Programme intends to sharpen technology transfer skills

South Africa lags behind the world in turning its scientific discoveries and research findings into commercial products. Official estimates suggest only 7% of the intellectual property-generated research is commercialised, a paltry figure compared with the international benchmark of 40%.

But, extracting the intellectual property buried in academic theses, papers and research projects, and taking more of it to market is not merely a matter of national pride – perhaps in the pursuit of a place in a ranking table – it’s an economic imperative.

Professor Henk de Jager points out that 22 million South Africans survive on government grants of one sort or another and this was “not sustainable”.

Innovations must be developed and enterprise fostered to create jobs. And the country’s universities must do more on this score and pick up the pace.

De Jager was speaking at a workshop in Umhlanga, Durban, on 8 February, where he briefed 26 participants from various South African universities who have enrolled on a programme intended to sharpen their technology transfer skills.

Training and mentoring

A former vice-chancellor of Bloemfontein’s Central University of Technology, De Jager has been roped in by the Technological Higher Education Network of South Africa (THENSA), to coordinate the technology transfer capacity personnel development programme.

THENSA is a coalition of the country’s technology-focused institutions, with strategic partners on the continent and abroad.

The programme was now approaching its business end and the workshop was called to talk to the participants, recruited from the technology transfer offices of 18 South African universities, about what they could expect in the year ahead and the preparatory work already done.

Also present were representatives of the South African Department of Science and Innovation and its agencies, who were funding and supporting the initiative.

It was confirmed that a three-day international workshop would be presented in Cape Town in March, led by Kent Mrozek of Sweden’s top-ranked Luleå University of Technology. Mrozek’s career spans the worlds of innovation, business, academia and the public sector.

Two virtual international workshops would be presented by experts from Trinity College Dublin in April and Dundalk Institute of Technology in May. Trinity’s Dr John Whelan would speak about best practices in technology transfer, while Aidan Browne would speak about cross-regional collaboration and the business model at Dundalk.

De Jager sketched a plan to review existing training programmes for university office of technology staff and to design, develop and secure accreditation for an enhanced programme.

But, for most workshop participants, the item on the agenda that really fired their curiosity was the expected announcement of which overseas partner university would be hosting them for a week of in-house training and mentoring.

In May and June, 21 participants would be placed at six universities in Ireland and the balance at four in Germany, where they would learn and share skills in technology transfer.

THENSA said that, as far as possible, the placements sought to match the profiles of the participants with the specialities of their hosts. The participating Irish and German universities are: Trinity College Dublin; South East Technological University; Technological University of the Shannon; Atlantic Technological University; Technological University Dublin; Dundalk Institute of Technology; Wismar University of Applied Sciences: Technology Business and Design; Flensburg University of Applied Sciences; University of Applied Sciences in Saarbrücken; and University of Applied Sciences, Cologne.

Why German and Irish institutions?

A number of THENSA members have existing links with several universities in Germany and the country was named in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report as the world’s most innovative economy.

De Jager also told the workshop that THENSA was building on well-established engagements between its member universities and technological universities in Ireland. Moreover, the European Commission had named Ireland’s institutions as leading the continent in knowledge transfer systems.

There was also plenty of banter at the workshop about the quality of the Irish stouts and German Reinheitsgebot beers that the participants would enjoy, but the real focus was on how the two European countries excelled at technological transfer and how much the South Africans stood to benefit.

De Jager told University World News it would be a “rare … amazing” opportunity for the participants to “spend a whole week interacting” with and shadowing their hosts, senior people including heads of their units, who had cleared their diaries from 10am to 4pm for the duration of these visits.

He felt the participants could achieve a lot in a week and some had already “set their sights on afterwards” and the relationships and networking opportunities they hoped to develop. “There is huge excitement to learn from them … and they will learn from us,” said De Jager.

He told the workshop that the placements, along with the planned workshops and presentations, and online mentors would “undoubtedly contribute to improving the performance of the public universities to commercialise innovation more efficiently”.

He encouraged the participants not to float along slowly like so many hot-air balloons but to take off like rockets, for the good of the country.

Among the participants at the workshop was Professor Akash Anandraj of the Mangosuthu University of Technology, in Durban’s Umlazi township.

Anandraj, who was tickled to learn he would be going to Wismar, on Germany’s Baltic coast, was something of an odd man out among the 26 (the group includes men and women in equal numbers). He is not only a dedicated technology transfer officer, but also a research academic who heads his university’s Centre for Algal Biotechnology.

He told University World News that he was, in fact, most decidedly interested in the business side of things.

“All of my algae stuff becomes commercial,” he said, explaining that his focus was on how biotechnologies could be used to turn what laymen regarded as green slime into fuel, food supplements, pharmaceuticals and much more.

He would be staying with Professor Norbert Gruenwald, his host university’s rector and a member of the German University Consortium for International Cooperations.

Anandraj reckons exchanges with peers of this calibre should prove valuable and, in the future, he would like to invite his German colleagues to South Africa.

The algae man said he also hoped to extend his stay in the country by a few days so he can visit Effeltrich, in Bavaria, home of the Walz Company, suppliers of some of the specialist measuring equipment he uses in his work.