Universities register only 6% of patents in South Africa. Less than 2% are by state-owned research organisations. And less than 10% of South African patents have a female inventor although 41% of patents coming out of universities are registered by women. Of the 40 000 patents registered in South Africa between 2005 and 2015, 90% are foreign held.

Mr Ryan Raven (left), CEO of the business leadership organisation, Accelerate Cape Town, presented these stats in his presentation during the final session of the 5th Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s Executive Leadership Workshop held in Cape Town on 21 to 22 June. The session was titled How might university leaders establish an effective research, commercialisation and entrepreneurship pipeline?

Raven had found this study on patents while searching, in vain, for current data on regional innovation. He had wanted to know: How is innovation tracked? How is it mapped? By whom? 

He said not all innovation is good, and certainly not all innovation is good for South Africa. “I think it’s absolutely crucial that we ensure that the social innovation initiatives are aligned with ethical principles, respect human rights, and promote social justice.”

He also said it is critical to identify and understand the problem, that is, what are we trying to solve? “When we embark on this innovation journey, are we trying to produce master’s theses?“ he said , alluding to an earlier presentation at the workshop on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Knowledge Co-op, which generates postgraduate research on community-imitated topics. “Or are we trying to solve a problem that requires a level of innovation to address it? Collaboratively, with business and the active involvement of civil society, we need to be clear on what the problem is we’re trying to solve.”

The topic of Raven’s talk was Triple helix: the role of industry in the pipeline. The triple helix model refers to the interactions between academia, industry and government in support of innovation. “But the point I’d like to make is that within the South African context, the quadruple helix model is perhaps far more relevant. It adds the fourth component to the framework of interactions, namely civil society, referring to the media and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), a lot of what Roshan Sonday from UCT’s Knowledge Co-op spoke about”. 

Although he felt it was debatable if the South African government was a kakistrocracy, the Greek word for a government by the worst people in society that he had recently learned, “certainly government is not meeting its requirements to the broader society. What we’re seeing are NGOs and civil society moving into that space to provide the social net and social security.

“So, if we accept there are these four components to the model, which of those components should be the driving force?” He said the strength of interaction among those four components was not ideal in South Africa, with a high level of redundancy between university and corporate research and development, mainly because each didn’t know what the other was doing.

He said measuring value could be misleading. Delivering value from business and university engagement depends on many factors, such as its quality and duration. And he questioned whether the rapid pace of change in business is being replicated in universities. 

Innovation depends on the ability of university and industry experts to work across several disciplines such as technology, design, and engineering. “So you really need that multidisciplinary approach,” he said.  But he felt bold visionary partnerships between industry and universities can really help to accelerate innovation, ‘’and more importantly, start addressing some of our biggest social challenges’’. 

Mapping the university entrepreneurial landscape

Mr Muimeleli Mutangwa (right) addressed the workshop online and spoke from the experience of his many perspectives. He is Executive Director of the Centre for Emerging Researchers (CER) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), a process engineer, a doctoral student at the university’s business school, and an entrepreneur who has developed an award-winning shoe-cleaning detergent. Mutangwa also has an interest in a business that publishes books on youth empowerment.

Running a portfolio of companies has given him insight into the support, or lack of it, from university structures. He believes his businesses are lost opportunities for both him and the university. “I think if I collaborated with the university or if I had received some form of support from the university,” he said, they would have achieved more.

“And this tells you a bit about the kind of support that exists in the institutions of higher learning, both in terms of research outputs, or commercialisation efforts that are within the programmes or the existing structures,” he said.

He said many students have entrepreneurial businesses outside of their academic programmes. Many have tech businesses – building apps is very popular – and a few are working on developing intellectual property. “And there is no link. The universities don’t have structures to accommodate those students,” he said. 

Mutangwa’s topic was Strategy, structure, people and policy required to establish and support the pipeline. He said he had no slides, but if he had, he would have sent just the one blank page he used in his presentation. As he spoke, he drew diagrams, linking one square to another, and so on, illustrating where opportunities could be created, where linkages could be activated.

“For me, this approach of mapping out the ecosystem or the superstructure — in terms of how the various stakeholders or various functions are internally and externally linked to each other — becomes a tool that one can use to identify what is missing or what one might want to introduce within their respective institution of higher learning,” he said.

Perhaps universities need to introduce structures in the form of pre-incubation, he said, where students could be encouraged to explore their ideas. Tech business are scalable and perhaps need post-incubation programmes, which could be a reliable pipeline to the university’s technology transfer office.

“It’s about identifying the low hanging fruit or the ones that you feel you might want to start with, and then developing specific programmes to ensure that you can effectively activate those linkages,” said Mutangwa.

Asked to elaborate on how he could use the emerging researchers of his centre as a pipeline, Mutangwa said most of them are postgraduate students – 250 honours, masters and PhD students. The centre assists them through a mentorship programme, identifying the right research processes and research topics, fundraising and “making sure that we are facilitating access and success when it comes to their development’’. 

As part of the Centre’s sustainability model, it uses the students’ capacity to offer research consulting services for both private and public sector clients. The Centre’s slogan is unlocking the value of research. “Most of the research work done in universities can assist significantly to address the country’s socioeconomic issues, hence my agreement with what Ryan Raven said about how we need to start unlocking the value of research.”

Some highlights and outtakes from the ELW

Professor Eugene Cloete (left), Chairperson of the EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities and CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC), presented key takeaways from the Executive Leadership Workshop.

These included:

  • “Are we solving the right problem? Should universities be entrepreneurial or should they deliver entrepreneurial graduates?;
  • “We can’t just have an entrepreneurship focus. We need to be sure that we don’t get mission drift as universities. As Professor Ahmed Bawa (former CEO of USAf and now at the Johannesburg Business School at UJ) said in his address, universities are social institutions with multiple functions. Knowledge intensive, they provide a new generation of intellectuals, professionals and so forth. They are multi-layered and complex, but they should solve real problems. And they must focus on the use value of knowledge, not the value of knowledge;
  • “Entrepreneurial thinking should be a key attribute alongside other attributes that our students leave universities with. So it’s not an add-on. It’s like critical thinking, for instance, but it should be integrated so that it becomes a graduate attribute; and
  • ‘’The EDHE awards have lifted the system and motivated academics and students to participate in entrepreneurship”.

He said there had been two very good presentations on social entrepreneurship programme development. He liked the recommendation by Dr Poppet Pillay, formerly from the Durban University of Technology and now CEO of Durban Textile and Leather Incubator, of using the United Nations’ Social Development Goals as a guide for how to make a difference.

And he wanted to commend UCT on its Knowledge Co-op with its co-creation of projects, engaged research, and community partners. He said Sonday had given very good examples of those projects on community directed research. “If we all follow that initiative, we would multiply the number of projects they had by 26.”

Professor Cloete said he also liked the comment by Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University, when she referred to the mindset of students in music and the performing arts, who study to be self-employed. “Perhaps we should have that mindset in other faculties as well,” he said.

Entrepreneurship policy development

Zana Boshoff, EDHE’s project manager, said they had appointed a team from the University of Pretoria to research the scope of business development activities at public universities and write a report with policy, legislative and regulatory recommendations.

“This is a start to a much larger project, which is to have a policy guideline (for entrepreneurs) that will be available for universities to implement,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

EDHE ELW 2023 Articles