At the two-day Academy-Industry Training: Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators Programme (AIT-SASBI) Spring Conference 2023 that ended in Gauteng on Thursday, 23 February, universities-industry collaboration was once again emphasised as a key determinant of success in entrepreneurship.

Professor Edwin Constable (left), a chemistry professor and former Vice-President of Switzerland’s University of Basel, was the first keynote speaker who underscored collaboration, and his words were emphatically echoed in Universities South Africa’s opening address. Dr Stephen Oluwatobi, Chief Executive Officer of Pertinence Group, a Nigeria-based group of enterprise development companies with a focus on people development through innovation, also shared a mouthful on universities-industry collaboration. 

Dr Oluwatobi (right), kicked off his talk by asserting that the world is built on collaboration, not isolation, and that innovation is the most important catalyst for micro and macro-economic growth.  He mentioned universities among the many role players involved in innovation alongside regulators, industry and the market. He said for all the research that universities undertake on their campuses, they cannot go far as long as they remain disconnected from those whose problems they are trying to solve, and those practising that which universities theorise — that is, industry. He dubbed industry “the real world where actions take place.”

He acknowledged that industry needs talent to thrive. It needs solutions to their business and market problems validated through research. Industry needs commercially viable ideas derived from meaningful scientific research that unlocks wealth creation. Dr Oluwatobe said industry also needs to have a say in the development of talent, to reduce the cost of talent acquisition.

From Professor Constable’s perspective, Switzerland’s success in innovation, that has won her the No. 1 spot on the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s (WIPO’s) Global Innovation Index for 12 years in a row, could be attributed fully to collaboration. He said his own University of Basel had optimised the opportunities presented by its location in the city of Basel, home to 700 life sciences companies with a 32,000-strong workforce. Basel also hosts 200 research institutes and spends 15% of its GDP on research and development.   These attributes have seen the city of Basel leading her European counterparts in pharmaceuticals, chemistry, bio and medical technology, agronomy, nanotechnology and cosmetics.

Good lessons learnt

Professor Constable admitted that his country had had its fair share of learnings along the way. Notwithstanding her history of good scientific research output, back in 2008, Switzerland was choking from the Valley of Death syndrome, where innovative research results were shelved away and not translating into market solutions. There was little to no engagement between researchers and industry, and none of the players on either side understood how to bridge the communication gap. 

Even bigger challenges became evident as researchers displayed good ideas and results but also had unrealistic expectations. Researchers had no commercial experience and very rarely made good CEOs. Industry partners, on the other hand, were often innovation averse and conservative. There was little appetite to finance the commercialisation of research results as both researchers and industry partners were not inclined to take risks. Universities, researchers, and industry also showed unreasonable expectations regarding IP (as every player claimed ownership of the IP).

Do not try to do it all, yourself

Professor Constable encourages universities to partner up with specialised entities in managing their intellectual property. He argues that universities are hardly ever equipped with knowledge or capacity to utilise their IP and lack the critical mass of expertise it takes to establish viable IP and innovation management centres. He posits that partnering with better resourced consortia brings with it the benefits of specialised expertise, realistic evaluation and advice, legal and due diligence competence and capacity, resulting in a comprehensive service and significant cost savings.

He said the University of Basel is now reaping the benefits of being part of a consortium named UNITECTRA, a non-profit incorporated technological transfer company that went into operation from 1999, co-owned by the universities of Basel, Bern and Zurich. The University of Basel also collaborates with the Swiss Technology Transfer Association which specialises in managing its research collaborations with industry and activates the commercialisation of research results. Included in their basket of services are IP/patents protection and management, technology marketing, financing and the licensing of existing and spin-off companies.

Key partners for Africa  

The University of Basel also owes its innovation success to its partnership with the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, commonly known as Swiss TPH, and the two have formed a powerhouse leading collaboration with universities in sub-saharan Africa from 2000, which extended to South Africa in 2007.  

In that context, and through the Department of Science and Innovation, the South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP) was signed in 2007, with a mandate to promote scientific and technological collaboration between Switzerland and South Africa/Sub-Saharan Africa, with specific research interests in Health, Nanosciences, Social Sciences and Humanities. The National Research Foundation is now involved, to scale up innovation through mobility and research partnership grants.

The University has also formed STELLA, a collaborative entity formed with five other stakeholder groups to collectively apply digital solutions to the management of health systems challenges. The consortium has developed metadata packages for malaria, chagas, sickle cell anaemia and leprosy for the benefit of 70 countries across the globe including those in sub-saharan Africa — in collaboration with the World Health Organisation.  

Furthermore, the University of Basel is involved in the Swiss-South African Business Development programme (SSABDP) which provides a unique, high-quality learning opportunity for start-ups and entrepreneurs.  Under the Swiss and African Science and Business Innovators (SASBI) Programme, South Africa stands to benefit, alongside seven other countries in sub-saharan Africa, from technological transfer services and university-industry exchanges facilitated through academy-industry conferences such as the one just concluded in Gauteng. This, as part of SASBI’s Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy 2021-24. 

Sub-saharan African countries participating in the SASBI programme include Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

SDGs-inspired socially impactful innovation is feasible  

Professor Constable believes that Sustainable Development Goals-responsive enterprises can be achieved if entrepreneurs start considering the social impact of their business ideas from the outset. To that end, he encourages researchers to:

  • Identify within their areas of expertise and inquiry, priority SDGs and set targets and key performance indicators to monitor progress. 
  • Measure results and communicate them to both internal and external stakeholders
  • Align company values and culture to the SDGs so all employees are aware of the common goals.
  • Synergy – learn from the Swiss experiences
  • Symbiosis – work equitably and equally with Swiss partners
  • Sustainability – identify needed and realistic innovations
  • Cultivate self-confidence but guard against becoming over-confident
  • Use science to solve societal challenges and feed solutions to the innovation pipeline; ultimately, 
  • Succeed.

Ecosystems critical for impactful entrepreneurship 

While concurring that universities generate talent and knowledge to solve societal problems and achieve prosperity, Professor Erik Stam (left), professor of strategy, organisation and entrepreneurship at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and an Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University, argued that a good university education and lots of investment in knowledge were not enough without a nurturing an ecosystem, to make an impact.

According to Professor Stam, other elements critical for the realisation of prosperity from entrepreneurship, alongside talent and knowledge, are physical infrastructure, leadership, finance, demand for the solutions presented, and intermediaries to make things happen.

He said universities, as long-term entities enjoying staying power with a continuous outflow of knowledge and talents, are best placed to play a key role when they build an ecosystem within them, especially when they develop the right culture and networks to make this happen.  Universities could also become role models for the upcoming generations.

The AIT-SASBI Spring Conference 2023 was jointly hosted by Universities South Africa’s Enterpreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme in collaboration with the University of Basel, through the Swiss-South Africa National and International Cooperation programme coordinated by the Swiss Embassy in South Africa. AIT-SASBI is an initiative of the government of Switzerland run by the University of Basel. Their objective is to connect student entrepreneurs with various industries to help them develop the market application of their business ideas. 

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication. 

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