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Innovation

Innovation, tech transfer can help South Africa to address triple challenges

The news in South Africa, and in many other countries, is currently filled with stories of power battles, conflict and corruption — when we should rather be debating the triple challenge of alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and creating jobs.

The future of South Africa, and much of the developing world, depends on the extent to which political and economic leaders are able to find ways of solving these three critical challenges.

At the heart of any solution is finding ways to encourage economic growth. The growth rate of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) has, over recent years, hovered stubbornly around one percent. This is far lower than the five to six percent we should be achieving. How can we do better?

Economists point to the importance of productivity and competitiveness. In terms of these measures, the South African economy does not have a good record, ranking 52nd out of 63 countries in the World Competitiveness Yearbook for 2017.

‘Innovation is the silver bullet to improve competitiveness, productivity, growth’

Innovation is the ‘secret sauce’ or ‘silver bullet’ to improve competitiveness, productivity and growth. Higher levels of innovation will lead to more jobs, less poverty and reduced inequality.

To drive innovation the national Department of Science and Technology (DST) supports a “national system of innovation”. This system consists of publicly-funded universities, research councils and a range of other institutions and facilities.

The South African government spent 0.77% of GDP on research and development in 2014/15, and has a stated aim of doubling this to 1,5% in the near future.

The very important question, however, is “How do we achieve technology transfer?”. In other words, how does the innovative and valuable world-class intellectual property (IP) produced in our universities, and other  institutions, get turned into products and services that benefit South Africa?

Taxpayers, after all, have the right to expect a significant return on the investment made by the government in our national system of innovation.

Experience around the world has shown that technology transfer is a difficult and high-risk undertaking. The most commonly used strategy is for universities to set up a technology transfer office (TTO) and use this as a central service to protect IP via patents. The TTO then works to negotiable deals with anyone wishing to licence the use of this IP.

Innovation-Corps

In the US for example of the 155 research-active universities with TTOs, only 16 generated sufficient  income from licencing the university’s IP to even cover the cost of running the TTO.

In response to this, the American National Science Foundation has implemented  a novel strategy to improve the effectiveness of technology transfer at universities by setting up units called “Innovation-Corps”, or I-Corps Nodes.

These are designed to support and encourage university-based scientists and  engineers to set up their own startups. The Lean Launchpad methodology and the business-model canvas are used.

Since 2012, over 4,500 startups have been launched at US universities, many of which have received support via the I-Corps Nodes.

Lean startup

Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct has set up a programme, working closely with the Wits technology transfer office, that operates in a similar way to the I-Corp Nodes.

Wits researchers will be trained in the use of the Lean Startup method and will be supported in setting up startup  companies that will take research IP to market. An incubation and acceleration programme will be run within the Tshimologong Precinct to support these startups.

A Wits University innovation fund is also being established to provide seed funding for some of the startups.

Although a great deal of work remains to be done in operationalising this model at Wits, early indications are that the strategy has a good chance of reproducing some of the success achieved by the I-Corps Nodes in the US.

This would in turn demonstrate a way in which tangible benefits can be derived from research thus improving the economic impact of innovative research.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky is director of Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and founder of Tshimologong Innovation Hub. 

  • I agree with what you say, though in the current climate of extractively mining the economy it is hard to see how government could play its role in a meaningful way. In 2002, I was involved in putting together a team to create an area for technology innovation in Cape Town. There was a vacant piece of land directly bordering two universities. We had investors, we hand tech companies willing to relocate and become anchor tenants, we had incubator experience with the bandwidth barn. But the land belonged to the provincial housing board, and their vision was not one of homes in areas with employment and recreation (which is what we would have provided), it was one of a flat piece of land covered in drug and crime-breeding house-boxes. The whole initiative fell flat because there was nobody who could solve the land issue. And as far as I know, the land is still unoccupied. And the innovation initiative died.

    As you know there is this triple helix model, but to make it work in the SA context, you also need something like the Innovation-Corps within government. Their role would be to ensure that there is cross-level (city, province, national) and cross department capacity to move barriers. We do not have a strong history of cooperation within government in SA. The government innovation corps would have to be in the Presidency of a president who cared about the country, which hopefully one day we will have.