There is no clearcut answer about which skills are needed to commercialise research

Published On: 24 March 2022|

Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung did not have to rattle off a list to illustrate The skill set required for commercialisation, which was the title of the session in which she spoke at the recent Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Executive Leadership Workshop in Cape Town. She embodies some of those skills, from passion to enthusiasm and drive.

Considering that she is Director: Technology Transfer and Innovation at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), Motaung has the knowledge of the commercialisation context to make those skills shine. She also has practical experience of the process.

Partnering with two of her former PhD students, Dr Mapula Razwinani and Dr Makwese Maepa, Professor Motaung (above) founded Global Health Biotech, which started operating in 2016. Its primary product is La Africa Soother, an ointment that regenerates bone and cartilage, even preventatively, and is based on Motaung’s scientific research into medicinal plants.

She has also licensed a technology from Stellenbosch University to develop a vegan, plant-based product, Pump Protein Shake, which leads to decreased muscle inflammation.

Personality skills and asking the right questions

Motaung says she refers to herself as an innovator type of entrepreneur because “I came with a new idea, and I was able to turn that idea into a new business”.  In describing her own personality, she hit on some of the key skills needed for this type of innovation: “I was extremely passionate about this idea … I am a high-risk taker… and of course I aim for perfection, but I don’t let that get in the way”.

She touched on the thinking needed: “How many times have you seen a research project go down one path, only realising in hindsight it that should have gone down another? And how many times have you seen an innovation programme deliver breakthrough results, absolutely the best, only to find out that it cannot be implemented because it addresses the wrong problem?

“We need to become better at asking the right questions so that we tackle the right problems. And then if we tackle the right problems, we’ll be able to commercialise,” she said.

Don’t use age-old problems as an excuse

Another skill she demonstrates is to be able to ride through problems. “We can talk about how we don’t have capacity, and funding. All those things will always be there. We need to overcome the obvious challenges because the world is not waiting for us. The world keeps on changing.“

She said success hinged on people. Most innovation goes nowhere “because

there aren’t qualified professionals who are interested in carrying them to the market. A product without a sales management team isn’t much, just an idea,” she said.

Sell your business proposition, not your idea

Motaung described commercialisation as the bridge one needs to cross. She said when moving from a proof of concept and prototype of a product, one hits a barrier. Researchers tend to not invest in that bridge while doing their research, she said, yet that is when they need to start thinking about factor such as customers. “If you want to commercialise, you need clients,” she said.

She does not see funding as a barrier, arguing that there are a lot of people who are interested in investing in intellectual property (IP) in a university. What is a problem, however, is the way researchers pitch ideas to potential investors, as if they were presenting an academic dissertation. Researchers need the skill to pitch a business.

“Funders invest in products, not ideas,” she said.  She used the hypothetical case of a researcher being hit by a truck. “I’m not saying you must be hit by a truck. I’m just giving this as an example,” she said. “If it should happen that you get hit by a truck tomorrow, is there anything left in your research, of a company that could be sold? If the answer is ‘yes’, congratulations, you’ve got a product. If the answer is ‘no’, you must start again because you are not solving a problem and it is going to be difficult.”

Googling “startup skills” is a waste of time

Mr Brandon Paschal (left), an industrial psychologist by training, who founded and runs the startup consultancy, Cadence Lyfe, also spoke during the workshop session on skills needed for commercialisation. Until June last year, he was with Stellenbosch University LaunchLab where, for over six years, he helped 28 startups raise more than R390m in risk capital and grow to more than R300m annual revenue.

What are startup skills? Googling the term doesn’t help, he said. Lots of different things come up but with very little overlap.

“They’re very ambiguous. You can’t teach it. It’s not ‘study the above, write a paper and here you go’. You have to live it. And it takes a lot of time, just time to live in an ecosystem where we suffer through battles. We need money that can be burned, so that people can learn because it won’t be burned the next time,” he said.

So what are these skills, he asked. Humility? Agility? “I know humility in academic circles is not necessarily what you’d use to describe most of the researchers you work with. They’ve been the cleverest person in every room they’d been in since they were 16 years old,” he said.

And is confidence a needed soft skill for commercialisation? As someone who immigrated to South Africa from the United States 17 years ago, he said people think he knows what he is talking about because his American accent makes him sound confident. And that is a skill researchers need when they come up against questions, whether internally or externally, such as: “Who do you think you are that you need to commercialise the technology you’re working with? Because you’re inventing things that have never been seen in the world? Who do you think you are, that you think you can make a business out of it?”

The US vs South Africa

He made some brief comparisons between the US and South Africa and how they affect business. “In South Africa, we’re risk averse and we’re territorial. So we’re starting with distrust. We don’t start with the benefit of the doubt. In the US there’s a lot of capital. here, there’s scarce capital, but it is growing.

“In the US there is little effort needed beyond money. Here there is little effort available beyond money.”

He said Americans have the blind optimism of cowboys, whereas South Africans have a realistic optimism. “It’s like we believe we can do it. We know the steps and it’s going to be hard sometimes because life is stressful. We’re stuck in our realistic optimism. We believe it can be done,” he said. “We hustle. South Africans hustle. So everything is possible.”

The biggest barrier to success

Being an entrepreneur is not just about the tech or the product. “You’re having to build a team of people and you’re having to bring that team of people forward — not just for six months to do a research project and produce a paper,” he said.

He said the biggest barrier to success that he has seen in the research-based companies he has worked with is that they cannot “make the leap from Gantt charts (project management charts) and task lists to inspiring humans, integrating their different visions and values as humans into your company’s vision, and the problem you’re trying to solve, and take them forward for years.”

These are just ideas

“I don’t have recommendations for you. It’s just observations, but I’m hoping it’s sparking some things in your mind that could be helpful for what you guys are trying to accomplish,” he said.

He said it was about improving the skills of the teams that individuals were working with. But he had no idea of how to do that, he said.

Both Motaung and Paschal were addressing an audience of public universities’ executive leadership (above) that comprised mainly deputy vice chancellors, executive directors, and directors responsible for entrepreneurship development, and, even more importantly, strategy and policy development.  The annual Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW), hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, is sponsored by British Council South Africa as part of its broad programme of supporting the development of entrepreneurial universities in the South African ecosystem. The ELW 2022 theme was Commercialisation of Research.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer with Universities South Africa.