Bringing knowledge exchange solutions to the market

Published On: 24 February 2022|

Universities and higher learning institutions need the correct strategies, policies and networks in place in order to promote a successful culture of knowledge exchange.

This was the message from Dr Alexandra Bush (left), Managing Consultant at Oxentia Ltd, who led the discussion on Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) at the Train-the-Trainer workshop last week.  The event was the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme’s first dedicated attempt at equipping academics and other professionals with strategies to translate research into innovation and commercialisation of products and services. This was all to bridge the gap between research, innovation and commercialisation that has, for years, been a matter of concern to South Africa’s higher education institutions. Dr Bush was one of the six consultants from Oxentia Ltd, who facilitated the British Council-funded workshop.

Dr. Bush defined knowledge exchange as a process which brings together academic staff, users of research and wider groups and communities to exchange ideas, evidence and expertise and commercialisation is the process of introducing a new product or production method into commerce—making it available on the market.

She started off by demonstrating the inter linkages and interdependencies that are found within an innovation ecosystem including research institutions, business and government.

“We have to think about how we connect, how we do the facilitation, the advocacy and sharing of knowledge and all the other elements of the roles we play. We want knowledge exchange and commercialisation to promote our institutions and generate impact, which may be through employability of students through to making money from applied research outputs. Making money is also about getting research grants to actually do our research. It also helps us to demonstrate the impact that our research is having on society, influences change and ultimately helps create jobs.”

She presented the process for commercialisation in a linear model to show the stages but explained that the process was never as simple as that presented.

“We have to identify our innovations which in itself is a complex task; we need to protect them in whatever form that is, if it’s copyright or if it’s a patent; translate it and take it to the market, to license, spin-out or start-up and then the university needs the infrastructure to be able to manage the outputs from those deals that we do.”

She next identified various challenges that may be faced along the way including unlocking the intellectual property (IP) and then protecting it, ascertaining whether there is a market for the product, understanding the supply chain, securing licence deals, putting a value to the technology, delivering validated technologies, marketing and post deal management.

“It’s important that our tech transfer offices (TTOs) and researchers really engage at the outset of a project. The key is to build trust and relationships. Communication and relationship building create a strong culture of entrepreneurship and commercialisation. As part of the journey, we need to be able to secure funding. We need to be able to engage with industry and speak the language that they understand. We need to understand what the market need is for what we’re developing.

“This is not an easy journey; research isn’t easy. We have lots of failures in research and have to try many different ways of doing research before we get to the answer that we want. When we fail we have to go back to the drawing board and start again. Failure is a key part within the innovation process as well. Nobody is saying that it’s an easy ride. But we want to dispel the myth that there isn’t support.”

She presented some of the key KEC challenges highlighted by South African focus groups:

  • A lack of awareness of what commercialisation is and how to go about achieving it.
  • A disconnect between what industry wants and what the researchers study.
  • Policies at universities and other higher learning institutions are not always aligned and frameworks and processes are not in place to support commercialisation.
  • There is a tendency to conflate entrepreneurship and technopreneurship. The requirements for high tech commercialisation are not always understood.
  • Communicating the importance of creating impact from a patent is a starting point opportunity, not an end point.
  • Breadth of impact and the benefits for the researcher are not always recognised.
  • Commercialisation should be brought into the research methodology curriculum and encouraged in faculties such as social sciences, education and law and not only in the sciences and IT.
  • Creation of new products and services is not part of a research methodology approach in various disciplines. Outcomes need to include both being published and the possibility of commercialisation.
  • The structure of research projects is not geared towards impact outcomes from the outset.
  • Students need to learn about business methodology in order to apply it to their research at a later stage.

Dr Bush presented a guiding framework for entrepreneurial universities emphasising that the entrepreneurial university also focuses on leadership and governance.

To support leaders in the innovation ecosystem Dr Bush described the Nesta Global Innovation Policy Accelerator of which South Africa was one of the many participating countries, which provided a forum to meet international peers to share experiences in policy making to support innovation and also to learn good practice.

She posed the question: “Do our universities talk about research publications and having impact as well as industrial or community engagement? How are our university strategies set out? What are the clear pillars that they want to see developed over the coming years?”

Dr Bush gave an example of the University of Oxford’s StEP Ignite, a student entrepreneurship programme that brings teams of entrepreneurial students together to develop innovative business ideas based upon the university’s research. At the end of the programme, teams pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges who select a winning team who receives a cash prize of £25,000 (around R500 000) to support the creation of a new company, part of the founding equity and a roadmap to pitch for further investment. Other teams who wish to continue with their business ideas can join the Oxford University Innovation incubator programme.

Dr Bush says the way researchers undertake their work and are being rewarded is changing.

“In some institutions innovators and researchers have the opportunity to be rewarded through promotion because they’re engaging with industry and delivering consultancy. Cross-disciplinary learning is also happening. For example, bringing science and MBA students together and assigning them mentors and entrepreneurship champions. We need to promote the culture of knowledge exchange and embed this in our institutions. For this to happen, it is critical to have in place the leadership, the strategies, the policies and the right network.”

Dr Bush has a background in knowledge exchange and commercialisation (KEC), strategy development and programme management and heads up Oxentia’s engagement with Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) and Public Sector Research Organisations (PSREs).  She has led workshops for universities and government departments both in the United Kingdom and internationally to support new initiatives leading to more targeted commercialisation of intellectual property (IP).  This has included IP policy reviews and reviews of other related policies linked to technology transfer (TT) and assessing organisational frameworks and structures to provide recommended best practice approaches to deliver KEC.

This consultant has worked with universities in the Middle East, Far East, Latin America, Europe and the UK, delivering ATTP accredited and bespoke training to Higher Education Institutes and Public Sector Research Organisations.  She has supported spinout companies in developing business plans and pitches to secure investment. She has also worked with corporates in understanding their technology scouting needs and identifying opportunities for acquisition.

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