Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Science Trust Subject to Government’s Experiment

By on July 15, 2017

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2017, print edition of Caribbean Business.

At a time when Puerto Rico must sow the seeds of private investment in innovation and technology, the government is preparing to conduct a new experiment in the governance of the Science, Technology & Research Trust to see if it will work better with new changes—as opposed to what currently is in place and has already proven successful.

The trust, a private nonprofit entity collaborating with the Puerto Rico government to address the knowledge economy and guide it to scientific and technological forums, was created in 2004 through Act 214, but it was not until 2013-2014 that it became organized and the internal controls necessary for operation were implemented.

In July 2015, the trust approved its strategic plan and, since then, has obtained multiple successes through several initiatives that resulted in contracts with international pharmaceutical companies to perform clinical trials in Puerto Rico, the creation of a vector control unit to which the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) allocated $65 million, and the creation of several startups through a business acceleration program that has generated new income for the island as well as job creation.

Now, amid these successes, the government of Ricardo Rosselló through House Bill 1122 proposes to dismantle the existing board of trustees—mostly from the private sector and academia—to create a new board whose members will be appointed by the executive, confirmed by the Senate and entrusted with implementing a “concrete, defined and multisectorial public policy to reactivate economic drive.”

The trust is currently governed by a board composed of 11 people, five of whom are ex-officio, meaning they are government officials, and the other six are from the private sector—three from academia and three from the high-technology and entrepreneurship sector.

Act 214 stated that the members of the board would perform their functions for a period of six years, and in a staggered fashion to provide continuity to the scientific and technological projects under their charge.

As of 2014, the trust began filling vacancies of private-sector trustees and its members are Dr. José Lasalde Dominicci, professor & vice president of research & technology at University of Puerto Rico’s Molecular Sciences Center; Dr. Daniel Colón Ramos, professor at Yale University; Sir Salvador Moncada, professor at University of Manchester, England; Esteban Santos, operations executive vice president at Amgen; Alfredo Casta, CEO & founder of Cascades Technologies; and Gualberto “Gil” Medina, executive vice president at CBRE Saddle Brooks.

Under the leadership of this board and in conjunction with Executive Director Luz A. “Lucy” Crespo Valentín and Operations Director Iván Ríos Mena, the trust launched several initiatives, including the Clinical Research Consortium; Center for Biodiversity & Tropical Bioprospecting; Parallel18 startup accelerator for innovation-oriented companies; Office of Technology Transfer; Science City; and the Center for Research & Disease Prevention.

According to trust documents, when evaluating each of these strategic initiatives, the vast majority has been implemented for less than two years and all have had a positive performance. Specifically, in April 2016 and under the direction of Dr. Kosmas Kretsos, the Clinical Trials Consortium began and, in one year, featured more than 20 units conducting multiple clinical trials.

Through this initiative, the trust—along with international pharmaceutical companies serving as sponsors—oversaw 190 opportunities that brought scientists to Puerto Rico to conduct their respective clinical trials.

In its first year, the consortium signed three contracts for clinical trials that, according to trust estimates, will generate up to $2.5 million in income for Puerto Rico.

The Center for Research & Prevention of Tropical Diseases—another trust initiative that was established in 2015 in the wake of the chikungunya epidemic under the leadership of Dr. José Cordero—held a seminar in February 2016 on the rapid diagnosis of zika, chikungunya, dengue fever, influenza and leptospirosis, at which time a group of local clinical developers submitted a proposal for the creation of a rapid diagnostic test.

Three months later, in May 2016, the center held another seminar to create an integrated solution for a Vector Control Unit for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and the CDC invited the trust to participate in a federal grant call that led to a five-year $14 million annual grant, for a total of $65 million.

The multimillion-dollar federal allocation created the Vector Control Unit.

“Our vision is that by 2022, Puerto Rico will be recognized as an international center of innovation that develops, attracts and retains scientists, technology entrepreneurs and companies to foster world-class creativity and competition,” Crespo said.

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