Listening, continuous learning and openness to new ideas are paying dividends for the Maths Whartels inventor

Published On: 18 February 2022|

At the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme Kick-off 2022 event of last week, Dr Janine Chantson (left), Chief Director: Technology Transfer Office at the North-West University, relayed the story of an academic who had successfully launched a product based on her research findings.

The said the scholar wanted her research to be commercialised and be impactful beyond academic publications.

EDHE’s Kick-off event took the form of a workshop on Innovation Systems and Academic Entrepreneurship, specifically seeking to equip South Africa’s academics and other professionals with strategies and best practices to bridge the gap between research, innovation, and commercialisation. Dr Chantson’s case study was complementing the opening seminar titled What is academic entrepreneurship and why do we do it by Dr Tim Hart, Development Director at Oxentia Ltd.  So, the story of Maths Whartels was apt and fitting.

“In South Africa, as in many other developing and developed countries, there is a serious concern about poor maths achievement at primary school level,” reads the problem statement of Petro Erasmus’s research, which, naturally, became the introductory line in Dr Chantson’s presentation. “This has a huge impact on senior and tertiary studies.”

Dr Petro Erasmus (right) is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the North-West University. She is also an Educational Psychologist and, more the recently, the inventor and founder of Maths Whartels, a range of products developed to restore learner confidence and to help them excel in maths. The products were designed to incorporate cognitive aspects of mathematics with the psychological aspects as well as the principles used in play therapy.  According to Dr Chantson, examples of cognitive maths aspects are concepts, metacognition, and information processing. The psychological facets entail executive functioning, study orientation in maths; maths anxiety, maths resilience and motivation, whereas examples of principles used in play therapy are art, bibliotherapy, board games and puppets. The principles include both linear (concepts) and theme (interest) methods.

The products (see below) consist of a storybook, puppets, board games and maths apparatus. These are all designed to make mathematics enjoyable through playful interactions. In addition, Dr Erasmus initiated the development of a mobile app encompassing various elements of this solution.

To achieve all of the above, Dr Erasmus had to involve other role players. This took herself, as the researcher, an industry partner named MindMuzik Media, and the North-West University’s Tech Transfer Office. Dr Chantson then unpacked this relationship to the audience on Day One of the workshop on 16 February.

According to her, the fundamental function of the Tech Transfer Office (TTO) is to identify, protect, manage, and commercialise intellectual property (IP) that arises from university research and development. She added that the TTO is also useful in accessing different funding sources.  In that context, the University’s TTO handles contracts on behalf of Dr Erasmus. They have also put in place non-disclosure agreements governing engagements on the development and commercialisation of Maths WHARTELS, to protect the researcher’s IP.

Furthermore, NWU’s TTO structured, drafted, negotiated, and managed the product’s licence agreement. They also took care of contracts governing research collaborations and assisted with marketing the product.

Appreciating the complexity of transforming an idea into a product, Dr Chantson flagged to the audience, the importance of getting the TTO involved as early as possible.

“We can give you a sense of whether the idea is worth pursuing, and also, connect you, through our networks, to industry partners, collaborators, or anyone who can help you with your idea or be interested in commercialising it in future. The next step then is to get out there and in touch with these funders, potential partners and potential customers… this could be done by the researcher or the TTO, but ideally, they should go together.”

She spoke highly of Dr Erasmus. “She was willing to listen to us, take our advice, and trust us as we guided her with our expertise,” adding that they do not want their researchers to be feel alone and left to fend for themselves.

She also applauded Dr Erasmus for being proactive with market scanning — identifying companies that distribute educational games. She went out of her way to meet industry players, pitch her idea and test their reactions to it.  As an Educational Psychologist with a pilot practice, she engaged directly with children struggling with maths. Through these engagements, she built trust and partnership for further development.

Proactiveness is one of three components of what is termed Entrepreneurial Orientation,” said Dr Chantson. “The other two are Risk Taking and Innovativeness. When you score high in these elements, chances of you becoming an entrepreneur and a successful one, at that, tend to be very high.”

She further said whilst talking to different stakeholders, Dr Erasmus was preparing a funding proposal. “This entails looking at human resources, timelines, budget, and also setting milestones and deliverables; tracking progress and keeping the momentum going,” said Dr Chantson.  Getting seed funding was a crucial step to developing the Maths Whartels idea. Seeing that Dr Erasmus did not obtain funding until after her third attempt, Dr Chantson commended the scholar’s resilience.

“She persevered, and, in the end, she got seed funding from the Technology and Innovation Agency (TIA),” she said.

She then highlighted the vital role of the industry partner, MindMuzik Media, in making Maths Whartels a reality. As distributors of psychological and educational assessments, this company became the fitting service provider for designing and manufacturing the components that made up Maths Whartels In the end, they became more than just a designer, further contributing some of their own development funds to the project. They also actively guided the project based on their experience in manufacturing and knowledge of the market.

Ultimately, the relationship between Dr Erasmus, MindMuzik Media, as co-developers, and the North-West University’s TTO, enabled seamless licencing of Maths Whartels.

One research project generates a chain of benefits

Dr Chantson said this project led to a series of benefits to both Maths Whartels and the researcher, the first being secondary job creation and outsourcing; the second being exposure to networking opportunities and increased visibility through TIA seed funding. The latter also led to Dr Erasmus being nominated and added to TIA Leaders in Innovation Fellowship and being sent to the United Kingdom to receive entrepreneurship mentoring, and training in pitching. This further led to her being invited to present on innovation at the Royal Academy of Engineering Innovation Summit.

Yet another benefit, especially from collaboration, came in the form of development opportunities in additional markets – with a possibility of breaking into the UK market, for one, and tapping into existing opportunities in the translation of the games into the languages other markets on the African continent.

Fourthly, Dr Chantson said that since neuropsychological principles were applied in the children’s games in Maths Whartels, they can also be applied to address other audiences like the elderly.  “There is an opportunity to develop games for mental fitness and therapy solutions for the elderly,” she said.

Moving further along, Dr Chantson said the increased visibility has also led to new research collaborations. At the time of the workshop, Dr Erasmus was in the UK, starting a new research project at a UK university, channelled through the British Council. In addition to that, Dr Erasmus is being counted among 10 participants in the Fem-in-Tech Entrepreneurship Programme that will represent Africa at the Africa Women’s Conference in Zanzibar this year.

“Certainly, the journey for Petro is not over… it has been a pleasure for us to see her grow from an academic, an educationalist and therapist to an entrepreneur.”

“From what she has learnt in these entrepreneurship programmes, she has thought of the business plan and is now at the brink of taking a big step into real entrepreneurship – starting a company to pursue these further opportunities that I have mentioned here,” Dr Chantson concluded.

Nqobile Tembe, the writer, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.