Sáenz-Otero: "Mexico is a leader in innovation in Latin America, and will continue to grow"
This scientist, who's giving Mexico a very good name by doing technological innovation from the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, considers that the future of innovating in fields like aeronautics and astronautics in Mexico is promising, but more involvement is needed from the Mexican society. He is one of the 33 protagonists of Mexican innovation.
What's your job at the laboratory you run at MIT?
It´s the Space Systems Laboratory, at the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. Our focuses on showing students what it's like to design and integrate a complex system, such as space satellites. I don't mean that it's something super impossible, quite the opposite, we do it really well, but we could always do it better. When space satellites need to survive in space, in a different atmosphere, in a void, the change of temperature, the dynamic orbits, space radiation, all these things that are unique in space, we take them into account and we teach them to students with the projects and research we do. We tell them how to do research and how to improve understanding in these areas here on Earth, more than anything to make better space satellites.
When did you begin to contribute in your field to the innovation ecosystem made by Mexicans?
I did my university degree at MIT. Before that I was at high school, but at that time I obviously wasn't dedicated to innovation. Let's say that I started about five or six years ago with the MIT MISTI projects, which is the international part of the institute. I began to work with the High Technology Center at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), which is in Juriquilla, Querétaro.
Later, with the creation of the Mexican Space Agency, I worked with them and with different space technology groups in Mexico, such as the Sociedad Mexicana de Ciencia y Tecnología Aeroespacial [Mexican Society of Aerospace Science and Technology] (Somecyta) and the Red de Ciencia y Tecnología del Espacio [Space Science and Technology Network] (Redcyte), which is a technology network belonging to Conacyt. The UNAM is part of them, it's the leader of both, so by finding the right contact at the UNAM I managed to expand my relations with Mexico, and that's how I've been able to help the country with matters relating to space technology.
What motivates you to do what you're currently doing at MIT?
Several things motivate me, but three things come to mind. The first is because I've spent years working with the International Space Station (ISS), Station (ISS), and what really motivates us there is that the station the opportunity to do real research in space. Generally, one can't do research and run tests in space, so everything has to work first time around, there's no option for failure. But there is with the ISS, because we run tests, they send us the expenses and we can do any experiment which, if it's well designed, will never be a wasted through doing tests, we do them and then carry on.
One motivation is using the ISS as a laboratory to do experiments. The second motivation, which is also very interesting, is how we are already very involved in the creation of nanosatellites, which are called CubeSats. It's not just about doing tests with the ISS, but later taking them to the next level and being able to send them into space for short periods of time, between three to six months. We already have the opportunity to create CubeSats that reach space. And lastly, my motivation is also the students. In principle the idea of education in general, of giving classes, of seeing students learn lots of things; and at MIT we have the privilege of having the best in the world, so they not only give us that opportunity to teach, but we're also learning from them.
Do you consider yourself an innovator? Why?
I'm going to give you two answers: yes and no. Personally, I do consider myself to be an innovator in new technology and with the MIT laboratory, because we're always seeing how to improve things, we always push the limits. I don't think that any project that I've done with NASA has followed their rules, rather we rewrote them; we don't just go and break the rules, rather we say "no, that doesn't work for us. How should we do it then?" and we reinvent the rules so as we can work with what NASA has, we push NASA. That makes me feel like an innovator.
I'd also say that being very realistic, I don't feel like an innovator because I've never been a business innovator. My motivation has never been the business as such. In that sense I couldn't say that I'm a great innovator for creating new companies that are going to make millions of pesos or dollars. Money has never been what motivates me. I do want to live well, it's not like I'm ready to never earn another cent, but I'm more interested in helping a lot of people and living as average class, surviving as such, than helping less people or it costing these people a lot for my help and becoming rich. So I don't have that business model, but I do have the idea of being able to help people.
What challenges or barriers do you see in Mexico in the field of innovation?
I've been hearing this question for many years, and I can happily say that what we have to do is keep making an effort and having patience. Mexico is doing as such, at least in our field, in aerospace. As I said before, Somecyta and Redcyte have been created. The High Technology Center has very high quality laboratories, with academics who are closely linked to the sector and who are working very well along this line.
Meanwhile, I feel that a cultural change is needed in Mexico, that all Mexicans know how to demand more, but not like we often hear in protests ”give us, give us and do this, do that". In my opinion, we shouldn't demand that they give us things, rather demand more quality from the Government and from ourselves. As I mentioned in a conference for the students, if Mexico is going to build spaceships, for example, it does matter if there's a screw missing, it does matter if there's a crack in the window. As we see it, in Mexico we don't have that culture of perfectionism, and I don't mean that everyone has to be a perfectionist, but part of the culture has to change and demand these needs that high technology has, that require a huge amount of detail.
In Mexico we like to be a bit more free "oh no, it's fine like that, I can see a stain but it doesn't matter. There's a wall missing over there, but it's not going to fall, so it's OK". We need to change that culture, but not everywhere. There are some great social parts of Mexico, and socially I much prefer Mexico than the United States in many ways. However, the United States does have that attention to detail culture which is necessary in high technology. I could say the same about Japan, Germany, all of Europe in general, and the Russians. Russia is an interesting example because one part of society isn't interested in details, they just want to have their rural community; but there's another part of their society that is seriously committed to the high technology area, it's an interesting example. It's the same in the United States, where there are rural communities where space is the least important thing on their mind. They're the ones who say "what did we go for?" but other people are excited about the technological field.
They're interesting examples and now this part of society needs to grow in Mexico so as we don't have to import this technology. I want to make it clear that this is starting to occur. If you look at UNAM, even the Polytechnic is going at it hard. There are aeronautic universities in Querétano, where they're also making a new aerospace center, and in Zapopan, Jalisco, as well as several places in Veracruz. So it is happening, we just have to give it time, and society not only has to accept it, but push and support these communities that are slightly changing Mexican culture, saying "we will strive for this excellence now". They have to support them so as we have high technology.
How would you define the DNA of the Mexican innovator?
I'm going to sound like a scratched disc but for a long time in the United States, César Chávez was the "Yes we can" figure. In that regard, I believe that, Mexico is much more "Yes we can" than other countries. First world countries don't have as much "Yes we can" culture, but rather "We've got to do it", it's an obligation because it has to be done and that's that, it's not a question. In Mexico it's "We're going to give it a go because we know that it's a challenge and we can do it". Mexicans take on many challenges, they know how to take them on and take risks, they're good at that.
At the same time, Mexican culture is very creative; we grow up seeing a lot of diversity, many ways of doing things which gives us different ways of thinking than other countries. When you travel around the United States, you always feel like you're in the same place, it doesn't matter what city you're in, and that doesn't happen in Mexico, you do feel the change. Mexico clearly has different cultures within the same country, which gives us a different way of looking at things. In this sense, due to both the "Yes we can" and seeing things differently, I think that it's the Mexicans' greatest strength for innovating.
How do you see the future of innovation in Mexico?
I think that it's something that's happening now, there is innovation in Mexico and it's a leader in this industry throughout Latin America. And it's going to keep growing, it's not going to stop, it's not going anywhere. But I think the most important thing is that if we start to change as a society and everyone says "We're now going to consider innovation as the most important thing that we want to do", there would be two options: if society starts to accept this and works more on innovation, there could be a boom. And if not, it's not going to go anywhere, but it's going to continue to be a small part of Mexico and not a big part, it won't have the success that we want. I think that it mainly comes down to what society wants.
What advice would you give someone who wants to develop and innovate in their field, but here in Mexico? What does he/she need to do to achieve this?
First of all, I would tell them to look, because there are opportunities. In the aerospace field, people sometimes say "No, why would we want to do that in Mexico", but that's not true, look around, because there are opportunities. There are several business and academic places. The UNAM, the Polytechnic, areas such as Querétaro, Jalisco and Veracruz, which are innovating.
Second of all, it depends on whom I'm advising: if you're a secondary or high school student, I could tell you that not everyone gets into the Polytechnic or the UNAM. They have to work hard to get into those places. In the case of the High Technology Center, not everyone can just go, they have to prove their technical skills to get in.
If you're a university student, two things: first, every year counts, from your first year at university to the last. In Mexico, many universities focus on finishing the final exam and that's it, but that's not true, it's not just about the end, everything matters, from the start to the finish.
And if you're finishing your degree or masters and you're going to work, I'll tell you two things: you can do your doctorate in Mexico in aerospace fields; there are very good options and MIT collaborates with different places. Staying in Mexico doesn't mean ignoring this subject, as universities in the country are making it increasingly possible to work in the space field. And if you go into the sector and you see that there are options in the aerospace field, from regional centers such as Juriquilla and Zapopan, which already have parts in the industry. There's also the Mexican Space Agency. That way they can see that there are places working on innovation and there are places to go.
Doctor Alvar Sáenz-Otero sees two great opportunities to continue to grow in this category in the DNA of Mexican innovators: knowing know to take on challenges and risks, and how to see things differently thanks to the country's cultural wealth.