Technology

IBM Bets on Brazilian Innovation


Big Blue's new initiative to stimulate development of Brazil's nascent tech industry is the latest sign of the country's rising power

Over the last few years, China and India have emerged as the twin hot spots of emerging tech innovation. Now IBM (IBM) is betting that one of the next big technology stars will be Brazil.

In the latest sign of Brazil's rising power, Big Blue is announcing on Aug. 18 a new initiative to stimulate the development of the country's technology sector. To kick off the effort, IBM is hosting its first-ever forum for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in São Paulo along with FINEP, the Brazilian government agency that finances technology development. The daylong event will bring together more than 100 investors and dozens of new companies looking for investment and business advice.

IBM is also launching a Portuguese version of its developerWorks Web site, which provides free programs and online teaching guides that help programmers build skills in the Java programming language, the Linux operating system, and IBM products such as Lotus. To host the event, IBM has dispatched Claudia Fan Munce, managing director of IBM Venture Capital Group, and Steve Mills, senior vice-president and group executive of IBM's $20 billion Software Group, a clear sign of the growing importance of Brazil to the IBM portfolio.

"We have been watching Brazil for a while," says Munce, who grew up in Brazil. "The time is right."

Eyeing Opportunity

In the past, Brazil has been hobbled by hyperinflation, rampant political corruption, and failed fiscal and monetary policies. But with a growing and stable economy in recent years, multinational corporations such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and venture capital and private equity players now see additional opportunity for technology innovation in the sun-drenched nation. "That potential is there," says Mills. "The university systems are strong. There is a level of interest in entrepreneurship that is growing."

Investors increasingly see Brazil as an attractive destination. As of the end of 2008 nearly 150 local and foreign investment firms had committed $28 billion in venture and private equity capital to Brazilian companies, according to the Brazilian Association for Private Equity & Venture Capital. That's up from $6 billion in 2004, amounting to a hearty 50% compound annual growth rate over the last four years. Investors have financed 500 Brazilian companies to date with venture or private equity capital, and there's $12 billion left to invest over the next few years from that $28 billion kitty.

Still, the country's business challenges, including high taxes and restrictive labor laws, could hamper growth. And native businesspeople say a Silicon Valley-like ecosystem where risk and creative thinking in technology are the norm remains elusive. "We do not have an ecosystem in place," says Berthier Ribiero-Neto, head of Google's (GOOG) Latin American research and development center, which is based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. "Most of the students go to work for the outsourcing companies. I would like to see more product development."

The IBM initiative is designed to help remedy some of those issues. The idea is to serve as a matchmaker and coach to the growing number of companies IBM works with in Brazil. In fact, IBM's Munce says that among the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), Brazil is seeing the highest growth in business partners that IBM works with, averaging 150% year over year.

Tapping into Brazil

To help its partners raise money, IBM will introduce them to dozens of local and foreign private investors at the forum, including Intel Capital, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Rio Bravo, and Darby Overseas Investments. And to design, build, and market new technologies for their businesses, IBM will invite its several thousand Brazilian business partners to visit its Innovation Center in São Paulo, which opened in February. At the center, entrepreneurs can gain access to training courses, consulting services, and technical seminars. "The center will help us tap into this huge growth market," says Munce.

Humberto Matsuda, founding partner with Performa Investimentos, a new Brazilian venture capital firm, says the IBM forum is a significant event for his country. "We are very excited to see how IBM will become a player in this industry," says Matsuda, who is closing an $8 million fund, with 40% of its capital coming from FINEP. "It is a very significant event, given the size of the players."

Matsuda, who helped IBM draw up a list of companies to invite to the forum, says startups have been hobbled in the recent past by a lack of capital and experienced entrepreneurs. But he says the IBM event is important because it will help foster more investment, training, and networking in the technology community. "They will make introductions to potential clients and offer training and services," says Matsuda. "You have to use a key player like IBM to teach companies."

Ante is an associate editor for BusinessWeek.

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