Universities, business forge closer ties
FOR MANY in the business world, trying to get access to university expertise is like attempting to get into Fort Knox, says Aart Boessenkool, director of the Office of Commercialisation and Technology Transfer at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
The office is a bridge between the university and industry, allowing "business an entrance into the ivory tower", he says. "In academia, we often don’t know the problems in the business world and society as a whole."
The gap in the tower works both ways, allowing academic skills and ideas a conduit into the business world, through incubation initiatives, start-up companies and intellectual property.
Research and development are a key driver of growth, competitiveness and job creation, and the foundation of a knowledge economy, with research publication and patenting often considered metrics for success.
While South African research output has increased in the past decade, reaching its highest level to date last year, patenting and commercialisation have been highlighted as challenges for the country’s innovation space.
In 2008, SA was granted 91 patents by the US Patent Office, accounting for a 0,06% share of global patents. According to University of Pretoria academic Anastassios Pouris, about 85% of new knowledge in SA comes out of the country’s universities.
Prof David Kaplan, an economics professor at the University of Cape Town, says for economic growth, "new knowledge must be commercialised".
To tackle this problem, the government passed the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research Act, in 2008. This act makes provision for a National Intellectual Property Management Office (Nipmo) and every university has to report to a technology transfer office. "Researchers and their institutions, by law, have to identify, disclose, evaluate and protect intellectual property," says Jonathan Youngleson, head of Nipmo.
So, on the one hand, UJ’s technology transfer office deals with patenting and licensing, as well as due diligence reporting for, innovations developed by researchers, but it has also started a company, Resolution Circle, whose focus is developing start-up companies. Willem Clarke, a former professor in electrical engineering at UJ, now heads Resolution Circle, which "is not UJ. The university owns it, but it is separate." He says: "The aim is to create a commercial interface between the university and industry. Industry brings us their problem, and we use university resources to develop it."
But the flip side of that is student development, which is actually how it started, he says. "Students have to do a year in practice before they get their diploma (or degree), but with the economic downturn in 2008, companies couldn’t take them on. We have 7,500 engineering students and growing," he says. "It really started because our students needed work experience."
Prof Boessenkool describes this arrangement as a meeting of minds: business, the university and researchers. "Students get to work on real work problems."
Also, if the innovation developed through the partnership passes due diligence, it can be spun out into a company.
"We were officially registered in January ," says Prof Clarke, "and we have started five companies this year and there are two we will be starting now."
He cites a firm involved in mining technology, and a television studio. Resolution Circle is still in its infancy, but the "pilot" offices will be ready by next March on UJ’s Auckland Park campus. This office will have incubation services for innovators and laboratory space for businesses to rent with other university resources. When asked how much it would cost businesses and what these "resources" are, Prof Boessenkool says that would depend on the situation.
"We will deal with it on a contract-by-contract basis. We do not want to define the parameters because that would take out the innovation."
More in this section
- AU must cut financial dependency to stand politically firm, says minister
- NUM ‘under siege’, says Shabangu in show of solidarity
- JSE firmer despite weaker global markets
- Stimulus fears haunt share markets
- Oil drops on spectre of US Fed policy, ample US supply
- Gold heads for biggest weekly rise in a month as stocks retreat