One of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC’s) biggest success stories of commercialisation combining natural science with social sciences is a workbook for grade seven and eight learners. The workbook is about TB, HIV and self-confidence. 

Yet when they reported it to the Department of Science and Innovation’s (DSi) National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) as one of their technologies, they were informed it did not need to be reported as it does not fit the definition of research and development (R&D). 

“It had incredible impact. It was rolled out to all public schools in the Western Cape – over 75 000 learners. Yet when it trickles down to DSi, it is not being measured. So, when we engage with our performing arts and our Centre for Humanities Research, and we tell them ‘actually. what you’re doing is not considered as R&D by the IPR Act’ ….You cannot tell that to your researchers who believe they are doing R&D. 

“We need to tease that out. We need to change the language, make everything a bit inclusive because it all adds value to society,” said Dr Ana Casanueva (left), Director: Technology Transfer Office at UWC, during a panel discussion she was facilitating at the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme Lekgotla 2023, hosted at UWC from 6-8 September.

EDHE is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) administered by Universities South Africa (USAf), which represents the country’s 26 public universities. 

The panel discussion was on the topic, Supporting Commercialisation in Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts within the entrepreneurial university. 

How does DSi define R&D?

Ms Jetane Charsley (right), Chief Director of NIPMO at the DSI, said South Africa is a member country of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and follows its Frascati Manual of internationally recognised guidelines. According to that manual, analysing a collection of data, for example, is not always regarded as an R&D activity.

“We start with a problem,” she said. “If you are our Department of Science and Innovation, and you want to fund R&D activities, but it’s [the project is] not defined as an R&D activity, what now?”

DSi is planning a Collaboration Fund

Charsley said the White Paper on Science and Technology is the department’s long-term trajectory for a more prosperous and inclusive society. Its implementation is the Decadal Plan, which “specifically makes reference to the inclusion of humanities and social sciences in formulating a world view,” she said. 

The Decadal Plan says transdisciplinary approaches grounded in the humanities and socials sciences have been shown to offer the greatest opportunities for success. 

The plan proposes a Collaboration Fund to eliminate coordination failures in the system. “And it states that it will be designed as an anchor in the humanities and social sciences,” she said.

Measuring goodwill

Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela (below), Director: Operations and Sector Support at USAf, said to some extent, commercialisation of the humanities and social science disciplines was nothing new, except perhaps the language it used. 

Commercialisation of the arts, humanities and social sciences did not mean divorcing these disciplines from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The humanities and social sciences are now dependent on technology and universities might need the expertise of engineers to commercialise a product. “So, you can’t do it separately from the other disciplines,” he said. “If commercialisation has to work, it’s got work for the institution as a whole, for all the disciplines, and not some against the others,” he said. 

He said even though it was hard to measure impact in the humanities and social sciences, “it shouldn’t stifle us from escalating what we want to do.

“If, for example your product, or store, has goodwill and traction, your clients will keep coming. But how do you measure it? Maybe with your sales, but in certain instances it is not just about the sales; it is about what people get when they come to you. Not the product, but the welcome you are giving them, your interaction with them. Those things you can measure — they translate to more people coming. That’s the goodwill and that’s exactly what we need to be looking at,” he said.

The complexities of commercialisation of the arts

Dr Andrew Bailey (right), Senior Manager: Innovation at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and President of the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), said universities were grappling with ownership of Intellectual Property (IP) in the arts. “It’s different, because literary works for media, dances, performances, and music compositions are owned by the creators rather than the university, which is different to the STEM space,” he said.

The commercialisation of a film script, more specifically, a short story that somebody wanted to develop into a screenplay, had “opened up the complexity in terms of the various parties that need to share and benefit from the royalties, all the different copyrights, ownership of images and music”. He was not sure the average tech transfer office person had that type of copyright knowledge.

He suggested three things that needed to be considered for commercialising research in the humanities and social sciences:

  • changing the language from tech transfer, perhaps to “valorisation” or “knowledge transfer”;
  • identifying suitable external funders as they had been accustomed to looking to the DSi to fund STEM projects; 
  • thinking about the purpose of the commercialisation: is it about money, jobs, creating companies, or societal impact of the research outputs? And then determining which university systems and training need to be put into place to achieve those impacts and develop the ventures, which could be service-based. 

We at UCT are excited about the space. I’m seeing a lot of opportunity, but there’s a lot of thinking to be done,” said Dr Bailey.

The Ghanian experience

Dr Samuel Yaw Akomea (below), Senior Lecturer at the School of Business and director of the Kumasi business incubator at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana, joined the panel discussion online. 

He said most entrepreneurs at KNUST were in the arts – jewellery shops, galleries, ceramic shops, and publishing houses. Now they were encouraging those from disciplines such as geography and history to follow suit.

He added that almost all startup funders want to see tangible products. If the product was intangible, “you are going to have a tough time to get funding,” said Akomea. 

“It is easier to present that if you can create a device and can sell 1000 at this price, you multiply your revenue model. But the person who wants to establish an art gallery or establish legal services, for example, has difficulty in presenting the revenue model,” he said.

“So how do we change the game?” he said.  KNUST was looking at integrating programmes, an interdisciplinary approach where students would team up with those from other departments to deliver a product for the markets. “This, I think, is the way forward,” said Akomea. Although it was difficult for the university to synchronise marks, “eventually there will be no 100% social scientist on his own but one with a team that delivers a product that is tangible”.


Question: “What are the metrics that we can use to measure impact, and what does that impact look like? I’m thinking about social enterprises in education. There’s a good example with the Maharishi Invincible Institute that is using meditation and mindfulness to heal trauma so that students can learn and perform better, and it creates better outcomes for education. The impact is there. And they’re using the same kinds of business principles: identifying a problem, looking at how do we solve it, and what does that impact look like? So, I think social innovation needs a different language and different metrics to measure success.”

Answer: Dr Bailey: “There was a discussion on this on a chat forum of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) and what you have said resonates with something Jeff Skinner of London Business School said. He said if a commercial partner must maximise shareholder value, then the original owner of the technology — be it a venture or the university — loses the control and autonomy to optimise impact over profit. 

“And that, to me is the key to metrics in the space. it is understanding the impact you want to make and doesn’t necessarily go back to profit. 

“Something else mentioned on the forum is that you need to try and come up with a number. People like numbers in terms of impact. With an intervention that trains trainers to engage with unwed teen mothers on how to cope, if you can say so many people were trained, over a certain period worked with so many unwed mothers, and they’ve had an impact on this many. It’s about stories and a few figures that show the impact, and not about maximising profit.”

The way forward

Dr Casanueva said: “It is the time to get together as USAf and learn what is happening and how can we make changes to support this because it is an absolute priority. SARIMA is starting a community of practice to investigate this issue. 

“EDHE, thank you, and let’s carry on this very important conversation.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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