil, the choice of the institution as an example of business creation by the World Economic Forum and an honorable mention at the Stockholm Challenge. Silvio was also considered by the magazine Info, as one of the 100 most important people of information technology in Brazil, having received from the President, the Commendation of the National Order of Scientific Merit (1999) and the Order of Rio Branco (2001), the two highest national honors in the field.




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