The perceived conflict between higher education institutions commercialising research and publishing it is underpinned by misconception, misinterpretation, and misinformation. Many researchers see intellectual property protection and the subsequent commercialisation thereof as major stumbling blocks that hinder the dissemination of scientific research through publication. But if things are done correctly, and all the necessary processes, procedures and support systems are in place, then researchers are most certainly able to publish and commercialise their research. It is all about the timing.

So said Mr Luan Africa (right), Technology Transfer Specialist at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He was speaking at last week’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2022, which was hosted by Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

Africa hit at the heart of the topic under discussion in that morning’s Think Tank: How might researchers approach and position their research for commercialisation and not only for publication?

Echoing the words of Professor Edward Rybicki of the University of Cape Town, a speaker in an earlier session of the Lekgotla that morning, Africa continued: “If you don’t appropriately protect whatever you have, nobody is going to want it from a commercialisation perspective”.

Africa was one of three speakers at the Think Tank, facilitated by Professor Peter Bauer from the School of Economics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). The other two speakers were training and development consultant and academic, Ms Samantha Layton-Matthews, and Ms Rosemary Wolson, Director: Technology Transfer Office at UJ, who spoke in her capacity as Vice-President of the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA). SARIMA ensures that tech transfer offices and research offices at institutions are properly skilled.

Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) put a considerable amount of time and effort into dispelling myths associated with the “publication-commercialisation dichotomy”, said Africa. “You can definitely do both. It’s just a matter of getting your inventions appropriately assessed and protected prior to publication.”

Importantly, researchers need to look at the publication-related clauses in their funding agreements. “Sometimes the funders or the commercial partners would not want you to publish any kind of research results because they are key to the further development of a particular product or service they would like to commercialise,” he said.

“If they do not allow you to publish, then obviously it’s going to put unnecessary pressure on you because publications are valuable academic currency, and we don’t want to hinder that. That’s why it’s always important to make sure that you maintain publication rights.”

Usually, funders or commercial partners are given an opportunity to review publications, with the right to ask for something to be “removed or tweaked or worded differently, so that you don’t give the crux of the invention away,” said Africa.

Technology Transfer Offices can help researchers

He had many tips for how best researchers could position their research for commercialisation. Key was “fostering a very good relationship with the technology transfer offices in institutions, because one of the main driving forces behind what the TTO does is to add additional value to the traditional academic process through the commercialisation of valuable innovations developed within higher education institutions,” he said.

In many cases, innovations that are disclosed to the TTO are not ready for commercialisation – yet. Although these projects are not yet able to be protected, from an intellectual property perspective,  it is not necessarily a situation where a researcher is told a “hard no” or “you’ll never be able to do anything with it,” he said. There is value in working with the TTO, which could advise researchers on how to develop their innovations to a point where they are able to protect their IP, enter the researcher commercialisation pipeline and be developed further into a product, service, or a spin-out company. TTOs are also able to help researchers unlock development funding and further commercial development or partnering opportunities. Early-stage technology development is an iterative process, and TTOs are well positioned to guide and advise on the way forward.

Oftentimes there might not (yet) be a market for what the researcher is developing. As such, a technology push approach is taken when developing products/services based on cutting-edge academic research, as opposed to a market pull approach where there is a clear demand for a particular product/service. In this case, it is essential to refine and clearly articulate the value proposition and competitive advantage of the technology under development, so that the market can understand and appreciate the differences between the new offering and that which is already commonplace”, said Africa.

Focus your research on the user

If there is the possibility of a product or service in the pipeline, Africa recommended keeping the end user in mind when further developing and refining the offering

“In my experience, there are some very, very innovative, broadly applicable technologies being developed in our university research laboratories. However, in certain instances, when it comes to the feasibility and practical implementation of applying a particular technology, device, or product within the environment where it is intended to be used, it is completely impractical and not feasible. That’s why it’s best to keep the end user in mind constantly. Speak to the people at the coalface,” he said.

Check the rights in the contract

Academic research has various benefits, including collaboration, data and information exchange, and the freedom to publish. When this research is moved into the private sector (through licensing to a commercial partner), certain restrictions come into play. There is an urgent need to protect the licensed intellectual property. In some cases, protecting that investment has implications for future developments and has an impact on academic freedom. Consider the situation in which a commercial partner that licenses a technology from a university also owns the rights to future improvements. These rights may restrict a researcher’s ability to freely publish.

Not all researchers are entrepreneurs

Ms Rosemary Wolson (left) of SARIMA said it was important to recognise up front, that “not all researchers aspire to entrepreneurship”. She believed in three categories of entrepreneurs: those who are naturally entrepreneurial, those who cannot be taught to be entrepreneurial, and those in between, to whom it might not come naturally but could be taught.

“And while not all researchers aspire to become entrepreneurs, they are very few who don’t want to see their research make a real impact or recognise that commercialisation is one such way of making such impact,” she said.

Technology transfer offices mostly help researchers’ new products, processes or technologies have impact in two ways, by:

  • licensing them to existing companies; or
  • making them the basis of a startup company.

Researchers need incentives

Besides clear institutional strategies and policies and communicating and applying them effectively, consistently and fairly to ensure trust in management, Wolson said more researchers would become more involved in commercialisation if there were incentives.

Researchers’ share of the university’s benefits of commercialisation can take a long time and don’t come from every opportunity. “So, this in itself is not enough,” she said.

“Most researchers are not researchers for the purposes of becoming wealthy. It’s not the best way to do that. And so, it’s also about other things,” she said. They could be incentivised with support, for example, by lessening their administrative load. Academics must tick a lot of boxes in terms of teaching and research and graduating and supervising students and industry engagement,” she said. “How can all of that be made easier in order to open up space for this activity?” she said.

This was linked to what people were being measured on.  “Prolific patenters are usually the prolific publishers too. The question is, does your performance metrics value one over the other?” This needed to be addressed properly, she said.

Spread the success stories

Another important element is success stories “being able to recognise researchers who are making impact commercially and otherwise, through mechanisms other than benefit sharing”, she said.  It’s important to tell the positive stories,” she said, and tell them effectively. This helped give researchers the prestige they deserved, particularly when this involved some sort of trade-off of other activities that generally contribute to their status and career progression.

Words like innovation and creativity often don’t have value

Samantha Layton-Matthews (right) said straddling the continuum between commerce and academia and maximising that ecosystem to create more opportunity for entrepreneurial research, was not about just using popular words.

“‘Innovation’, ‘creativity’ are words we bandy about, but how effective are we with embedding those down into concrete plans and strategies?’’ she said.

Change itself has changed

 We are living with unprecedented change, “in a state of chaos and volatility”, she said, “constantly navigating paradox”.  More than that, “the nature of change itself has changed. It is now the continuous, a new normal, and yet we don’t sit comfortably with change,” she said. Living in “an era of accelerated obsolescence” was dire for research because by the time a project was completed, some of it might be obsolete.

The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2018 did not exist in 2008. Half of what students learn in their first year of studies can be outdated by third year. Only 22% of companies are ready for this change but 78% are fragile, rather than agile. This also applies to academic institutions, she said, which needed to become more responsive to the massive small business market in South Africa, especially in their research, and start conceptualising their target audience better, and engaging with them, to make their research more relevant.

Learning from Einstein

She said the process was not always one of research to capacity building to implementation. The bottom-up up approach was a way of breaking new ground by beginning research projects with asking: “Who are our customers? How are they segmented? What are their actual needs? Let’s ask them,” she said.

It was also about asking the right questions about research opportunities.

She quoted the famous theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, who developed the theory of relativity, saying: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I can solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

“So, sometimes the solution isn’t about finding quick fixes. It’s about asking the right questions to get there,” said Layton-Matthews.

Einstein also said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking with which we used to create them. “So how can we adopt a different kind of thinking? Are we thinking outside the box or just moving into another box?” she asked.

Research must fit the economy

The discussion’s facilitator Professor Peter Bauer (left) rattled off some harsh economic statistics facing South Africa. These included:

  • GDP growth rate of about 1.9%;
  • unemployment rate of about 35%; and
  • youth unemployment of about 65%.

Business confidence and consumer confidence Indices were “starting to wane”, he said, and we needed to try and find ways of creating economic growth.

For academics to create research that would benefit the country, they needed to ask:

  • Is the research appropriate for our economy?
  • Are we training our researchers to create the kind of research that industry need; and
  • How fast can we get valuable research into the market, so it has the most profound effect on our economy?

EDHE is a project of the Department of Higher Education and Training being implemented under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf).  The EDHE Lekgotla 2022, hosted by Nelson Mandela University, was presented with the support of the five national EDHE Communities of Practice. The theme of the EDHE Lekgotla 2022 was #movetomarket.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa

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