Commercialisation of university innovation presents opportunities for South Africa

5th May 2021 By: Tasneem Bulbulia - Creamer Media Reporter

The commercialisation of university intellectual property (IP) and technology innovation presents considerable opportunities for South Africa and would help engender a positive impact on society and economic growth, independent technology transfer consultant Tom Hockaday has said.

He was speaking during a webinar hosted by standalone investment vehicle the SA SME Fund on May 5, during which his book, ‘University Technology Transfer: What It Is and How to Do It’, was also launched.

Hockaday said much information inside universities that could help economies develop was untapped and that the book explores how to transfer this from within universities into industries and companies so that they can invest in that knowledge and technology to develop new products and services that benefit people.

The book starts with the concept that, sometimes, commercialisation is the best way for university researchers to benefit society, Hockaday informed.

He emphasised that it was important for universities to have multiple benefits, channels and purposes for sharing their skills and talent, and that, sometimes, getting involved in commercial relationships was the best way to develop the research coming out of these institutions so that is becomes better at producing products and services that benefit societies.

Hockaday said that, over the past 30 or so years, in different phases across different countries, universities, with government and industrial support, have learned how to build technology transfer offices whose job it is to help connect the universities with investors and government support.

He said it was important for a technology transfer office to position itself within the whole scope of the university, and recognise that it is not the most important piece of the puzzle, but that the researches are.

Rather, the role of the office is to help researchers transfer the results of their research into large and small companies to benefit society, he indicates.

The book also looks at the history of this in the US and the UK; some mechanisms and processes of how to run a good transfer office; and asks universities to think about the purpose, objective and desires in this area.

For the latter, Hockaday said this was an important theme of the debate between generating income and generating impact.

He said that commercialisation was, in some instances, the best way to generate impact from university IP and technology.

He noted that, generally, the overwhelming desire from universities was to want to generate a positive impact, and, if this was done successfully, it could also make money – “doing well by doing good,” Hockaday said.

The book also explores university investment funds, and how proof of concept funds and seed funds play an important role in helping the innovation community.

He mentioned an example of this as the development of investment funds at Oxford University, starting with the £4-million University Challenge Seed Fund in 2000 and leading to the creation of the £600-million Oxford Sciences Innovation fund launched in 2015, that supported the successful development and commercialisation of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine.

In South Africa, commercialisation of research and patents is lagging, and one measure aiming to address this gap is the University Technology Fund (UTF).

The UTF is a South African university technology fund supported by the SA SME Fund and it is focused on driving the commercialisation of this sector in the country.

UTF co-founder Daniel Strauss said the fund aims to promote university technology as a credible asset class that is worth investing in, while making a positive impact.

He highlighted that, in its first year, it has already recorded several successes, with seven investments to the tune of R28.5-million concluded despite the pandemic.

Hockaday said the country was doing good work in the university research space, but needed more funding of basic research.

He said this was important because it created the platform that provides the pipeline of projects that can go into building an innovation community.

He also said that role-players had to recognise that building this takes time.

Lastly, Hockaday encouraged South Africans in this space to tell their stories, as that would be useful to connect with the public and people in society so that they understand and recognise the importance of university research and transferring it out into society through a commercial route.