Universities need a solid policy framework for equitable implementation of entrepreneurship across the SA ecosystem

Published On: 29 July 2022|

One of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme’s mandates is to develop a national policy framework for entrepreneurship at South Africa’s universities.

“But, five years after the programme inception, we are still trying to put parts of the puzzle in place. While the picture is taking shape, it’s taking longer than anticipated and turns out to be more complicated than expected. I feel we are not getting the number of responses we should be getting to have reliable results.”

This was the view that EDHE’s Director, Dr Norah Clarke, expressed in her role as part of a launchpadpanel at last week’s the EDHE Lekgotla 2022 that was hosted by Nelson Mandela University from 19-21 July. ‘Launchpad’ explored outcomes-oriented initiatives in entrepreneurship, that are aimed to culminate in action, high impact and ecosystemic change.

The session, themed Mobilisation for Impact: Introducing the findings from the South Africa Innovation Ecosystem Mapping Report, was moderated by Ms Charleen Duncan (middle below), Head of Programmes at Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. It kicked off with a presentation of findings of a national survey conducted by UK-based technology transfer, commercialisation and information management company, Oxentia.

the panel of speakers
From left, Dr Norah Clarke, EDHE Director; Ms Meekness Lunga-Ayidu, Science and Higher Education Programme Manager: British Council SA; Ms Mandisa Cakwe, Director: University Capacity Development at DHET and Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University.

Senior Consultant at Oxentia, Dr Sarah Allison, opened by quoting Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf): “It is paramount that each institution deliberately designs the ecosystem that best suits its needs and conditions.”

She said this survey was conducted with the following objectives:

  • to understand the current barriers and enablers of the 26 public universities’ innovation ecosystems;
  • to support the bolstering of research and innovation capacity across all of South Africa’s institutions;
  • to inform the creation of the National Policy Framework on Entrepreneurship Development in SA Higher Education and
  • to provide USAf and its long-term support partner, the British Council, with insights and evidence for future collaboration “in cross-cutting themes of research, innovation, entrepreneurship and commercialisation.”

The survey drew 20 respondents across 19 universities, 14% of them being academic researchers and rest, technology transfer managers or innovation directors.

Methodologically, the study comprised a survey, focus group sessions and a workshop that discussed the first two objectives.

In the survey, respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement, or otherwise, with the statements regarding (policy, tax incentives, support from government, non-governmental organisations, industry and academic research) for their particular university.

“We also asked them about what incentives they were using and how effective they were; about awareness and skills of academics and students at their university, as well as the impact their academic research was having on society and the wider economy.”

Regarding focus groups, five focus group discussions were held to unpack the barriers and enablers discovered through the survey. Participants were asked to talk about the identified themes, suggest what was missing and give examples of solutions that might increase research impact through commercialisation.

Thus, the study could gauge the health of each ecosystem. This survey findings, it was hoped, would help inform action plans to support each university individually.

Key findings

Overall, the researchers found, the South African innovation ecosystem is a rapidly changing landscape. There are pockets of excellence and good practice, and a huge potential in terms of economic growth through university research commercialisation activities.

The main challenges and areas presenting an opportunity for change are:

  • Funding: Both internal and external sources were not adequate – especially early seed funding.
  • Incentives, especially for academic researchers and at the early development stage of an innovation, but also for companies to engage with universities.
  • Culture: This would include mindset changes and awareness raising; policy – in terms of clearly communicating the benefits of commercialising research to stakeholders both inside and outside the university; strengthening the Intellectual Property pipeline and generating momentum (at some universities)
  • Partnerships with industry: Engaging and building relationships was not centralised and there was a lack of awareness of the benefits of university-industry engagement.

In the report, the researchers stressed that their definition of incentives encompassed actual rewards and other forms of motivation and encouragement. They cited, as an example, support through recognition, the provision of research commercialisation support, incubation or prototyping facility access.

Dr Allison said the importance or relevance of each of the key themes identified varied between universities. An individualistic approach to addressing challenges was required.  “What became apparent over the course of the project was the disparity between the level of commercialisation support and funding available to each university. ​ There were also significant differences between rural and urban innovation ecosystems due, for example, to geographical location. This impacted access to industry partners and resources.

“These differences result in very different offerings and strengths, which potentially present an opportunity for urban-rural university strategic partnerships to mutually benefit both parties.”

There is a clear need, the researchers found:

  • To continue to share good practice between universities in South Africa
  • For incentives, both from an academic perspective, but also at an institutional level. There was a need to encourage companies to engage with universities
  • It was necessary to embrace commercialisation of social sciences, arts and humanities more widely, including generating impact from traditional knowledge

Dr Clarke said that over the last few years, EDHE had undertaken projects inform policy development work in the Department of Higher Education and Training. To that end, EDHE had to gauge the health, and needs, of the ecosystem.

She said this had taken place in an environment of survey fatigue; academics are frequently asked to participate in surveys. “Initially we had the baseline study on entrepreneurship ecosystems at universities, which identified gaps that we had to follow up on. Then followed the survey done by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, supported financially by DHET and Science and Innovation. The pilot phase has been completed and the next phase resumes shortly.

“And now we have this Oxentia-led survey…” she said reliable results needed more input.

Moderator, Ms Duncan agreed, adding that an important takeaway from this session was that “we need to commit to the policy framework work that EDHE is trying to achieve as a collaborative coordinating body. How can we ensure that the data is updated, relevant, correct so that we are able to make these interventions into the policy framework that we so badly need?”

Her question to Dr Andrew Bailey, Senior Manager: Innovation at the University of Cape Town: How can we stimulate more widespread social science, arts and humanities and local knowledge into research that can be commercialised?

Dr Bailey: “At UCT, we’ve asked what type of research funding is going to generate potential patentable output? A lot of it fits into very important research that underpins policy development. You look at very different mechanisms to make your impact. It could be translating the information that has come out of your scientific publication to a more readily digestible format – a pamphlet, perhaps, that can be distributed in a government department that they can readily interact with, to take further.”

Social scientists, he said, have an important role to play within tech innovation.

“There’s a great deal coming in with AI. The social scientist will understand how best to integrate that technology into your user group.

“We had the experience with a fire detector for shack dwellers. The engineers had a particular approach: raise money, freely distribute the product. The social scientists said no! First speak to community leaders and get buy-in from them. And you have to charge a small price for the device so that it is respected.

“One must look for blended opportunities that make us more successful.”

Question to Ms Mandisa Cakwe, Director: University Capacity Development at DHET: How do we better capacitate university staff? How do we change the language when we communicate and talk about commercialisation?

Ms Cakwe said it was imperative to have policy in place ‘so we know what to implement’. She said the results of the Oxentia study were important. “We need empirical data to inform policy. For capacity development, we already a dedicated programme called University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP). The minister wants us to expand that to include the entire PSET (Post-school Education & Training) system. It’s a big ask, but that is the direction we want to take.”

Referring to the Innovation Ecosystem Mapping Report study finding on funding, she acknowledged that funding from government through DHET, was not sufficient.

She however urged institutions to tap into the UCDP grants for capacity development funding. “Entrepreneurship is a big part of that funding focus. In the next iteration of the UCDP we would like to see more going towards commercialisation and entrepreneurship.”

Question to Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice Rector: Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University: From a funding and commercialisation perspective, relationships with industry are importantWhat should the interaction be with the private sector for universities?

Professor Cloete said the report spoke to the issues.  “A national policy is important if we look at the impact it had – over a long period of time – to South Africa’s research culture. We must not give up on developing that policy framework with the right incentives, that you then embed into the system.

“The advice I have for anyone who comes up with a potential idea or product that needs to be commercialised, is to find a private sector partner as soon as possible.

“It’s difficult to come up with an innovation, a product or prototype. The international partnerships give you an international footprint, immediately.”

He said it was necessary to build networks, relationships of trust and quality into one’s products and innovations.

Partnering with the private sector also solved the funding and other challenges. “I have personal experience: four of my patents were commercialised, all of them with industry partners. They spent the money building the prototypes and taking it further. All I had was the intellectual property on those patents. So, funding was not an issue for me in terms of going to market. The industry partners also knew how to do that, which we academics seldom have.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa