Moving to an impact paradigm

Published On: 23 February 2022|

The main benefits of knowledge exchange and commercialisation activities are the societal impact they make from research, and not about the revenue they may generate.

This was the view of Ms Jaci Barnett (left), an expert from the Oxentia Ltd team and Head of Consulting Services at Oxford University Innovation, when leading a session on Practical Tools and Resources for Researchers and TTOs (technology transfer offices). This session was part of last week’s Train-the-Trainer Workshop of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. Funded by the British Council and facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd — Oxford’s Global Innovation Consultancy — the workshop aimed 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.

Said Ms Barnett: “Researchers can start looking at their research in a different way and asking themselves what they could be doing with it, to make a societal impact. And TTOs can assist them in this. We need to move from thinking of commercialisation in terms of making money to making a difference.”

Fundamental part of what universities do

“Fundamentally research institutions generate and disseminate knowledge,” Ms Barnett explained. “One of the ways we disseminate our knowledge externally is through knowledge and technology transfer, but how do we move from our traditional approaches to a more holistic and impactful approach,” she asked.

“We need to move from a technology transfer paradigm to an impact paradigm,” she says. She contends that this would move us from addressing one societal challenge – economic growth – to addressing the challenge of creating a society that is sustainable economically, environmentally, and socially.

This expert, with nearly two decades of experience in research commercialisation and technology transfer in both South Africa and the United Kingdom, gave an example of research that still has a huge impact more than three decades on. Thirty years ago, University of Bristol Professor, Peter Fleming, pioneered research which showed lives could be saved if babies were placed on their backs – instead of their fronts – to sleep. His ground-breaking research led to the high profile Back-to-Sleep campaign in the early 1990s. It is estimated his research has saved the lives of more than 20 000 babies in the UK alone and has changed official advice about safer sleeping for babies around the world.

Said Ms Barnett: “This is an example of research with huge impact, but it had to be put into guidelines and policy and be disseminated. We need to manage and plan for impact so that we know how to achieve this kind of impact from our research outputs. When you think of doing your research, you also have to think about where it’s going and what it could achieve.”

Managing and planning for impact

Ms Barnett provided frameworks and tools that can be used by researchers and TTOs to manage and plan for impact from research. The frameworks included a way of ensuring we know how our activities and outputs can lead to outcomes and impact. Accompanying this is a tool called the impact circle, which allows researchers to work back from the impact they aspire to, to the activities they must undertake or, alternatively, from the activities they are undertaking to the impact they could have.

A second framework focuses on Intellectual Assets. “Intellectual assets are key,” says Ms Barnett, “because this is what we really need to understand and manage before it even becomes intellectual property. Now, many of us are looking at knowledge to find intellectual property whereas we must understand the intellectual assets we have created from that knowledge before we can identify which parts can become intellectual property.”

She suggests drawing up an Intellectual Assets Inventory (IAI) per project or research group which captures the main intellectual assets, identifies the type of asset and its potential utilisation. The key assets can eventually be put onto a utilisation canvas that can be used to identify the utility of the assets, what needs it meets and the target groups. Then the packaging, partners, funding, intermediaries, and resources required to realise the outcomes and impact can be considered.

The next case study presented was that of the Global Health Network (GHN) headed up by Professor Trudie Lang from the University of Oxford. The GHN is built for the research and wider health community by researchers and public health practitioners themselves and is a trusted source of quality information, education, and research tools.

“A TTO would look at the research such as that done by GHN and say it can’t be commercialised,” says Ms Barnett. “It’s working with countries that don’t have a lot of infrastructure and funds to do their own health research. But it speeds up research, prevents duplication and aids researchers in low-income countries to do better health research. This network needs a sustainable income so, to continue the work of the GHN, a Community Interest Company has been created to access commercial funding to support the GHN’s work.”

Partnerships are key for impact

The last framework presented was about co-creating outputs to make an impact. “The time between research and impact can be years, and we can’t do it alone. The earlier we find potential partners who work with us to agree outcomes, the shorter and more effective the innovation journey.” Ms Barnett reiterated the need to develop collaborative innovation processes to make an impact and then to understand the stakeholders who are involved in the project and manage expectations. (see the Zenzeleni case study as an example of multi-disciplinary research and a working partnership between the University of the Western Cape and two Eastern Cape communities).

“You have to understand the motivations and expectations of both parties. Ask the question ‘what is their incentive to be involved?’ If you aren’t giving someone enough benefits, they may not co-create with you.”

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