Professor Azwihangwisi Mavhandu-Mudzusi of the University of South Africa (Unisa) has wasted no time in putting into practice what she learnt from the British Council‘s Strengthening Commercialisation Skills (SCS) programme.

The programme is designed to maximise outputs from the social sciences, humanities and arts research. Besides online training and mentoring sessions, it included a visit in February to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom (UK).

“When I came back, I said I would need to start with students’ proposals. So when we ran the workshop for masters and doctoral students, we told them to focus on what is going to be the impact of what they’re doing – who is going to benefit, who are going to be their partners, who will fund that. Instead of the normal proposal about the purpose of the study, they start with commercialisation,” she said.

Mavhandu-Mudzusi (left), who is Head of the Office of Graduate Studies and Research in Unisa’s College of Human Sciences, was speaking at the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education Programme (EDHE) seventh annual lekgotla about how she had been able to take what she had learnt and contextualise it at her own institution.

EDHE is an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) that is administered by Universities South Africa (USAf), the representative body of the country’s 26 public universities. The lekgotla was hosted as a hybrid event from 6 to 8 September at the University of the Western Cape.

Professor Mavhandu-Mudzazi was one of 14 academics and technology transfer managers from South Africa’s seven universities who participated in the pilot phase of the British Council programme.

Besides Unisa, the other universities were:

  • The University of Cape Town (UCT);
  • Durban University of Technology (DUT);
  • Stellenbosch University (SU);
  • University of Fort Hare (UFH);
  • North-West University (NWU); and
  • University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Three other participants from that programme attended the Lekgotla to share their experiences, as reported below.

The session’s facilitator, Luan Africa, Technology Transfer Specialist: Commercialisation at the University of the Western Cape, explained how the British Council programme had been launched in 2022 with the support of USAf’s EDHE programme and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). It was a response to the 2020-2021 South Africa University Innovation Ecosystem Mapping exercise that the British Council had commissioned.

UK-based consultancy, Oxentia, concluded in their report that while the South African university innovation ecosystem had pockets of excellence and good practice, it lacked commercialisation of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS). This was partly because of a lack of knowledge on how to achieve this in those disciplines.

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. South Africa’s Country Director, Ms George Barrett (right), said: “We’re all here (at the lekgotla) for the youth of South Africa, and particularly to address the unemployment and underemployment of our youth. Strengthening their commercialisation in HASS subjects is a critical pathway, not only for those individuals and for institutional change, but also to deliver on South Africa’s economic ambitions, growth and prosperity”.

Even though humanities and social science disciplines are referred to as HASS, Africa said he preferred to use the acronym SHAPE — Social sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy – to refer to those disciplines. By contrast, STEM refers to the grouping of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Universities tend to focus their commercialisation initiatives on STEM.

The value of networking

Mr Athenkosi Matshini (left), Intellectual Property (IP) and Innovation Manager at UFH, said as a previously disadvantaged university, UFH was “seriously lacking” commercialisation strategies for social science innovations. His own background did not help either. “Personally, I was not clued up on that because I have a science background,” said Matshini, who has a master’s degree in geohydrology from the University of the Western Cape.

He said he benefitted immensely from past networking opportunities. “We are still communicating with some of the people we met in the UK and they are assisting us with moving this project forward.”

For examples, he said they had learned about venture builders from the London School of Economics and were trying to implement that. They had also heard how the UK universities don’t have funding for research but have started a seed fund. “It’s not as big as what TIA (the South African Technology Innovation Agency) offers, but it gets them to that level. So, some of what I’ve learned there is starting to materialise within the institution,” said Matshini.

Funding – let’s coordinate and let’s access corporate funds

Dr Ncebakazi Galada (right), who was the Technology Transfer Manager: Innovus and Commercialisation at SU until May 2023 and is now CEO of the Township Cannabis Incubator, said going to the UK taught her the value of the “integration or cross- pollinating of government funding, private funding and the vibrant culture of young people identifying problems within their environment and coming up with innovations”.

She particularly liked the UK’s coordinated approach, considering that South African institutions relied on government funding, yet the departments do not talk to each other. “You find that one department is funding the same thing as another, but in a different technology. As a beneficiary, if you go knock on that door, you can’t access the other funding.” She said government provides small pockets of funding but does not address the entire problem. “It’s almost like we just tick boxes,” Galada said.

“I want to challenge our funders: let’s talk to each other. And let’s engage from the bottom up because funding instruments that are not speaking to the challenges on the ground don’t make any sense.“

She said she was happy to hear about the Department of Science and Innovation’s collaboration fund. “Perhaps with all these funding instruments, we can now have a fund that speaks to the same mandate. They want the same outputs, but everyone is talking a different language. Let’s coordinate this effort, and let’s ensure that there is impact on the ground.”

Africa said there needed to be more discussion on ways of leveraging corporate social investment funds to fund SHAPE commercialisation.

Commercialisation is about taking action on research

Like Matshini, Professor Henk Louw (left), Subject Leader and Senior Lecturer of Academic Literacy at NWU, said he had also been motivated by the networking opportunities the programme provided.

What stood out for him was the commercialisation offices at Oxford and Cambridge universities, with “a much broader concept of what they see as commercialisation. We think of commercialisation often in terms of ‘we’ve got a product, we’ve got a business we started, and we make money,’ but they see it as more of an action: ‘you’ve got the research, you take action on it’. And if you get mileage for the university in terms of marketing, or exposure in the media, that’s commercialisation already. What we see as community service, they sometimes already see as commercialisation,” said Louw.

“Innovation is not necessarily commercialisation, but it is vital for it. You can’t just try and solve a problem in a way that’s already been done. That’s why the action part of innovation and research is, for me, the first step in terms of commercialisation. If you act on the research, then I won’t get so many master’s proposals looking pretty much the same as the ones we’ve seen already.”

More opportunities

Ms Olipa Ntawanga, Higher Education Project Manager at the British Council, announced a grant opportunity for South African universities. It could also be a consortium of one or two universities joining forces with a national body or consultancy that could contribute “to disseminate and create the buy-in that we need to create the HASS movement in South Africa”, she said. The application details will be posted on the British Council’s website soon.

The Council has secured funding for the programme’s second cohort and will be publishing a call for academics and technology transfers practitioners to participate. “We are looking forward to seeing new universities come on board,” said Ntawanga.

Let’s create enterprises inspired by our culture and history

When the discussion was opened to the floor, Dr Andrew Bailey (right), Senior Manager: Innovation at UCT, said the initiative had really stimulated thinking in the tech transfer space, which is traditionally in STEM disciplines.

He hoped the rollout would include more materials, sounding boards, and guidance in terms of policy development. They needed tools for researchers, which could perhaps be disseminated through additional workshops. They also needed to understand best practice. He said they were looking at implementation “because it is new to us. I think it’s relatively new even in the UK”.

He added that they needed profiles of successful businesses and outcomes. “I’ve been looking for examples of enterprises that have been set up and so many in the UK built off culture or history. There’s so much opportunity in South Africa for that and for stories to be told,” said Bailey.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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