Between 2010 and 2013, the years during which the crisis was at its most severe point, Spain lost more than 15,000 researchers; a brain drain that is still taking its toll in the science and technology sectors. During that rout, thousands of young researchers packed their suitcases to seek opportunities abroad, while many of those who stayed saw their projects turn into precarious jobs.
Daniel Vallejo Sánchez, a researcher in the field of inorganic chemistry and materials science, was one of those who decided to remain and to train and work in Spain. He went from job to job that had no connection with science. This chemist from the UPV/EHU took a master’s degree and prepared a doctorate in which he consolidated the conclusions of his research on “the creation of nanostructures through coordination compounds”. Along the way, Vallejo managed to lay the foundations of Poretune SL, a technology company dedicated to developing nano-structured materials designed for use in the automotive industry, the environment, or the energy sector and that has been supported financially by BeAble Capital.
– Young researchers who emigrate, ageing workforces, cuts in R&D&I…What are the challenges facing technology research in Spain and in the Basque Country?
In my opinion, the greatest challenge facing research in Spain is to remain competitive in a world where knowledge is increasingly globalised and scientific breakthroughs are achieved in a shorter time period thanks to the use of new technologies. It is essential to invest in science constantly to be in a position to compete with the major powers and to overcome our weaknesses (so to speak) when compared to other less developed countries with an abundance of personnel even if they are not as highly qualified and salaries are much lower. Another important factor that needs to be taken into account is that Spain has limited natural resources. Therefore, supporting the technology sector seems to be a sensible position that will always have a positive impact on a country’s economy, even in the not too distant future.
– How long have you dedicated to this field of research?
I synthesized my first metal-organic gel about 4 years ago during my doctoral research. As a result, I started to investigate more about the possibility of transforming them into a new class of porous metal-organic materials; specifically, into metal-organic aerogels. Since then, I have been working in this field and studying the physical-chemical properties of these materials while also developing new metal-organic aerogels based on other metals or organic molecules.
– What practical use (in industry) will the aerogels you have designed have?
The aerogels we have developed can be regarded as a technological platform. This term roughly means that these materials can be given a wide range of uses thanks to their physical-chemical characteristics. For example, they could be used as chemical sensors, as selective absorbents for pollutants, as passive samplers, separators of chemical mixtures (whether gas or liquid), catalysts, etc.
– What impact has the support of BeAble Capital had on the development of your research?
Personally, their support has been a breath of fresh air that has allowed me to continue with my research and focus my efforts on one goal.
BeAble Capital is not only a private fund which simply provides the capital needed to undertake this type of project; it also provides highly experienced professionals in various fields, who make it easier to deal with official procedures, contrast the technology, and they are also involved in identifying potential customers. They also help to deal with the issues that a young researcher encounters when he decides to become an entrepreneur.
– What are the challenges that await you now that you are a company?
The main challenge as a technology company is to be innovative using very limited resources. We have to come up with unique ideas to counter the large budgets and the equipment that the most consolidated companies and technology centres have. Making your way in such a consolidated industry also poses a challenge because making a product that is slightly better than what already exists will not convince manufacturers to drop a certain type of technology that still has to be amortised. In many cases, you need a very substantial improvement to convince potential customers that it is worth their while to change suppliers.
As a research group, the greatest challenge is to achieve the highest level of performance using our limited economic resources. We need to publish in high-impact science journals and try to register patents that increase the university’s reputation.
– What is needed to ‘recruit’ young researchers (greater institutional involvement, more money, encouraging science-related vocations?
I think that there is always room for improvement. I believe that the involvement of the institutions (at least in the Basque Country) is acceptable but it should further facilitate access to subsidies, promote them more, and share them in a fairer fashion. Creating a closer network of links between universities and private enterprises would help to attract young researchers. I believe, however, that the biggest problem lies in the lack of confidence companies display when it comes to recruiting young researchers with limited professional experience. I also think it is essential to promote lateral thinking in every individual at an educational level and combine this with a lighter theoretical basis and increasingly specialised studies. It is about valuing a person’s skills more than the length of their résumé.