Coming up with an innovative idea and foster it to a point where it is successfully commercialised appears to be one of the knowledge gaps among the academics. This inability of academic research to reach the market as products and services is known as the ‘innovation chasm’.
This became the area of focus and a key theme during a recent three day discussion panel held late last year on ‘Lessons in Innovation from South Africa’. The online conference was part of the International Society for Professional Innovation Management (ISPIM) Connects Global 2020.
ISPIM is a community of members from research, industry, consulting, and the public sector who focus on innovation management. For instance, they share perspectives on how one can successfully create new products, processes, and services from ideas to stimulate economic growth.
The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) represented South Africa and the panel was moderated by executive director, Jansie Niehaus.
Academics from various institutions presented their respective technology stations and other technology-driven project offerings. The department of science and innovation (DSI) has established the South African Technology Station Programme (TSP) to serve as a vehicle to enable the institutions to provide technology development services to small, micro, and medium enterprises (SMMEs).
The aim is to use innovative science, engineering, and technology solutions for complex engineering challenges. The TSP is in turn implemented through another entity called the Technology Innovation Agency.
Nickey Janse van Rensburg was among the academics who shared her university’s technology station. Janse van Rensburg is the manager of process, energy, and environmental technology station (UJ-PEETS) at the University of Johannesburg UJ). This technology station was awarded the NSTF-Lewis Foundation Green Economy Award at the 2019 NSTF-South32 Awards.
The award highlighted their work in supporting more than 1 000 SMMEs in the green economy. The project offers subsidised engineering services and as well as providing assistance ranging from research and development to the demonstration of prototypes to industry.
Janse van Rensburg explained that triple helix collaborations are at the centre of what UJ-PEETS and other technology stations do, making higher education institutions more accessible. The triple helix partnership is an innovation model describing interactions between academia, industry and government for economic and social development.
A key challenge, she said, has always been how to ‘embed’ ‘useful innovation’ within universities’ priorities, so that they are able to respond to societal needs. Janse van Rensburg noted that universities define their key performance indicators (KPIs) on training students, the number of publications, and the impact number of those publications.
She said institutions of higher learning need to include social development innovation, goals, and metrics in addition to traditional output, citing the Times Higher Education ‘Impact Rankings’ as an example. This ranking assesses universities against the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs). It’s about shifting from research output and the value of publications to a more holistic outlook that includes impact on society, she observed.
A further benefit, according to her, is that students and academics can rally around ‘real problems’. She noted that academia and research tend to be abstract, instead of pursuing applied research projects which must function effectively in society. She also reckons that students learn better and come up with more creative solutions when they can relate to or apply what they learn in class to real life situations.
Executive dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Unisa, Professor Lindiwe Zungu, spoke on challenges to innovation within South Africa with a focus on institutions of higher learning. She also emphasised the need to nurture partnerships between industry, government, and civil society to ensure that research addresses real challenges. Professor Zungu added that she noted a general lack of understanding about the pathways to innovation across the system.
Zungu is an accomplished academic; a multiple award-winning research professor and alumna of Harvard Medical School, as well as a Professor of Occupational Health and Safety. She was awarded the TW Kambule-NSTF Researcher Award at the NSTF-South32 Awards in 2019. This was in recognition of work done to cater to the health and safety needs of miners, with specific focus on women. The work included developing guidelines to assist the South African mining industry.
Following her ground-breaking research, the mining industry implemented new protective gear designed specifically for women working underground. She has also addressed other relevant health and safety issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another academic to share his pearls of wisdom was professor Richard Walls, who is an associate professor and is also a founder and head of the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University. Called FireSUN, the research group develops fire safety engineering education while pursuing methods to improve informal settlement fire safety and structural fire design. Their area of focus also covers investigations as well as analysis of structures and materials in fire, forensic fire investigations, and more. He was awarded the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher at the 2020 NSTF-South32 Awards.
Professor Walls noted that informal settlements receive a great deal of political attention and that millions of rands can be spent on solutions. However, Walls said that historically there has been a lack of evidence around which interventions work or don’t work, and why. Without this information, money can be misspent.
He said no single intervention is going to solve a problem like a dense housing with lots of combustible materials and energy sources like candles and paraffin stoves. With an evidence-based response, added professor Walls, we can gradually move to reduced impact. While the ultimate solution is producing better homes, informal settlements aren’t going away.
Next in line was Dr Vhahangwele Masindi, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)’s principal research scientist and a research fellow in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Unisa. He is also a recipient of the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher at the 2020 NSTF-South32 Awards.
Dr. Masindi has made significant contributions around environmental monitoring and wastewater treatment. He said he has seen a dramatic drop in the quality of surface water resources. At the same time, he reckoned, the treatability index of surface water has increased drastically demanding high chemical loading to bring it to the required international standard.
Dr. Masindi has also patented, piloted, and published on numerous wastewater treatment technologies. He has developed technologies for the removal of toxic and hazardous chemicals from acid mine water, municipal effluents, and contaminated ground water. These ‘waste’ chemicals are then converted into valuable resources with the aim of generating revenue to offset the running costs of the technology.
He noted that the CSIR creates a path to innovation for researchers, allowing research from the lab to go to pilot scale. He said there are also opportunities to work with industry, the up-takers of technology. Industrial partners also have input when developing technologies, ensuring it fits into a real-world context, reckoned Dr. Masindi.
Dr Antonel Olckers also made a valuable contribution about her company. She is the chief executive officer and founder of DNAbiotec, a knowledge-based biotech company formed in 2001 which boasts clients from 44 countries. Part of the company’s services is to translate clients’ IP into products and services thus helping clients take research results or data to market or what is commonly called productisation.
Instead of viewing the traditional ‘steps’ to market as a pipeline – concept, research, development, productisation, manufacturing, and commercialisation – DNAbiotec approaches the innovation value chain as a network. Here all the nodes are interconnected, resulting in a complex system with multiple actions connected to every node. On top of this, she noted, are factors that impact on the network such as legal and the policy frameworks and ethics.
Olckers moved from academia to entrepreneurship. She said that she never expected the learning curve for a scientist entering the private sector to be quite so steep. This is a particular challenge in South Africa’s ‘National System of Innovation’ – people are entering into entrepreneurship and business well educated but not market ready.
The University of Cape Town (UCT) was represented by Dr Andrew Bailey who is the senior manager: innovation in the research contracts and innovation department at the institution. Dr. Bailey is charged with a number of responsibilities including the protection of IP, implementation of the institutional IP policy, raising awareness of IP, as well as commercialisation of IP and technology transfer. He is also president-elect for South African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA).
Dr. Bailey said SARIMA is for people who are guiding research to maximise innovation along the value chain. The association covers the SADC region, working on capacity development, engaging with various governments on IP policy development, and raising awareness among researchers about IP development. SARIMA is also a platform for promoting best practices, he said.
Bailey sees the association playing an important role, particularly around promoting up-skilling and becoming internationally recognised as a registered technology transfer or research management professional entity.