Commercialising research requires universities to think differently

Published On: 16 March 2022|

“It will not be long before institutions are chosen by students because of the innovative and entrepreneurial environments and cultures that they create,” Dr Norah Clarke, Director at Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE), told universities’ executive leadership at the opening of their two-day workshop that started in Cape Town yesterday.

Locating the workshop in the national context of entrepreneurship development, Dr Clarke (above) was quoting words spoken by Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), at a previous EDHE event.  She explained that these words provided a context for what EDHE was trying to achieve in supporting universities to become entrepreneurial, before continuing the Bawa quote: “This will mean understanding the relationship between the core teaching, learning and research activities of universities and the creation of these ecosystems. Only then will these become truly transformative interventions rather than a tack-on to the edge of institutions….”

Outlining the important role that deputy vice chancellors, executive directors and directors play in developing entrepreneurial universities, she said: “You are custodians in terms of resources and the enablers of change in your institutions.” She also welcomed deans, executive deans and directors of technology transfer offices in attendance.

This 4th iteration of the annual Executive Leadership Workshop is themed Commercialisation of Research.

Clarke said South Africa’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem is a rapidly changing environment. “Five or six years ago, pockets of good practice were the exception, not the rule. Today, much potential for economic growth exists within universities – and specifically through the university commercialisation of research activities. It’s our specific focus at EDHE this year.”

So, strengthening the pipeline was key, she said – from undergraduate level through teaching, learning, research, commercialisation and getting to market. “It’s all about equipping students to participate through entrepreneurial activity in the marketplace while helping institutions become more entrepreneurial as entities.  “EDHE’s goal is to support universities as innovative ecosystems, and that includes through relevant policy development.”

Clarke acknowledged the British Council for being a strong support partner, sponsoring not just this workshop but a whole range of projects in support of developing entrepreneurial institutions. She outlined especially research work that EDHE had completed with British Council support.

National University Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline Study 2019

“We began a baseline study in 2019 on the university entrepreneurship ecosystem. (Find full report on It was the first attempt at understanding what was happening at universities and produced insightful results.”

In 2021 this work was followed up by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) study that EDHE, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Department of Science and Innovation were invited to participate in. UNECA, which supports entrepreneurial universities in Africa, started with a pilot of five African countries – SA was one – to understand good practice.  In South Africa, the first part of the study was conducted at University of Stellenbosch, Nelson Mandela University (NMU) and Durban University of Technology (DUT).  This year the study will be rolled out to the 23 other HEIs.

Said Clarke: “There were important findings that will direct the work we do currently and going forward. This resulted last week in the launch of an alliance of Entrepreneurial Universities in Africa and we, as founding members of this alliance, have been nominated to play a leading role.  We are working with the explicit intention of creating opportunities for South African universities while connecting to the larger regional ecosystem.

Study findings

Recommendations from the studies include:

  1. Development of a national policy for entrepreneurial universities.
  2. Finding ways to incentivise staff support for entrepreneurship at universities. (Since it is not in their KPAs staff are often unwilling to get involved.)
  3. The need for sustainable funding.
  4. The establishment of a centralised research repository for knowledge and information.
  5. The internal mapping of capacity and skills needed for entrepreneurial universities and their ecosystems.
  6. An audit of external ecosystems and partners. Clarke: “We need to start prioritising engagement with industry and building partnerships.
  7. M&E (Management and Evaluation).

These reports highlighted EDHE’s relevance as having “a critical advocacy, coordinating, leading, knowledge-management and capacity building role to play – serving universities.” Clarke said findings from a recent study into the Commercialisation of Research would soon be shared.

She also listed a few challenges raised in the report as:

  • Inadequate internal and external sources of funding, particularly early seed funding.
  • Incentives for academic researchers at the early development stage of innovation.
  • More industry / university engagement – with equal value partnerships.
  • Culture: changing minds and awareness raising; the critical need for engaged leadership.
  • The need for internal and national policy frameworks.
  • Pipeline building and generating momentum.
  • Partnerships with industry. Greater awareness of the benefits of mutual engagement.

What should be done?

  • Good practice sharing between universities. “EDHE is here to help.”
  • Encourage company engagement.
  • Embrace commercialisation of social sciences and humanities.

Clarke stressed that universities should aim to have a dedicated, well-resourced team with strategic oversight for entrepreneurship development. “There needs to be an allocation of funds, job descriptions, titles, objectives that align with the university position on entrepreneurship,” she said.

She said a new initiative launched in 2021 and being rolled out to interested universities is the EDHE supported dedicated Economic Activation Office. Ten universities are already set up, with six more to be invited in July. “This initiative has been officially supported by Standard Bank who have committed R1,5-m.

DHET pledges support

Chief Director: University Capacity Development Programme at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Ms Mandisa Cakwe, pledged her department’s support. She explained DHET’s mandate was based on government’s Outcome 5: a skilled and capable workforce for or to support an inclusive growth path. This had led to the development of a White Paper for Post School Education and Training (PSET) and resulted in the birth of a national plan that provides an outline for growing an effective and integrated system.

Cakwe (above) talked about the high drop-out rates and the weak links between universities and the workplace saying: “There is insufficient employer involvement in training”.  Involving the workplace, in curriculum development or teaching, it is important. “If we want students to be active in commercialisation, we must know them; PSET sees its role as driving research.

“In 2017, high numbers of students were enrolled in higher education; followed by Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and lastly by Community education colleges.

“We want to invert the pyramid with more TVET enrolments and fewer university numbers because this where commercialisation is important. That is where the training of skills takes place.” She said universities could concentrate on research. By 2030, she said, “PSET aims to be a socially just, responsive, well-coordinated system providing access to a diversity of quality education and training opportunities where students can achieve success with vastly improved links between education and the world of work.”

Goals in this plan included:

  • An integrated, coordinated PSET system to achieve efficiencies.
  • Clear roles and responsibilities of stakeholders.
  • Improved capability for integration and coordination in the PSET system and increased articulation between and within institutions. (Durban University of Technology is currently experimenting with this. Cakwe: “If TVET college students are articulated to universities, research can happen more easily.”
  • A diverse range of programmes responsive to the world of work.
  • The need for a large and diverse range of mechanisms to improve research, innovation, commercialisation and entrepreneurship within the PSET system.
  • The improved interface between education and training institutions and the world of work. She called a new programme, A New Generation of Academics where PhD students have one university and one industry supervisor a good start.

Another way of thinking

Professor Eugene Cloete (below), Chairperson of EDHE CoP for Entrepreneurial Universities and Vice Rector: Research innovation and Post Graduate studies at Stellenbosch University, raised the question of how to mine commercial ideas that students – and staff – might have.

His hypothesis: “If we have 1,2m students and 10% have a good idea, that is 120 000 ideas. 10% of those, 12 000, are really good ideas and 10% of those ideas should be commercialised.  “How do we get students to share these ideas? You create an entrepreneurial spirit at universities and incentivise students and staff to come forward.”

Cloete applauded Cakwe and DHET’s plan to enrol more TVET students. Saying he was working on a plan, he said: “At least 50% of students drop out without completing their degrees. The cost to the economy, of 600 000 students not finishing their degrees is huge. My plan is that there be no more drop outs, but rather different exit points acknowledged by certification or giving students diplomas.

“For example, if you do chemistry but fail mathematics or physics; it will take you five to six years to complete degree.  Why not give those students a diploma and acknowledge through a number of minimum credits what they have learnt so they can go into the workplace? Someone with a second-year chemistry diploma will be a better laboratory technician that someone without. But we have students who think of themselves as dropouts and unemployable.”

Cloete said acknowledging prior learning was not rewarding failure, but rewarding learning. “This can be true for every field of study.”  He said he was working out a credit system adding that entrepreneurship needed to be included in the curriculum. “It gives a different skill for young people to go out into the world and make a difference, irrespective of whether you are qualified or not,” he said, adding that entrepreneurship was the only way to eradicate poverty.

Cloete concluded: “The university must drive the economy, the creation of jobs. We must take on that responsibility and help the ecosystem grow.”

The purpose of the Executive Leadership Workshop is to increase the number of institutions positioned as entrepreneurial universities and provide an opportunity for Deputy Vice-Chancellors in particular, as well as Executives and Leaders in Entrepreneurship development, to engage on entrepreneurship at universities, specifically as it relates to university strategy and policy, with the intention of informing the development of a national university entrepreneurship policy.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.