Porsches for professors? Debates about entrepreneurship continue

Over the past decade or so, the debate primarily taking place within business schools about whether entrepreneurs are ‘born’ or ‘made’ has been overtaken by the idea that all students across all faculties and at all universities can and should benefit from being exposed to some form of entrepreneurship training.

The belief is that, by giving students the skills and-or ‘mindset’ (still an area of debate) to become economically active, universities can help to address the crisis of youth unemployment and stagnant economic growth.

In 2006, fresh from a job at a venture capital fund, Anita Nel told a Stellenbosch University professor that the motto she intended to apply in her new position in the university’s technology transfer office, Innovus, was: “Porsches for professors”.

“I was led in part by my sense of humour, but he was incredibly upset … What was clear is that, in the hallowed halls of academe, the words ‘money’ and ‘academic research’, when uttered in the same breath, bordered on blasphemy,” she told participants of the fifth Lekgotla of the Education Development Higher Education (EDHE) programme, held last week at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus, in a session aimed at discussing how research supervisors can help their students leverage their research for economic benefit.

Five years later, however, that same professor called Nel at her office at Innovus and said: “Anita, do you remember our discussion? I want my Porsche,” an overture that Nel interpreted as confirmation of a shift, a growing openness among academics to the notion of commercialisation and entrepreneurship.

A shift in thinking …

That such a shift is taking place is mirrored in part through the number of technology transfer offices that have emerged at universities around South Africa.

It is also reflected in the efforts of the national Department of Higher Education and Training, which has set up the EDHE partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf) to ensure that students become more economically active, both during and after their degrees.

USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa has called the EDHE an “exciting intellectual adventure” that has the potential to make important social and economic impacts on students and the economy more generally.

Raising the stakes even higher, Professor Thorsten Kliewe, chair of the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities headquartered in Germany, declared in the opening session of the second day of the Lekgotla that universities which put more emphasis on the third mission (entrepreneurship and engagement) would be the flagship universities in 10 years.

However, despite these ambitious aspirations, contention around the concept of entrepreneurship among academics still lingers.

As Nel notes, this is partly because of the age-old tension between academic freedom on the one hand and the pressure (particularly in the face of dwindling research funding) to rely on industry as a source of financial support.

There’s also ongoing contestation between the idea of a university as a credentialing authority versus its responsibility to produce critical thinkers; or whether academics should be driven by publications in reputable journals or solving real-world problems.

Fundamental questions

These questions raise fundamental questions about the (changing) role of the university in (a rapidly changing) society.

Having survived the opprobrium of the traditional Stellenbosch professoriate, Nel is today chief director for Innovation and Business Development at Stellenbosch University and CEO of US Enterprises (Pty) Ltd, the university’s commercial company.

According to the university’s website, she has grown Innovus to become one of the leading university technology transfer offices in Africa, established the university’s LaunchLab Business Incubator and was instrumental in starting the University Technology Fund (UTF) that provides funding for new technology startups at South African universities.

Last year, Innovus started five new technology companies and seven of its companies are now funded through the UTF.

Notwithstanding these successes, Nel hinted that it was actually more difficult to commercialise research than people understood – although that was no reason not to try.

Among those challenges is the fact that an academic proof of concept might satisfy a research question in a university setting, but rarely presented as a tangible product or prototype in the real world with a clear route to an established market.

Putting this into some perspective, Nel told the Lekgotla that only 16% of technology transfer offices in the United States, where commercialisation of research is far more embedded in the academic system, either broke even or made a profit.

“Often, it is an activity that costs universities money,” she said.

So why do it?

For Nel, the importance lies in “making innovation matter”.

’Making innovation matter’

“We are acknowledging that research output with commercialisation value brings relevance to a university and its research groups. It is positive for the reputation of the university and potentially brings output to where it can benefit society and affect lives.

“Although we do not always make money, often employment is created, products are brought to the market … we see some huge successes sometimes and income can be made, although it is not always easy.”

Nel suggested that economic or commercialisation outcomes should be incorporated in research designs from the start. To this end, Stellenbosch is experimenting with a “translational fellow programme”, which aimed to target postgraduate students early in their research journey, bring them “closer” to the technology transfer office, and teach them how to bring a product to market.

“We want to take them to speak to industry representatives, to ask them what the problem is that confronts that particular industry and whether the student’s idea or solution would solve it in an appropriate way.”

In such a way, the student could not only earn a degree but might also create something with a use value, she said.

The idea of commercialisation or entrepreneurship as an ‘add-on’ to basic or fundamental research may offer a useful way in which to better sell the concept to sceptical academics.

But appreciation for a parallel approach was not apparent in the views of Dr Amazigh Dib, private sector coordinator and entrepreneurial manager at the Pan African University Institute of Water and Energy Sciences (PAUWES) in Algeria, who concluded a presentation reflecting high levels of confidence in entrepreneurship as a means to solve graduate unemployment and a seemingly pervasive industry-academic skills mismatch, with the following: “What university students should understand is not knowledge, but applied knowledge.”

Innovation for impact

As the only participant in the session whose day job focuses neither on the facilitation nor promotion of entrepreneurship or commercialisation, it was left to Professor Nithaya Chetty, dean of science at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) to remind everyone about the abiding importance of fundamental research in a university.

Choosing his words carefully (innovation rather than commercialisation – and they are not interchangeable) Chetty said he favoured an approach which saw all university faculties pursuing fundamental research programmes “unhindered” (by an industrial or other agenda) and essentially along the lines of open critical enquiry.

However, Chetty conceded that universities could and possibly even should drive “parallel programmes” so that all students were exposed to innovative ideas and were challenged to consider ways in which their work could have more impact on society.

In part response to Tandokazi Nquma-Moyo, business development manager at Technology Innovation Agency, who earlier kicked off the session by saying that students needed to be given research topics based on industry needs, Chetty said it was “difficult” to force researchers and students in a particular direction, but conceded it was necessary to have them “come around to understanding the importance of innovating in terms of research and making greater impact in society”.

Chetty admitted to concern about the extent to which researchers in post-apartheid South Africa had been pushed in the direction of applied research and the impact of that policy on academic research.

“I worry about that. If the focus is entirely on applied [research] and we [all] take our cue from industry, we [all] basically become service universities. I would guard against it.”

He said, while the applied research done in universities of technology was to be valued, “if all universities become centres of applied research, we will ruin our universities.”

Insisting that all research should result in a commercial value, rather than social impact, ran the risk of “driving chasms” and “creating more difficulties”, he said.

Increasingly, there was a need to make a distinction between research-led and researcher-led innovation. “I think the greatest focus for us at universities has to be mostly on our doctoral students and connecting up fundamental research in a more innovative way; that’s research-led innovation.

“A big concern I have as dean is our doctoral student production. Last year, we produced 100 PhDs in the science faculty and across the country universities are driven by a strong push to develop more doctoral students. The implicit understanding here … although the connection is not properly made, is that these graduates will go on to contribute positively to society.

“That bridge [between PhDs and benefits to society] needs to be stronger and innovation is a key component of that bridge.”

By setting their own agendas in terms of research [as opposed to relying solely on industry needs], universities were able to foster and support innovation among researchers who were trying to understand problems of relevance to society in a very fundamental way – “and, in so doing, fund solutions to those problems … That’s what innovation is”.

It is clear that further debate over these complex issues is needed – particularly given the fact that a pilot study commissioned by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Advancing Entrepreneurial Universities in Africa, involving three diverse South African universities, suggested that there is no common definition of an entrepreneurial university in South Africa.

As the study now moves into its second phase led by Professor Cecile Nieuwenhuizen, South African Research Chairs Initiative entrepreneurship education chair at the University of Johannesburg, and seeks to involve all remaining public universities, debates about entrepreneurship education and its place in South African universities are likely to intensify.

More information on the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s fifth Lekgotla 2021 can be accessed here.