Academics discuss entrepreneurship challenges they encounter, and explore possible solutions

Published On: 24 February 2022|

At last week’s Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship workshop that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, academics exchanged thought-provoking perspectives on challenges they encounter in advancing academic entrepreneurship.  This was in a plenary discussion following the seminar on Challenges and Risks in Innovation.  The EDHE workshop was facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd, which is Oxford University’s Innovation consultancy.

Oxentia’s Managing ConsultantDr Alexandra Bush and Head of Consulting Services at Oxford University Innovation, Dr Jaci Barnett, facilitated this discussion, as they did numerous seminars during the two-day training event, which was attended both in person and online by academics and staff from South Africa’s public universities. The training-of-trainers workshop aimed to equip academics and other professionals with strategies to bridge the gap between research, innovation, and commercialisation.

Changing mindsets and stereotypes

Dr Lawrence Diko Makia (left), from the Department of Mining and Environmental Geology at the University of Venda, raised some of the challenges faced by historically disadvantaged institutions when it comes to navigating the academic entrepreneurship space.

“There is a stereotype about previously disadvantaged universities and institutions of higher learning, particularly in rural areas. There’s the misconception that it is better to approach previously advantaged institutions as they are ‘better.’ The misconception acts like an invisible fence preventing institutions, such as my own, living up to their full potential. We need to change this narrative. A significant shift is critical in this dispensation of innovations, technology and commercialisation and I believe I speak for most of the previously disadvantaged institutions.”

He continued: “The concept of entrepreneurship is still new in some institutions and is something some of us still struggle with. When you hear ‘entrepreneurship,’ you think money, money, money but there are different narratives. We have to understand it, grow fully into it and embrace it.”

A question was posed by Dr Bush as to whether there should be a national government policy that drives more collaboration between rural and urban institutions and those that were historically disadvantaged or advantaged? Or should it simply be something more informal with a number of universities getting together to collaborate?

Dr Makia believed that several funding bodies would actively encourage collaborations: “You would have a partner institution that is doing well reaching out to a previously disadvantaged institution to say, ‘This is what we are working on; what do you have available?’ We need to make use of all opportunities and encourage them. It is a good way of moving this agenda forward but it also needs to be sustained. Universities ultimately have to stand on their own two feet.”

Dr Barnett also addressed the rural/urban divide: “We need to use what’s in the rural ecosystem in closing the gaps. Can we start small businesses? It doesn’t have to be patented, high-tech things if that’s not appropriate for that situation. It’s about using your resources effectively. Clearly there are challenges but some can be overcome by networking and social capital.”

Dr Bush said that when she was pursuing her PhD studies in chemistry more than two decades ago, that was all that one studied; there was no talk of entrepreneurship or any available networks in this regard.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t just about studying for a commerce masters, a commerce bachelor’s degree or an MBA; entrepreneurship is about having an entrepreneurial culture. It should be about a community of entrepreneurs and those who want to belong which involves both students and researchers from all disciplines.”

Ms Lebogang Nthejane (right), Drawing Lecturer at Central University of Technology (CUT), Free State, agreed that changing the stereotype mentality is challenging: “At CUT we have innovative programmes in place but there is still a bias because we were previously a technikon before we became a university. We still need to change mindsets to move into the innovative world.

“People are also given opportunities but often it’s the same people who grab them and become involved. Others feel like it’s not for them as they don’t really understand what entrepreneurship is. I come from a design and arts department and feel that we should be leading the way and yet we are often isolated,” she said.

Ms Kabelo Chuene, Senior Lecturer at the University of Limpopo, agreed that there are many obstacles to overcome when it comes to academic entrepreneurship: “I don’t want to say that I’m in a historically disadvantaged university, I would like to label it differently. We are mainly a teaching university where change is happening and happening fast.

“We realise that we’ve got to do research, we’ve got to do community development and we’ve got to be entrepreneurs. It’s often overwhelming because it often falls on the same person. It is not yet a culture and it is a challenge changing from what you used to be (a teacher) to what you are supposed to now incorporate.” It is a change of mindset and can often be overwhelming, she said.

Interaction and communication is key

Dr Janine Chantson, Chief Director: Technology Transfer and Innovation Support at North-West University, spoke about a lack of communication between departments at institutions: “When new researchers join the university we’ve tried to get ourselves into the induction programmes but they are typically run very separately from us; it may be done by HR and you only find out about it afterwards.”

Dr Barnett was in full agreement: “Many institutions have various entrepreneurship programmes but they work in silos and students often don’t know about them or how to join the correct venture. So it is vital to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem. If researchers don’t understand the role of technology transfer offices (TTOs) then they often hang onto their research, fearful that it will be taken away from them.”

Mr David Kareli, Business Development Officer at Central University of Technology (CUT) spoke about an old gym at the university which was turned into “an ideas gym” where people now congregate, interact and discuss ideas: “We have actively developed an ecosystem to try and make sure that knowledge is shared amongst all the stakeholders at the university. We realise that we are sitting with professors who have decades of experience. We have included them as judges in some of our entrepreneurship competitions so that they share this wealth of knowledge. We try and ensure that we are not working in silos.”

Promotion pathways

It is imperative that others get to know what universities and departments are doing in the academic entrepreneurship space.

Ms Maraka Lefera, a Lecturer at Central University of Technology (CUT) was emphatic:  “Publish your milestones or whatever activities your teams might be involved in. We always make it known out there. Create awareness of what you have achieved and people will get to see that this is really working. If you don’t tell people, academic entrepreneurship is never going to be seen as important.”

Dr Barnett agreed: “Try getting it out there in the press because that’s how you build a profile. Your university’s Vice Chancellor is more likely to read in the press what you’re doing than reading a journal article or even your own website in some cases. Make it available for the public. Reputation is everything for our institutions; that’s how you attract funders and how you attract students.”

Said Ms Ntombi Mthembu, a lecturer at the Mangosuthu University of Technology: “My case is not so much about promotion as it is about recognition. At my institution, entrepreneurship is not yet institutional and is only located in one of our three faculties. But I publish information weekly in the university newsletter which is widely read by the broad university community. I also always report in our faculty board meetings about what activities have been taking place within this entrepreneurship space. Whatever we’re doing is solely for the benefit of the students at the end of the day. We are all aware of this country’s unemployment problems. We encourage our students to leave with a mindset of becoming employers — not only going out there to look for jobs which may not be available.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.