Positioned on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal has shielded its European neighbors from the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean waves crashing against its coastline for centuries. Back when people thought the earth was flat, they saw Portugal as the last port of call on the edge of their world — a theory the locals hoped to disprove in the 15th and 16th centuries, using their world-class engineering skills to design and build tools and ships so advanced that they helped establish the nation as one of the first true trans-Atlantic empires.

Puerto Rico coastline

Five centuries later, the Portuguese are still seeking adventure, only this time the compass has led them to Texas. And thanks to a mutual love of science and exploring the unknown, an extraordinary partnership between the Cockrell School of Engineering and Portugal’s homegrown science and engineering research community is thriving.

To understand how this unique relationship began, we don’t need to go quite as far back as the 16th century. In 2007, the Portuguese government announced a long-term strategic plan to increase its STEM-based research output and jumpstart innovation through international research collaborations. Portuguese authorities encouraged top research universities in the U.S. and elsewhere to share mutually beneficial ideas and goals, which led to several collaborative agreements with U.S. institutions. UT was among the few selected.

The partnership, which was officially (and appropriately) named the UT Austin Portugal Program, initially began at the IC2 Institute before moving to the McCombs School of Business thanks to the enthusiasm of Marco Bravo, UT’s executive director for the program. An engineer and entrepreneur, Bravo is also a Portuguese native, an expert in global technology commercialization and the co-founder of four companies. He has been the driving force behind the program, nurturing the ongoing research collaborations that have emerged over the past decade.

As the partnership progressed, sponsor and program managers both at UT and in Portugal noticed that many of the strongest research connections were being made in engineering. “It was clear then that, as we push forward and pursue new areas of innovation and research, the Cockrell School would have a larger role in defining things in the future,” said Bravo.

And so a renewed partnership signed in 2018 by leaders from the Portuguese Foundation of Science and Technology (FCT) and UT Austin placed the research baton firmly in the hands of Texas Engineering.

Five key research areas are being funded during the current program cycle: advanced computing, nanotechnologies, space-earth interactions, medical physics and technology innovation and entrepreneurship. It is no coincidence that four out of the five themes chosen by the sponsor and UT Austin Portugal Program directors for this phase of the partnership happen to encompass research fields where Texas Engineers are already leading the way in terms of innovation and thought leadership.

While Texas Engineering may have its fair share of leaders in specialized fields, there can only be one captain of the ship and, given the new emphasis on engineering, John Ekerdt, associate dean for research at the Cockrell School, will now be at the helm as the new principal investigator of the program from UT. “Partnerships between ourselves and other top-tier international research institutions provide numerous benefits for all involved,” said Ekerdt. “We already have ongoing research collaborations with Portuguese engineers, and, thanks to the renewed agreement, these collaborations will be allowed to grow alongside new partnerships. It’s a really exciting prospect.”

Ekerdt isn’t the only one who is optimistic about this unconventional partnership. The FCT —Portugal’s equivalent of the National Science Foundation — funds the entire UT Austin Portugal Program. Last year the foundation decided to increase its investment from $20 million in the initial project to $50 million in this renewed project. This includes not only research collaborations but also student exchanges and various other activities over the five-year cycle of the program.

This major increase in available funds is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does it afford greater research scope and opportunities to researchers, it demonstrates how confident Portuguese authorities are that the partnership will produce long-term results.

“We expect this partnership with UT to result in real economic and societal benefit for Portugal. Impact in research is the goal of the program, which is aligned with the Portuguese government’s strategy and science policy,” said José Manuel Mendonça, the National Director of the UT Austin Portugal Program.

Aside from its economic ambitions, the UT Austin Portugal Program also provides invaluable opportunities for students to take classes while living in a foreign country, gain a broader perspective on the world and develop an edge over the competition when applying for jobs in various sectors.

“That kind of learning can’t happen in the lab,” Ekerdt said.

Likewise, faculty actively engage in international research collaborations because they can provide access to fresh ideas and different perspectives. But, there’s more to the UT Austin Portugal Program than just a sharing of ideas. Texas Engineers may be providing much of the expertise, but this program also provides our researchers with access to crucial resources and equipment. For instance, Portugal has over 1,000 miles of the aforementioned Atlantic coastline to explore, and, through this program, the Cockrell School’s world-renowned Center for Space Research will gain access to the Portuguese-owned satellite launch port located in the Azores Archipelago.

Even after a decade in partnership, Texas Engineers and their Portuguese counterparts continue to develop dynamic research agendas that not only feed intellectual curiosities but also align with the Portuguese government’s goals for long-term economic growth in key scientific and technological areas. The UT Austin Portugal Program is a true example of successful international STEM collaboration, and with the renewed partnership agreement and additional financial injection, its success seems likely to continue for a long time to come.