Renewing the bonds between industry and universities

South African Technology Network (SATN) member universities last month secured an invitation to visit Saab Grintek Defence (SGD), South Africa’s leading defence and security company, with a view to understanding how to foster a mutually-beneficial working relationship between the industry and universities of technology.

The invitation was a tangible outcome of last month’s annual SATN conference, one of the key aims of which was to “understand the demands of business and industry”. The popular annual conference traditionally gives a platform to South African industry leaders such as SGD CEO Trevor Raman to talk about their work and their human resource needs. It also gives industry captains an opportunity to be exposed to innovations currently underway at universities of technology around the country.

Budget cuts

Raman admitted during his address on “4IR: A Renewed Relationship between Industry and Academia” that the relationship between his company and universities had “stagnated” owing in part to the fact that South Africa’s spending on defence – close to 10% of its GDP pre-1994 – had fallen to below 1%.

Despite that, his company had a strong commitment to the triple helix model of innovation which brings academia, industry and governments together to foster economic and social development. However, he reminded the conference that the model relies on sound government policies around intellectual property and commercialisation.

SGD’s capabilities include electronic warfare systems, sensor technology, command and control, training systems, avionics, security and support solutions to the African and international markets. According to Raman, the South African company employs 800 people, produces its own IP and has grown beyond the local market to the extent that today 90% of revenues are from export.

Raman said where relationships with academia exist, they tended to focus on traditional universities such as Stellenbosch, Pretoria and Wits, but he was committed to changing that. “I’m excited about the initiatives being taken at universities of technology …. and I am looking forward to a renewed relationship between academia and industry,” he said.

Raman said private defence companies in South Africa had proved themselves to be self-sustaining and showed considerable growth potential. They would need to employ skilled people to do research and development in keeping with the 4th Industrial Revolution. “Universities could benefit greatly from relationships with these companies,” he said.

Partnerships to boost competition

SGD spends 25% of annual income on research and development in order to be able to compete with large western electronic warfare players such as Thales, Electronica, etc – and here there were opportunities for partnerships with universities, he told University World News. “They are pushing things like price to market and innovation. These are the things driving us. We look inwards and see how to optimise our processes … We would love partnerships that help us to become more competitive,” he said.

He said in terms of the product lifecycle, industry was best positioned to understand customer needs while universities were best positioned to understand technology going forward and these different strengths could be optimised. “Market plus technology analysis equals innovation, he said.

He said SGD would be keen to collaborate with universities to open access to markets, and to facilitate access for industry partners to the knowledge-sharing programmes offered by universities. “Another element is digitisation – it is a people issue. It creates a knowledge base, increases mobility and opportunities for collaboration,” he said.

Regulatory frameworks

Raman said the company also needs to have the “difficult discussion” with government on some of the existing regulatory frameworks. “We believe that if this country is going to be export-focused, it needs to encourage export business. If we are in the business of generating IP and commercialising IP, then we need the right IP management structure,” he said.

Raman said the triple helix model relied on sound government policies around intellectual property and commercialisation. While Africa had developed ground-breaking technologies – for example, in the field of electric cars – if such innovations were conducted in isolation and without government and industry support, such innovations existed only as “technology demonstrators” or “IP sitting on a shelf”.

Raman said his company was currently looking at a national programme of aerospace, specifically focused on sensors on aircraft. “We’ve had discussions with government; but there were no universities of technology present in those discussions. If it’s going to be the next vehicle for demonstrators, they need to be involved.

Self-funded research and development

Because of the lack of certainty in the intellectual property (IP) environment and because SDG was “in the business of creating shareholder value,” Raman said SGD had taken a conservative approach and currently self-funds its own research and development, but it was open to discussion about collaboration.

“We are concerned about IP. A model, which works in Sweden, gives ownership of IP to Industry, where government agrees with industry the exploitation rights prior to commercialisation. Industry has an opportunity to take [the innovation] to market and parts of the returns are invested back into universities. If we don’t have a model, we need to be conservative in how we can partner. But let’s start the discussion.”

“We are guilty of not knowing what universities have to offer or the programs they are undertaking. Come, visit, and let us discuss what we can do together. That’s the way to start a relationship,” he said.

On the back of his invitation, SATN chair Anshu Padayachee said Raman could soon expect a delegation of university vice-chancellors and hopefully a memorandum of understanding could be signed by year end.