Demand-led applied research is likely to lead to commercialised innovation in South Africa

Published On: 2 November 2021|

Addressing Research Impact from an innovation perspective, Dr McLean Sibanda (left), Managing Director of Bigen Global Limited started with the fundamentally weak status of South Africa (and Africa) in global research and development (R&D) investment which still loiters under 1%. It is this situation that is partially responsible for the slow access to vaccines, simply because we haven’t invested enough in research, he said. For this reason, we cannot build research capacity which keeps us underperforming.

He referred to Clayton Christenson’s The Prosperity Paradox and the concept of the Innovation paradox which is a process that transforms labour, capital, information, and material into products that have greater value. Dr Sibanda is, however, more interested in the different types of innovation: sustaining innovation, efficiency and market creating innovation. For us to fully industrialise and enjoy the full benefit of the Free African Trading area, it is important that we concentrate on market creating innovation.

Converting research results into innovations requires specialised skills, he said. For many factors, most research never reaches commercialisation or success as a new product. It may be due to:

  • A lack of human resources and skills;
  • the time or environment may be inappropriate; and
  • the infrastructure to do the conversion doesn’t exist. In Africa, for example, there is often a lack of funding to develop spin-off companies.

That said, there is an increase in commercialisation activities within South African universities. Licencing is the preferred route to commercialisation for our institutions. Between 2006 and 2015, universities increased their output from 21 to 60 licences.

Enabling environments

An important part of this growth of innovation requires the establishment of enabling environments within universities that will attract entrepreneurs and investors. While allowing researchers to do their work, it is often the entrepreneur who is not too closely involved in the research to see the opportunities — and often the investors — that can make research commercially viable and to bring it to market. That means, in effect, that the university needs to become an enabling pipeline from research to commercialisation. When the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Act was implemented, there was a suggestion that all universities should establish Technology Transfer Offices or whether regional offices would be enough. Gauteng and the Eastern Cape have regional hubs and should consider ways to use these hubs to foster collaborations and stimulate commercialisation. A network of hubs for entrepreneurs and academics to interact should be created across the country.

By way of conclusion, he touched on the key components:

  • Patenting is not the only way to convert research into impact.
  • If the engaged university is to work it needs to shift towards adding value to society.
  • Commercialisation is an important step to ensure that society gets the full benefit of research and achieves impact. However, research is a process and can take several years to reach impact.
  • Hubs (the conducive environment) and entrepreneurs are critical for impact.
  • There is a need to focus on demand-led innovations (applied research).
  • The university must use commercialisation for the benefit of society.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.