Given our professional backgrounds, the scientific focus chosen for the first of these institutes was brain research. That is how, in 2003, the project to build the International Institute of Neurosciences of Natal (IINN) was launched simultaneously in Brazil and abroad. To handle all aspects of the IINN project and the future network of institutes, a private, nonprofit organization, Associação Alberto Santos Dumont para Apoio à Pesquisa (AASDAP), was created on April 17, 2004. Its name honors the greatest of all Brazilian scientists, the inventor and aviator Alberto Santos Dumont.
Seeding a knowledge island
The IINN project was conceived as a three-layer structure. A modern brain research facility defined the core layer. A series of social programs, built around the research institute, formed the middle layer. It included a science education program for children, a women's and children's clinic, an ecological park and a sports complex. The final layer would be formed by a series of private spin-offs, start-ups and established biotech companies located in an International Neurotechnology Industrial Park to be built in a special free enterprise zone created by the federal government. Altogether, this structure became known as the "Campus of the Brain."
Almost at once, the IINN initiative introduced a series of key innovations to the scenery of Brazilian science. First, the project was built essentially as a private enterprise, supported primarily by private funds and philanthropic donations raised within Brazil and abroad. Although strategic joint ventures were signed with the federal government, AASDAP has remained in charge of the management of the entire project since its conception, which includes fund-raising, recruiting and operating multiple research facilities and social initiatives, such as two schools and the women's health clinic.
A couple of years were enough to demonstrate that the proposal of using science as an agent for social transformation could attract private investment of real significance. In July of 2005 the São Paulo-based Sírio-Lebanese Hospital, one of the most prestigious private hospitals in Brazil, became the first Brazilian private institution to sign a broad scientific-social partnership with AASDAP. Later on, in February of 2007, history was made when Ms. Lily Safra kindly granted AASDAP one of the largest private donations ever made to a Brazilian scientific project. In recognition of her generosity, AASDAP renamed its first institute as the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neurosciences of Natal (ELS-IINN).
In addition to recruiting talent throughout Brazil, AASDAP invested considerable effort to repatriate young Brazilian neuroscientists who had been working abroad without any concrete hope of returning home, due to a lack of available positions, infrastructure and funding at the public university system.
By taking a major research project to the northeast of Brazil, AASDAP also gave support to the notion that it is possible to decentralize the production of science throughout Brazil and still maintain high standards of academic performance outside the main public university-based model. Despite its private orientation, since its first days the ELS-IINN has worked in close collaboration with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (U.F.R.N.), which in 2004 donated to AASDAP 100 hectares of land for the construction of the Campus of the Brain.
The ELS-IINN project was also innovative in establishing, since its conception, long-term links with leading brain research institutes in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia. Built through multisite research collaboration projects, and supported by a new U.S.-based nonprofit entity, the International Neuroscience Network Foundation (INNF), this global network currently fosters research and educational initiatives worldwide.