Nobody sets out to do irrelevant research, argues one of SA’s heavyweights in commercialising academic research

Published On: 23 March 2022|

Professor Bavesh Kana (left), Head of the Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), spoke up in defense of researchers during the wrap-up session of Universities South Africa’s recent Executive Leadership Workshop on Commercialisation of Research, that was held in Cape Town.

“I am growing concerned about the use of somewhat polarising language that’s emerging in the dialogue,” he said. “One almost gets the impression that researchers are the problem: We’re ‘not entrepreneurial’. We’re not ‘business-like’, we ‘don’t live in the real world’,” said Kana.

Just as a reality check, we live more in the real world than most people. The average researcher must write the same grant application six to nine times before it’s funded. You then must battle against all resources to get the job done. After you get the research done, you bounce from journal to journal to get the work published. And at the end of this, you try to graduate a student, and then afterwards you’re told: ‘Why aren’t you commercialising?

He said the polarising language included references to “blue skies” research (according to Wikipedia, blue skies research is a reference to curiosity-driven research that does not have apparent problem solving value to society). He said he was repeating what he had said in his workshop presentation in the session on Case studies of successful research commercialisation: “I don’t think you’re going to find people who do irrelevant research in their minds.

“The journey is to create a bridge between what people do and articulate that to society. So, I would caution against this use of polarising language,” he said.

Professor Kana was speaking during senior executives’ reflection over the two-day Commercialisation of Research workshop that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme.

The facilitator of this closing session, Professor Herman van der Merwe (above), Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at North-West University, elaborated on Kana’s comment with: “Don’t polarise; incentivise”.

Van der Merwe asked participants what they had learned at the workshop. One response was “your resources do not define you”. Those were Professor Kana’s words from his presentation, where he had said: “Your environment does not define you; your resources do not define you. What defines you is your thinking and your attitude to what you can do”.

Professor Jesika Singh (below), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo, said Professor Kana’s comments had led her to reflect on the role of DVCs.

She said people tended to complain about DVCs, whose workload was so pressurised that “entrepreneurship is one out of maybe 500 things we do daily. We are trying and we are making a start, and a lot of us have gone beyond a start,” she said.

The venture capitalists intrigued delegates

Professor Singh said she had really enjoyed the contributions of the venture capitalists (Daniel Strauss of Stocks & Strauss, and Sakhile Xulu, general managing partner at Seed South Capital).

She said it was gratifying to see researchers having commercialised real products solving real life problems. “It means we are getting somewhere.”

Professor Kana, for his part, said he had felt excited hearing about the endless possibilities, “all these different ways of funding research. It’s an exciting time to be alive,” he said.

Professor Eugene Cloete (above), Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, said there was a big divide between venture capitalists and universities.  A report had revealed more than 900 patents were registered at South African universities. “If I had the kind of money these two gentlemen (the venture capitalists) were talking about, I would mine 900 patents and I would spin out 100 companies in a year…. Maybe that’s the message we need to get out there: we need to mine those ideas that are there”.

Xulu said it had been an absolute privilege to be at the workshop “because what everybody has shared, shows you a bigger picture of what the problem is, and what the solutions are. So, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to learn. Now we’re in a better position to provide value to all of you going forward,” he says.

Let’s collaborate

Dr Robert Martin, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Operations at the University of Venda said they were not striving to be superstars. This comment referred to Xulu’s presentation in which he had said people want to be solo superstars, a fragmentation which he said is the death of South Africa.

Martin (above) said what they wanted was to collaborate rather than be in competition with one another. And he wondered if there was not an opportunity for universities to collaborate more.

Coming from an under-resourced university did not mean they did not have good researchers. But the university’s constraints meant there was a need for their researchers to collaborate with institutions hosting established research laboratories.

“Can’t we do that across institutions? There’s a need for us to have that conversation because it might fast-track researchers in under-resourced institutions to come on board a bit quicker,” he said.

Professor van der Merwe said the workshop showcased what different universities were doing, which made it an ideal platform to help people reach out to one another.

“If we foster the relationships that we’ve created here, I think that is where the value of a session like this is,” said Professor van der Merwe.

What about commercialising research in the social sciences?

Dr Norah Clarke, Director: EDHE, said in her vote of thanks that the workshop had brought up the question about why they weren’t looking at commercialisation of research in the social sciences and humanities. She said this would be a focus area in their EDHE Lekgotla programme in July. “We will make sure that we address this,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.