It is about time, says Professor Ahmed Bawa

Published On: 17 February 2022|

The two-day Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship workshop that ended yesterday carried high value for South Africa’s universities — given the huge chasm between research, innovation and commercialisation that has, for years, been of great concern to our higher education institutions. This intervention was therefore long overdue, Professor Ahmed Bawa (below), Chief Executive Officer at Universities South Africa, said this week.

Officially opening the training-of-trainers workshop that was the main feature of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme’s Kick-off Event for 2022 on Wednesday, Professor Bawa said he was particularly happy that experts from Oxentia Ltd, with a massive reputation in innovation and commercialisation, were facilitating this intervention. Oxentia Ltd is Oxford University’s Global Innovation Consultancy arm.

He said even though South Africa’s research output had grown exponentially in the past decade or so (and had levelled off in the recent past), the high research output from universities and science councils, combined, did not match the extent of innovation and taking new products to market. This was despite having supportive policy instruments in place, and notwithstanding the funding that was being pumped into the system to steer innovation.

“We must think much harder about what better conditions will give rise to better progression from research to innovation and commercialisation,” the USAf CEO said.  “There is a clear link between research, knowledge production, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation and commercialisation – which requires our institutions to instill entrepreneurial thinking more rigorously in the system.

“Our big challenge is to understand how our graduates and post-graduates inculcate the ability and capacity to adopt entrepreneurial thinking. They must transcend from seeing only the transactional value of knowledge and recognize its use value. As universities, we must ensure that our students apply that entrepreneurial thinking throughout their study tenure – in the same manner that we inculcate critical thinking and all other competencies.”

Professor Bawa said this challenge facing universities, further underlined the critical role that the Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities was playing in the system. “It talks to the heart of the EDHE goal – where every faculty and every department embraces entrepreneurial thinking in teaching and research. Of course, that does not come naturally, hence the need to occasionally train the trainers, as we’re doing today.”

He recognised the presence of some Deputy Vice-Chancellors at the event as a sign that universities’ senior leadership was taking this issue seriously.

He also extended a vote of gratitude to the British Council, who had directly supported the Baseline Study on Commercialisation of Research in South African Universities, that was carried out between December 2021 and January 2022.  Findings of that study had, in part, informed the agenda of this Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship workshop, also sponsored by the British Council. Back in 2019, the British Council funded EDHE’s Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Baseline Research Study, findings of which are now forming the basis of a national entrepreneurship policy for South Africa’s higher education. This policy is being developed.

“This demonstrates solid commitment of the British Council to Universities South Africa’s and Government’s objective of developing entrepreneurial universities.

“This is an excellent Kick-off Event,” Professor Bawa declared. “We look forward to seeing what will flow from this initiative.”

Introducing Oxentia Ltd, the training facilitators

Providing some background on Oxentia Ltd, Dr Alexandra Bush (left), Managing Consultant who heads up Oxentia’s engagement with Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) and Public Sector Research Organisations, said this company was founded in 1988 as the technology transfer office of the University of Oxford. Initially named Isis Innovation Ltd (after the river, Isis, that flows through the city of Oxford), the name changed to Isis Enterprise in 2004, to address the University’s growing interest in technology transfer best practice. From 2009, activities of Isis Enterprise expanded internationally as it attracted clients in Latin America, Spain, Asia and, lately, also South Africa.

Dr Bush said in 2015, Isis Enterprise’s international achievements were recognised when it was bestowed the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. The company would, in 2017, undergo a re-branding that saw its name change to Oxentia –Oxford’s Global Innovation Consultancy.  In the same year, Oxentia span out of the University of Oxford to become Oxentia Ltd.

The company offers strategic support for innovation strategy development and related services, such as Intellectual property licensing and portfolio management. Their training and mentoring offerings include accredited courses for innovation professionals, and masterclasses for academics, professionals and corporate teams.

She went on to introduce Dr Jacqueline Barnett (right), South Africa-born Head of Consulting Services at Oxford University Innovation, through whom Oxentia’s link to USAf had come about.  She has over 15 years’ experience in research commercialisation and technology transfer.

Until August 2017, Dr Barnett was Head of Research Commercialisation and Investment at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and, prior to that, was Director of the Innovation Office at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa for over ten years. She has an undergraduate and master’s degree (by research) in Chemical Engineering from the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa, and an MBA (cum laude) from the University of Pretoria. After starting her career in industry, she moved to a contract research organisation and, in 2005, entered the higher education sector as Chief Operations Officer at Wits Enterprise, the commercialisation company of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Dr Barnett is a Registered Technology Transfer Professional and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, exploring metrics for impact of spinout companies.

Oxentia’s contribution to EDHE

In line with British Council’s Research Capacity Strengthening (RCS) Framework in South Africa, and through BC’s Innovation and Commercialisation support programme, Oxentia Ltd has been commissioned to support EDHE in creating the National Policy Framework on Entrepreneurship Development in South African Higher Education. Oxentia Ltd is also providing USAf and the British Council with insights and evidence for future collaborations in cross-cutting themes of research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and commercialisation in line with the RCS Framework.

The Baseline Study on Commercialisation of Research in South African Universities was  looking to identify and understand the barriers and enablers of the universities’ innovation ecosystems to unlock support to address and find solutions to increase impact through innovation.

Using some of the findings from the Baseline Study on Commercialisation of Research, Oxentia consultants were, over the past two days, sharing tools and good practices to generate impact from research, through innovation. They were also sharing with South Africa’s academic and relevant support professionals, strategies and best practices to bridge the gap between research, innovation and entrepreneurship. All in all, Oxentia Ltd had deployed six consultants to this training event.

Close to 200 participants attended the two-day workshop, representing 25 out of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Held in a hybrid format, the workshop took the form of seminars, case studies and interactive discussions.  Half of the attendees were linked in virtually to the event.

EDHE is a programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) being implemented and administered under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). It is funded through the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme.

‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.