Spin-off companies are starting to appear in Spain and Portugal after link-ups between industry and universities.
Chemical and pharmaceutical group Solvay is involved in two new spin-offs in the region. In Barcelona it recently brought together 220 managers, workers and assorted experts to try to come up with some more ideas.
Portugal's PURIAgRu project, led by Manuel da Silva of Solvay Interox and Maggioly Novais and Susete Dias,of the biotechnology department at Lisbon's Higher Technical Institute, aims to reduce the toxicity of waste water produced during the manufacture of olive oil. This waste is too toxic for treatment at water purification plants and causes serious pollution in the rivers of olive-oil producing countries.
PURIAgRu will not limit itself to olive oil. "There are various agro-industries in the Mediterranean area where this process could be applied," said Mr da Silva, naming the wine, dairy, cork and leather industries as examples.
Spain's Conservaci"n de Sustratos Celul"sicos (CSC) launched its product, Book Saver, last March. This joint venture, between Rogelio Areal of Catalonia's Polytechnic University (UPC) and Solvay, has come up with a method of restoring books by the kilo for half the price of existing methods. CSC expects to formalise its first major contracts with two Spanish universities and a major historic archive shortly and to begin providing its restoration service next year.
For Marc Duhem, Solvay's director general for Spain and Portugal, this kind of university-business cooperation is a significant step. But he added:
"This will be one of our strategies for growth at Solvay, but not the only one."
He believes now is a good time for spin-offs in Spain and Portugal as their governments are keen to encourage homegrown initiatives and reduce reliance on buying in technology from abroad.
The UPC's Innova programme has helped launch six spin-off companies, including CSC, since it began in 1998. This year it gained central government support to serve as a pilot project.
It is adapting its methodology "to fit the profile of other Spanish universities in less industrialised areas," according to Teresa Navarro, head of Innova.
Andres Zabara, director of programmes at the government's Centre for the Development of Industrial Technology, believes cooperation between industry and university is fundamental, but should not automatically lead to the creation of spin-off companies. Moreover, academics who are also skilled entrepreneurs are scarce. "Often researchers have very good ideas but don't know how to bring them to the market," he added.