NO UNIVERSITY in South Africa is big enough for the patent office to sustain itself on patent flow, says Piet Barnard, director of research contracts and intellectual property (IP) services at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Patents have become a buzz word in the South African science and technology landscape, as a way to monetise university research, but there are the dual constraints of funding and the fact that researchers’ focus is publication output, rather than entrepreneurship.

Although the National Intellectual Property Management Office subsidises 50% of the costs of patenting, the rest is borne by the university, says Andrew Bailey, IP manager at UCT.

In 2011, the value of research contracts was more than R720m.

The IP office, with its 15 staff members, is responsible for research contracts, IP and commercialisation and spin-off companies. "On our staff, we have five lawyers. They process and negotiate all research-related agreements," Mr Barnard says.

However, "great technologies are piling up in front of the university’s door because of funding. We’re having to shoulder the costs so that we don’t lose the IP, while trying to find innovation funding," Mr Bailey says.

This is a lament heard from technology transfer offices all over the country. It would appear that even though UCT has some of the highest industry revenue and patent numbers in the country, it suffers from the same problems as smaller institutions.