Braga is home to world-class research in bioscience, healthcare and nanotechnology, thanks in large part to the school of medicine at the University of Minho (UMinho), where 40% of Portugal’s clinical research trials are hosted at the Academic Clinical Centre (2CA), according to school of medicine president Nuno Sousa. Braga’s private sector and the Institute of Bio Sustainability are also making a name within the clean technology field.
The university city of Braga is one of Portugal’s innovation and talent hubs. UMinho ranks among the 150 best universities in the world that are under 50 years old, according to the Times Higher Education's 2018 ranking, and its school of medicine is widely recognised as a leader in its field in Portugal.
Central to the school’s mission has been clinical research in healthcare, especially digital solutions for preventative care and chronic diseases. Since its residency programme was created in 2000, candidates have achieved the highest scores across Portugal, according to Mr Sousa.
“We have a very strong reputation in Portugal. Our students also performed really well in front of the US’s National Board of Medical Examiners, and we received three certificates of excellence from the Medical Association for Education in Europe,” he adds.
In line with Braga’s university-industry-government innovation vortex, the school of medicine has potent links to public and private sector research.
Responding to the lack of clinical research in Portugal, it collaborated with the Hospital of Braga and other entities to create the 2CA, which focuses on bioscience innovation, such as new biomaterials and diagnostic strategies. Industry leaders such as Roche, Novartis, GSK undertake commercial research trials at 2CA.
“2CA attracts lots of domestic and international researchers, big pharma companies and small start-ups in the region, who runs tests in our lab. [It] is recognised for being really refined for the market,” says Mr Sousa.
Meanwhile, the school's Life and Health Sciences Research Institute (ICVS) attracts 86% of its funding from EU and North American sources, which Mr Sousa says reflects its international scope and competitiveness.
Together, ICVS and 2CA aim to find digital solutions for healthcare, thereby tapping into Braga’s entrepreneurial start-up scene and expertise in IT and deep tech. Furthering this is the school of medicine’s P5 Medical Digital Centre; its recent opening was attended by the EU commissioner for research, science and innovation.
“Our digital health cluster is a complex ecosystem creating a network that is interesting to investors, and we have business angels and venture capital all around us. We have companies setting up branches here, such as one of the biggest endoscopic surgeries, Germany’s Karl Storz, which we share a lab with," says Mr Sousa.
“Another thing that we are witnessing is that the number of spin-offs we have created is growing, and a lot of these are already attracting international money,” he adds. Dozens of successful medtech companies have emerged from Braga’s melting pot of medical research and tech start-ups.
For example, ICVS produced iSurgical3D, a company that uses 3D technology to develop prosthetics and other medical devices. Moreover, students from UMinho created Pickmed, a software development company that assists surgeons in navigating musculoskeletal surgeries, while Clarik is a start-up offering the automated diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases through artificial intelligence-based neuroimaging biomarkers.
Both Pickmed and Clarik were supported by Startup Braga, an incubator set up by Braga Municipality.
Braga is also the hub for nanotechnology, both in Portugal and the wider Iberian peninsula. The International Iberial Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) was founded in the city a decade ago by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, and is the third intergovernmental laboratory in the world, after Geneva’s CERN and Heidelburg’s EMBL.
INL was opened in Braga partly due to the city's strength in advanced manufacturing, such as in medtech, according to Lars Montelius, INL director-general. This international and interdisciplinary laboratory hosts 300 researchers from 30 countries (plus 100 students) from the chemistry, medicine, biology, physics and engineering fields, who work together to create cutting-edge nanotechnology research, applications and devices, and deploy them as quickly as possible, he adds.
For three consecutive years, INL and UMinho have submitted more patents to the European Patent Office than any institution in Portugal. “We work with companies worldwide, and the Braga start-up ecosystem, to introduce nanotechnology into their product or services. You don’t need to be a specialist in nanotechnology; if you have a great idea, you [can] come to us and we create the nanotech in our commercial and industrial-grade lab,” says Mr Montelius.
INL incubates its own spin-off companies, such as Rubinonomed, which uses nanotech to identify cancer cells. It also works with Bosch’s Braga facility, relating to autonomous vehicle research, and with UMinho, especially within quantum computing in a project linked with IBM.
“The innovation ecosystem is vibrating, boiling in Braga. It’s a really nice spot for new companies coming up. I’m from Sweden and have started companies myself. The speed of development is very quick here,” says Mr Montelius.
UMinho’s new Institute of Bio-sustainability (IBS) is another multidisciplinary research centre that works closely with companies, albeit in clean tech. IBS runs numerous research projects, such as Nexiproject, aimed at developing new sensors to measure biological and physical variables in the sea, such as acidity and turbidity.
One of its partner companies is the DST Group. Unlike the region's other major construction companies, it survived the financial crisis thanks to its diversification across renewable energy, water distribution, telecoms, ‘smart city’ real estate and venture capital, DST Group employs 1600 people in total.
The company's venture capital arm, Three Partner, funds start-ups at Startup Braga and beyond. The company’s innovation ecosystem currently has 90 projects, and success stories include Levels, a company founded by UMinho researchers that gauges the risk of rock-fall from cliffs.
In partnership with INL, DST also invested in Spherephotonics, a company that uses ultra-fast lasers in microscopy to detect cancer cells at a very early stage. Companies such as DST are just one example of the talent bonanza found in Braga, and explain how the city manages to outperform many other European cities of its size.