“The day that Galicians become aware of our potential, we will be unstoppable”
Lucía Castro Díaz is responsible for DATAlife, a hub aimed at promoting digital innovation in the primary, biotechnology and health sectors of Galicia. About to complete a year in her position, she remains convinced that getting SMEs, private industry and researchers from our universities to go hand in hand is the key to taking off. Her gaze reflects how obvious it is to her that here, at regional level, we have everything to compete at national, European and global level. But it sends a warning to all those who will listen: in the coming years Europe is going to allocate very important funds and resources to modernize our business network. To qualify for them you have to start working now and DATAlife can be a great ally when it comes to drawing up that roadmap.
Chemist by training, strategic consultant for years for large (very large) international brands. Emigrated and returned, twice, now from Galicia she has become a tireless researcher of new ways to grow the local economy. He never tires of repeating that we have nothing to envy to anyone (or to any country) and that our potential is immense, both in terms of internal growth, and when it comes to contributing to the economy and science of Europe. The key? Lucía Castro Díaz is clear: digitization, digitization and digitization.
For those who are not familiar with the term, can you describe what a hub is and what DATAlife does?
Very simple, we are a non-profit association with a single objective: to accelerate the digital transformation of companies in the primary, biotechnology and health sectors, all of them strategic value chains for Galicia. We only need to remember that here we have a primary sector with a lot of potential that includes dairy, fishing or forestry, for example, all of them with an enormous weight in the national economy.
Our scope is very broad, we work with diverse and disparate companies, but if I have to summarize it in a few words we could say that our key focuses are bioresources, health and sustainability.
The primary sector is part of our DNA, but biotechnology? Are we competitive in this area?
No doubt! And for DATAlife it is a priority issue and we consider it as a transversal aspect of the first order. It is true that if you are going to look at the percentages of contribution to GDP it does not represent much today, but its growth is being enormous.
¿So, can Galicia have weight in biotechnology?
It is not a question of the future, nor of dreamy forecasts, it is that we already have it. This is because things are being done very well here. For example, when I returned from the UK, I attended many events, including those organised by Bioga, and I was completely surprised. They, who today are partners of DATAlife, have been collecting all the knowledge generated at the university for 15 years and taking it to the business world. They have created competitive and first-line companies. Sometimes we forget that here, in Galicia, we have companies like Zendal or Lonza.
Why do you say that it is transversal?
Because biotechnology is drug development, but it is also, for example, fermentation. It is a tool that improves key product transformation aspects for the primary sector and constitutes, without a doubt, a great added value.
But the most important thing is to emphasize that we do not see these economic sectors as hermetic and autarkic spaces, really the key is the interrelation of all. We must broaden our gaze, seek connections and bet on a collaborative and competitive business ecosystem. We cannot forget that the primary sector is related to the food sector which, in turn, is related to health and all of them to biotechnology.
What did you find most surprising during this first year of work? Especially you who had been working for many years in international markets, such as English.
Without a doubt, what surprised me most is the difference between the image we have of Galicia from within it and how we really are. We always have the idea that we are behind, that we are not competitive and it is a completely wrong view. I can understand it because years ago it could have been like that, but now it is not at all. When I returned to Galicia I came across cutting-edge projects at the height of any European market in which I had been working for years. Moreover, I can say that in Europe many of the agents and initiatives of our Galician ecosystem are known, in many aspects we can look into the eyes of powers such as Germany.
Do you realize that this can leave many with their mouths open? Perhaps we continue to sin of complexes or ignorance …
It’s that it’s so obvious! In many of the meetings I have at European level I do not have to explain anything, we are known and know many initiatives in our region. We have internationally recognized working groups at the university, we have SMEs that are going out and are selling and that are doing very well. But, for some reason, we don’t know that at home or we don’t value it.
A good example can be your partners, they are first-line companies.
Look, for example among our associates we have Finsa, an international benchmark in its sector and I could not describe how generous they are. The first time I visited them, they told me that they were part of this project because their interest was to promote digitalization throughout the value chain before them. It is about digitizing the sawmill, the management of forest space or the activity of the agronomist, for example, all this ends up having an impact and benefiting Finsa and they know it.
We have to think that Finsa not only work with wood, but also investigate new materials, have a biorefinery, bet on using more renewable energy. In addition, they are part of Galicia, they are not going to leave because they are in the place where half of the wood of all Spain is produced; They are where the raw material is.
Entonces So is that the task of your partners? Are they dynamic elements?
The partners come together with the aim of accelerating the digital environment (whether demand or supply). But what really benefits us is their experience and their diversity. Televés, Zendal, Finsa, Vodafone, the different clusters (CSG, Bioga, Clúster TIC, CMD o CETGA), universities… They are very different from each other, which allows decisions to be very balanced and that is a great advantage for DATAlife. No one seeks their own benefit exclusively, they have a general vision that gives us an enormous wealth of criteria.
“We detect needs and look for who can cover them”
And what about the SMEs you work with? In what situation do they come to you?
I must admit that it is, for me, the best part of this job. I love working with them in whatever stage they are in, they are very stimulating. In fact, the biggest regret I have this year is that the pandemic has not allowed us to go out more and reach more SMEs. The timing and needs that make them come to DATAlife are very diverse, but they are always welcome.
There are professionals who are considering creating a business and who come to me from incubators, accelerators … In many cases they are spin off of the university. Among them are those who “digitization is not their thing” and we help them to make their projects born digitized since no business can be launched without knowing how to manage their information. But there are also SMEs familiar with this technology to whom we provide an objective vision of their sector and their market. I like to think that they know what they want to do and how to do it and we take care of asking the key questions: how are you going to manage your data? Or how are you going to scale in order to grow sustainably and continuously? Thanks to all the years I have worked as a strategic consultant, I can put myself in their shoes and “land” the project in reality.
My most common job is to sit down with an SME, with a business idea, and I help them paint that vision of the future, of the challenges that lie ahead. And it is that if they are digitized from now, fitting it into their strategy from the beginning, then the evolution will be much easier.
It should not be easy since I suppose that an SME will look for very personalized solutions, made thinking about a specific problem. The most generalist digitalization is at your fingertips without going through you…
Yes, without a doubt and that is why we have launched five workshops funded by IGAPE to create specific routes of very specific digitization. We call this strategy “Trace the route” and includes diagnosis, maturity study and digitization plan. For this we are cataloguing services, products and capabilities tailored to the challenges we want to solve. To achieve this, the key is to make an optimal match: solution providers and business needs in particular.
That is, you collect the needs of SMEs and send them to developers or suppliers?.
Yes, we as an innovation hub have to know who does that digitalization well to direct companies there. In short: we detect needs and look for who can cover them. If it is a solution that is already on the market, we tell you how to reach them. We are clear that we do not go back to doing what is already done, we have to build on what we have to continue moving forward.
The process is usually: detect a need and see the most suitable suppliers. For this we send the proposals, for example, to the ICT Cluster and they send it to their associates. We are aware that making a good “marriage” is very important: SME with a specific need for digitalization and provider of ICT solutions. When done correctly, collaboration usually flows smoothly.
Raising these communication channels is usually very productive for all agents, not only for SMEs. In many cases, private companies, which work with a very specific client portfolio, do not think of reaching another potential market by making any adaptation to their solution.
It seems that betting on a very specific digitalization is the way to ensure that it is effective.
Effectively. We work with forest management certificate solutions, natural language solutions, home care systems and patient monitoring, sensorization of spaces, geolocation and traceability of livestock… The range of needs for the sectors we deal with is very wide and we have to find answers for very specific processes..
In addition, these innovations need to reach SMEs clearly, without rhetoric and in response to a real need. That is a great challenge that we set ourselves from the beginning. Already at the time of our foundation we established as a priority that they understand us, that the SMEs that enter through our door know that we are here for them. That is why we do not want to talk to them about disruptive technology that in their eyes can be smoke and that creates distrust. I talk to you about the power of information, because everyone handles these issues. I explain the value of the data and then they understand exactly what technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT), high-performance computing or Artificial Intelligence (AI) can bring them… These tools translate into improved decision-making and the ability to make an accurate forecast of the future. The priority is that they go one step ahead and understand that we are already in the information economy.
Technology is really gaining more and more weight in our lives and the sectors you deal with must apply it intelligently to anticipate future needs, right?
Digitization processes are interesting to improve internal dynamics, but also to serve the new customer. We are the generation most accustomed to using technology in history and in sectors such as health, any improvement of this type will be very welcome by the general public. A good example can be home care in the health and care sector as they provide more independence and autonomy to patients, while improving hospital management systems. We are beginning to walk this path, but the future draws a much more digital medical and care assistance.
From what you can tell us, can we say that DATAlife is a translator of needs between research centers, solution development companies and SMEs?
We are able to speak the language of an ICT provider and translate it into the language of a sectoral SME and this would also apply to universities or laboratories. Without a doubt, our work is very creative and forces us to take our heads out of a sector and know how to extrapolate solutions from one to another. That is the beauty of my work: I know what happens in R+D centers, in clusters, in SMEs, in private companies. We have a privileged vision that allows us to link concepts and go further.
Uniting many small ones through information can add a lot to the Galician ecosystem and make it more competitive, right?
Much more than that. Data (information) is the true good of the future, it is what will make you globally competitive. At this time we see a very clear example of this. How would it have been possible to develop several vaccines against Covid, in record time, if there would not have been a lot of prior information? Pharmaceutical companies had been storing information from different molecules for a long time and when the time came “only” it was necessary to see which ones were capable of attacking the virus. Without this prior information management work, it would not have been possible to reach the vaccine in such a short time.
By this I mean that it is very important that SMEs understand that they can compete in a market where the most precious asset is information. They are not going to compete with a company, but with its database. Obviously, when we talk about multinationals, it seems impossible to stand up to them, but if we share the information with other little ones and cooperate, it will be possible to face the big ones.
The most important thing is that they know that this is a process and that it is necessary to start preparing now and collect all the information. To do this, we advise them on the appropriate applications and digitization processes, we recommend looking for interoperable systems, working in the cloud…
“We now have our eyes fixed on Europe. From these institutions we know that a lot of public aid is going to arrive”
I suppose that sooner or later in these processes the big problem will arise: financing.
Always, that is why we are attentive to regional calls and try to dynamize them through initiatives such as Conecta Hubs, InnovaPeme (Gain), we develop workshops with clusters and our associates… Our goal is to advise you on how you can join these initiatives.
We also dynamize with European initiatives, as is the case of our work with CESGA, which is part of a European consortium to promote the use of high-performance supercomputing in the SME environment. They do pilots in which an SME can test supercomputing without investment risk. It may seem like science fiction, but CESGA has been working with SMEs in Galicia for some time because supercomputing really responds to their needs.
In addition, we monitor everything that comes out in Europe, a very important source of financing and to which my SMEs can access. Sometimes they are not up to date with these initiatives and it is a pity since many of them already work with data and can start doing business based on this information. During this year of work I have seen very clear cases of small companies that are doing very interesting things and can move to another level of data management.
¿And any program or initiative to achieve private investment?
Yes, of course, for example, the financing rounds of Conector are very interesting and we keep up to date with private investment funds. We also have connections with private investors. It is a very interesting terrain, but now we have our eyes fixed on Europe. From these institutions we know that a lot of public aid is going to arrive. It will really be a very interesting opportunity and we want to have an ecosystem prepared so that when that happens, we are in a position to request and obtain them. We are so clear about this that we have already expressed interest.
¿Do you carry out training at DATAlife?
We really do more dissemination, there is already a lot of training and we do not want to replicate initiatives. We make a recommendation for training that already exists and that is very good. In any case, we detect training needs on which we want to focus. Right now, we consider that the interesting thing is to work on the training of trainers, so that the new professional profiles (both in the university and in vocational training) leave already with sufficient digital qualification to work in this aspect in a natural way.
DATAlife knows that Galicia is building a business ecosystem that will allow it to compete in Europe without complexes, they are part of this takeoff. The key to standing out is for SMEs to row together, create synergies between different agents and, in his opinion, we are on the right track. In a year Lucía Castro Díaz is clear that she will be able to talk about more success stories, because here things are being done very well. “If our SMEs expand the zoom, open the field and start working to have a global market, Galicia has a bright future.”