As scientists in South Africa and across the greater continent continue to push the boundaries through knowledge and research, there is a growing need for seamless interface between academic researchers and industry players for maximum results. DR SORAYA P. MALINGA gives valuable insights into the issue.
Currently, many nano materials are under active research in academic institutions and in science centres in South Africa. These novel materials (a single unit of which is about one billionth of a metre) have been found to have a great potential in many areas, for example, the treatment of surface water, groundwater and wastewater contaminated by organic, inorganic matrices and microorganisms.
In 2017, Xolani Makhoba and Anastassios Pouris, both of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, published an article on their bibliometric analysis of the development of nano science research in South Africa. This showed a radical increase in the number of nanotechnology-related articles published by South African institutions; between 2005 and 2015 there was an annual average growth rate of 22%. The South African government also continues to support and invest in nanotechnology, funding research at universities and establishing nanotechnology innovation centres at Mintek and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
However, while nanotechnology research is growing rapidly, there are still a number of gaps in the understanding of interactions and relationships between academic researchers and industry partners involved in the process of commercialisation. Commercialisation involves a combination of activities, from laboratory investigations to scaling up technology, which involves people other than university researchers. Industry, government, corporate managers and consumers have to participate in the process so that commercialisation becomes a success.
One problem is that, in many instances, it is not clear what the role of academic researchers in these interactions is, making it hard to bridge the gap between fundamental research and commercialisation. Another challenge faced by academics is that the cost of commercialising a product is usually greater than the cost of invention, so researchers often lose interest in pursuing commercialisation in its initial stages. Moreover, academic research mostly involves fundamental research and the development of new technologies. Industry partners, on the other hand, strive towards specific deliverables or products. These differences can strain relations between researchers and the industry partners involved in the commercialisation process.
Norain Ismail, Jailani Mohd Nor and Safiah Sidek, of the Technical University of Malaysia Melacca, took Malaysian academic researchers as a case study for a 2015 article on commercialising research products.