São Paulo, snakes and citizen science

In the early 1900s, poisonous snakes were a major problem in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. Dr Vital Brazil, first director of the newly formed Butantan research institute, was convinced - counter to the prevailing wisdom - that snake bites could be best remedied by developing sera specific to each venom. But to do so, he needed samples of a large number of snake species. So he came up with an idea: what if you could get the public to help, and send the snakes to you? Butantan placed heavy wooden boxes at railway stations across the state, and asked the public to deposit any snakes they came across in them, with the boxes later being sent back to the institute. In return, the sender would get a vial of antivenom. As a result, the institute was able to develop antivenoms to most of the poisonous snakes in the state.

In this example, Butantan called on the public to help it solve an issue it couldn’t address on its own. Today, there are many examples of institutions in São Paulo that are opening up to wider participation in their activities, as a way to come up with better ideas, improve how those ideas are adopted and deliver better services. Last week, as part of our research project on open innovation we travelled to São Paulo to meet some of these organisations. Here are three of the most interesting examples:

Collaboration with startups

Albert Einstein Hospital is a private, not for profit hospital in São Paulo that is committed to improving the way it works with startups. Realising that the hospital excels at adopting and testing new technology, but is less good at invention and innovation, it began to organise regular ‘startup circuits’, where startups can come and pitch their ideas. As a result, in just three years it has formed 12 new partnerships. One startup that the hospital is working with is Genomika, which develops advanced technologies for conducting genetic tests for clinical diagnosis. The greatest change, according to the hospital’s director of innovation is a change in environment and culture: “you know that you’re not going to get harassed out of the hospital because you’re a startup, so people come and knock on our door to tell us their ideas.”

Encouraging employee innovation

At the Hospital das Clínicas we saw a fascinating example of employee innovation in the rehabilitation unit. Due to strict spending limits, the hospital was unable to purchase an imported wheelchair that it needed for one of its patients. Instead of purchasing something that didn’t quite meet the needs of the patient, staff worked with a local company to design one. The wheelchair they designed is lighter, cheaper and more durable than commercial alternatives and the company that built it is now planning to market it to other hospitals across Brazil. Employee innovations like these currently depend on ‘innovation heroes’ - something we heard again and again on our trip. The hospital is now planning to build a team and a process to manage innovation, to support and incentivise new methods and new ways of working that come from hospital employees.  

New ways for government to support innovation

Pitch Gov SP, billed by some as the largest startup event ever held in Latin America, is designed to bring together startups and government to solve some of the chronic issues faced by the state. One of the 15 startups selected onto the programme is a company that uses big data to predict where in the city mosquito eggs are likely to be present. Health officials can then use this information to find and destroy them. The startup is now working with Sucen, the state’s epidemic disease control institute, to improve their model, using research data about prevalence of dengue in the state. This could have a huge impact on dengue - a disease that affects 650,000 people in the state every year, and killed 450 last year.

Ongoing challenges

While there is a huge amount to be positive about, there are a number of challenges that currently prevent open innovation from being adopted more widely in São Paulo:

Regulation and laws

Many of the organisations we met cited current Brazilian laws and regulations as a major barrier to cooperation between government, research institutes and companies and also innovation in general. 

Institutional culture

We were told about a number of cultural barriers to greater adoption of open innovation: Employees who try to innovate in Brazil are often referred to as ‘innovation heros’ because they have to battle against a system that doesn’t support or incentivise innovation. Research institutes are not used to sharing their data with the public, companies and startups. There is a certain amount of distrust between the public and private sectors. There is also a noticeable preference for imported products over home grown ones in those that procure things like medical devices.


With the Brazilian economy currently in recession, the government is looking for new ways to finance partnerships between research institutes and companies and between startups and government. There are also issues in Brazil around publicly funded organisations working with for profit organisations, which may be barriers to greater collaboration.

Next steps

We’ll be back in São Paulo in October to deliver a workshop, alongside 100%Open, to explore various open innovation methods with the Adolfo Lutz research institute, the government of the State of São Paulo, Fundaçao Vanzolini, FIA and other local partners. In the run up to our next trip we’ll be continuing our research into open innovation methods, both in Brazil and around the world. Here’s a reminder that if you know of any interesting models of open innovation that are currently being tested around the world please share them here.

Image credit Forest Service via Flickr


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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