Zunido da inovação

The buzzing of a bite of innovation

Every Carnival in Brazil, it shines. To date, costumes remain popular across the country. It doesn’t mind smoke or fumes, it likes clean water and when it sees the chance of combining heat and rain, it immediately puts its wings out.

But, although the preferences above suggest that we are talking about someone friendly, in reality the star of this edition is far from being man’s best friend. On the contrary. It has proven to be one of the worst. I would like to introduce you the old companion of every summer in the Tropical Country, the cunning dengue mosquito: aedes aegypti.

It, in fact, is evil. Because even though we know our tormentor well, the aedes aegypti always finds a way to reproduce, add new illnesses and cause damage, as it has been doing.

In the case of the current dengue epidemic, we have known for some time that unlike the common mosquito (the culex for science, mosquito for general), the aedes aegypti, in addition to clean water, loves an urban environment. But there’s more.

A bit lazy, thank Good, the aedes isn’t one for big flights. Its business, like Usain Bolt’s, is the 100 meters run. To some extent, the 100 meters dash. Because it flies a maximum of one meter from the ground and at a distance that does not exceed 100 meters.

Usain Bolt at the Rio-2016 games. Image: PEDRO UGARTE / AFP from O Globo Sports.

To make things worse, the dengue, zika and chikungunya mosquito reproduce at “rabbit” speed… Even though the female lives for a maximum of 45 days, it has three reproductive cycles, which allows it to lay between 60 and 120 eggs in each of them. In other words, it is in clusters that it proliferates.

It may seem like a mere detail, but this discovery, made at the turn of the 21st century, allowed Álvaro to create a new way of fighting dengue: a trap for female Aedes, with pheromones that attract the mosquito to a surface with glue, ready to trap it before distributing a new generation out there. Yes, you understood correctly: it was through the smell exuded by the species that Eiras solved the riddle.

With this enigma solved, plus a heavy dose of innovation, the researcher created MosquiTrap, the first product from Ecovec, a company that the scientist set up in partnership with the recently created Instituto Inovação (Innovation Institute), responsible for managing the company and seeking funds for product development, transferring knowledge from academia to the market.

Trap developed by Ecovec. Image from www.em.com.br.

The original idea was to sell the traps to individuals, but it didn’t work out very well – especially because many people think that the dengue problem is more of a problem with the government and less with everyone. As they say nowadays, there was a lack of product-market fit. By thinking about public authorities as a target audience (no pun intended), Ecovec ended up going a step further.

The trap was just the first step in a monitoring system that any municipality could use to track acute outbreaks and breeding sites for Aedes aegypti, in a cheaper and more effective way than setting up smoke traps or dispatching teams of agents throughout the city. The system was named M.I. Dengue and it was such a good idea that even Bill Gates became interested in it at an event in 2006.

At this point, the reader may wonder why never heard of this solution, which would come in so handy in 2024. But times were different. If a startup selling to the government is a difficult task today, twenty years ago it was even more difficult.

Bill Gates at the presentation booth of M.I. Dengue in 2006, with Gustavo Junqueira (the first one with his back turned).

Now, despite dengue fever being a global problem, Brazil is the largest market suffering from the disease – which hinders any internationalization plan. And in 2006, venture capital was still science fiction here, with most investments in Ecovec coming from public financing, at a speed that did not keep up with innovation.

Still, the idea bore fruit: in 2019, Ecovec was sold to the English company Rentokill, one of the largest pest control companies in the world – in the sale, Instituto Inovação (Innovation Institute) had a multiple of 6.7 times – obviously, the value of the transaction is kept under lock and key. Today, Ecovec’s software initiative is an increasingly relevant part of Rentokill, with several municipalities in Brazil as customers.

The biggest fruit, however, you may already know, but it doesn’t hurt to tell you again: the person who led Ecovec’s business side in those early years, on the Instituto Inovação´s (Innovation Institute) side, was Gustavo Junqueira. After the experience, he realized that there was an interesting way to combine innovation with capital – and the lessons learned at Ecovec helped Junqueira to format Inseed, an investment manager that won the first BNDES notice to create the first Criatec fund, opening the path to seed capital in Brazil. Much later, Inseed would join A5 and become KPTL. And, the rest is history… apart from the dengue virus, which unfortunately continues to be a big problem for everyone – at least until the vaccines arrive.

Gustavo Junqueira. Image from kptl.com.br.

“Some things are impossible. Until they aren’t”

3 questions for…

Alfredo Giglio

Associate professor at the Faculdade de Medicina USP (USP Medical School) and physician-coordinator of the immunization clinic at Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein (Albert Einstein Israeli Hospital).

1) Today we are experiencing a dengue epidemic in the country, at the same time that Instituto Butantan (Butantan Institute) is developing a vaccine against the disease. How important are vaccines to solving crises like this? Is there a forecast for the population to start receiving the application? And in the meantime, the best thing to do is follow the usual prevention tips?

“Today we have a very large number of dengue cases, with some places in the epidemic range and others a little below, but in all there has been a huge increase compared to recent years. There is no doubt that vaccines will be crucial in blocking and reducing these cases of dengue. We have Qdenga, a vaccine from the Takeda laboratory, which was approved by Anvisa and is already in the National Immunization Program (PNI), but there is not enough volume to vaccinate everyone – therefore, the Ministry of Health must make choices, prioritizing children in some counties. Regarding Butantan´s vaccine, all the data we have so far shows that it is a very good vaccine, especially because it is a single dose, but it needs to go through an approval process by Anvisa before being produced on a scale and entering the PNI. There is a huge expectation that it will be a very useful vaccine, but in the best-case scenario approval will happen between the end of this year and the beginning of 2025. And for now, what needs to be done are the classic and widely known measures, such as fighting standing water, eliminating larvae outbreaks, use repellent and wear long-sleeved clothing, if possible.”

2) Historically, the vaccine development process tends to be slow. Why does it happen?

“It is necessary to follow a series of steps to put a vaccine on the market, for any disease. The first step is to carry out studies on animals to verify the safety of the vaccine. After that, studies are carried out with adult volunteers, still only for the safety aspect. It is then possible to increase the sample to check immunogenicity – that is, whether the vaccine induces the production of antibodies –, in addition to continuing to monitor safety. In a subsequent phase, it is necessary to verify the effectiveness, with the introduction of a placebo group, taking more time due to contact with the disease. The process is long and there is no magic, many vaccines have been studied for many years, such as dengue.”

3) To what extent is it possible to accelerate this vaccine development process, as happened in the case of Covid-19? Is this something that would apply to vaccines for different diseases?

“There was an accelerated process in the case of Covid-19 vaccines, but the reason was obvious: we had a monstrous pandemic killing thousands of people around the world. It must be said that a fortune was invested, something unprecedented in terms of investments, which anticipated a series of research that was already underway, such as mRNA vaccines. There was already an idea, but Covid-19 stimulated this development. It is important to say that no steps were skipped in the development of these vaccines. Anyone who says that the Covid-19 vaccine has not been tested is telling a lie.”