African universities increasingly working with ‘role players’ out of necessity [Q&A]

Out of necessity, African academic institutions are increasingly more involved in collaboration efforts with other ecosystem role players, says Nelson Mandela University (NMU) Innovation Office acting director Leoné Nowell.

Nowell (pictured above), believes universities should be urged to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with established tech incubators and clusters.

This she says will help universities to develop a “more comprehensive pipeline while tackling specific issues, like regional upskilling, in a coordinated manner”.

She explains that the her office manages the university’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) seed fund portfolio. In addition, the university is a shareholder in the Propella Business Incubator, an ICT and advanced manufacturing hub.

Read more: Here’s what you need to know before you apply to Propella’s incubator programme

“Geographical proximity to Propella offers a mutually beneficial working relationship with the university and a structure that enhances the opportunities for local and regional tech innovation,” she says.

‘Instant access license templates, would enable easier engagement between institutions and likely build trust with other ecosystem stakeholders’

In the following Q&A — part of a series Ventureburn will conduct with leading academics and organisations working on the continent, or overseas in facilitating tech innovation in Africa — Nowell shares some insights and thoughts on acadamia’s role in Africa’s tech startup ecosystem.

How does NMU’s tech transfer programme work, and how has it been perfoming?

NMU’s Innovation Office assists researchers with innovation support, grant and contract management; proposal and business plan development; prototype as well as proof of concept funding; and technology transfer, which includes IP management (from identification to protection).

In addition, the office handles commercialisation efforts, via the institution’s wholly-owned commercialisation company Innovolve. Our annual newsletter contains further information and recent highlights.

The office was established in 2007 and key performance indicators to date include 172 invention disclosures, the establishment of six spin-off companies, 19 South African and 17 national phase (ex-SA) patents granted, 12 design registrations as well as 11 trade mark applications that have been filed.

What can be done to improve how tech transfer offices (TTO) commercialise research and innovation ?

Funding streams need to be better aligned to ensure a more seamless handover process between funders and financial support should be made available throughout the technology development stages and innovation value chain.

Universities should review their incentives and promotion criteria to explicitly incorporate innovation outputs where applicable, reflective of the growing importance of innovation and in line with the Department of  Higher Education and Training (DHET) 2017 policy revision, which seeks to incentivise innovation outputs.

Early industry involvement, that is at conceptualisation stage, should be a requirement for applied research and development (R&D) projects and public research organisations should strive for a balanced approach in favour of more directed R&D in line with the country’s development objectives.

Universities and science councils should have a longer-term view and commit to providing sustained resources for technology transfer to become successful.

Existing platforms, such as the Innovation Bridge should be supported and strengthened. Standardised, shared best practices across institutions, like instant access license templates, would enable easier engagement between institutions and likely build trust with other ecosystem stakeholders.

From a policy perspective, how could government improve collaboration between universities and the tech startup ecosystem?

In order to stimulate R&D and innovation across the continent, the African Innovation Policy Manifesto (AIPM) recommends that governments invest in R&D; amplify indigenous R&D; co-create education systems and curriculum redesign with a broad coalition of partners; and emphasise elearning tools and practical learning.

Read more: 90 innovation hubs endorse the African Innovation Policy Manifesto

Closer, improved working relationships with governments should encourage more support for tech research and related entrepreneurial initiatives like hackathons. Intelligent policy adjustment decisions should be lobbied for, so as to integrate provincial and national systems and align appropriate funding streams and other resources.

Reducing the current gaps experienced in this area of the innovation pipeline would undoubtedly assist in tech startup scaling and ecosystem enhancement.

Read more: UCT tech transfer unit has developed 21 startups, 125 active technologies [Q&A]
Read more: 
Tertiary education one of founding blocks of entrepreneurship – MEST head [Q&A]
Read more: African universities not connected to ecosystem as they should be [Q&A]

Daniel Mpala


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