The Defence, Peace, Safety and Security (DPSS) division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recently held a technology demonstration day at the CSIR campus, in Pretoria. Various technologies developed by the DPSS division were displayed to representatives of industry and the media.
“The purpose of the day is to interact with industry as a step to them taking these technologies on board, developing these products and manufacturing them, hopefully resulting in exports,” explained CSIR DPSS strategic research manager Johan Strydom. “Some of our latest technological developments already have industrial partners.”
A problem, however, is the current state of the economy. Within South African industry, development funding is scarce. Although sources of funding still exist – for example, venture capital – in general, companies do not have a lot of money to spare for developing new products.
“As a result, we’re changing our approach to developing new technologies,” he reported. “We’re seeking to get industrial partners involved in our programmes as early as possible. This also involves developing technologies with the requirements of production in mind to make it easy to move from research and development to actual manufacturing.” Thus, the new approach involves the concurrent development of the new technology and the engineering processes needed to manufacture it in series.
There is, in fact, no legislation forbidding the CSIR from manufacturing its own products. “But manufacturing doesn’t make sense when there is an industry in the country,” he pointed out. And the function of the CSIR is to help develop the country’s industry, not compete with it.
There are a number of ways in which the CSIR can get its technologies onto the market. Transferring them to already existing companies is the most obvious. However, this is not a straightforward process. Some technologies can be transferred successfully to small or medium-sized companies, but others are only suitable for transfer to big companies with international connections or footprints. And some technologies do not fit the manufacturing capabilities of existing companies in South Africa at all, requiring a startup to manufacture them. Everything has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
“In those sectors in which there is no local manufacturing sector, the CSIR could create companies to develop our new technologies in that sector, with the CSIR manufacturing the first few production examples,” affirmed Strydom. “Any such company would be set up with an investment partner, either public sector or private sector, and the company would then be spun off from the CSIR. This involves business risk but uses the optimal choice for certain technologies, and it has been done in the past.”