Southern Africa’s path to innovation: The potential of university-industry partnerships
UIIN is going to South Africa! To prepare for the UIIN Forum in Johannesburg in April 2024, we have invited Andrew Bailey, Senior Manager Innovation at University of Cape Town, and former president of SARIMA, to bring valuable insights into the context of university-business collaboration in South Africa, dive deep into their challenges and opportunities, and share some success stories.
In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:
Andrew, could you please first introduce yourself and we can dig it into our conversation.
I’m the immediate past president of the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), which represents countries across SADC and looks after research management in addition to innovation management.
It is quite important for the region because a lot of the technology and knowledge transfer activities are often first incubated in a research office. It’s a growing and an exciting phase, and it’s been great to be involved with projects there.
My day job is at the University of Cape Town, and I have been here for over 15 years. It has been fantastic to see the change in technology transfer activity capacity within the country, but also at the university.
Can you share any insights into the current state of university industry collaboration and knowledge transfer in South Africa? And maybe also highlight some of the key challenges and opportunities.
Interestingly, we found that it is probably decreasing compared to 10 years ago in certain elements and sectors. A lot of research within South Africa was dominated by Sasol, a petrochemical company, as well as mining houses. Really significant programs and funding support came from those industry collaborations.
With a maturing industry such as the mining one, often, if you have an economic downturn, that tends to move people away from being able to fund R&D at universities. Something else that is interesting for us is just where you get your contract research and innovation coming in from. We find that there is not as much from the Western Cape, which is the region that the university is in, and there aren’t mines that close to us, but often we, ironically, do a lot of work for the mining industry.
But we are beginning to see changes where, for instance, the medical device sector in the Western Cape has really grown, and that it’s largely being driven by the University of Stellenbosch and ourselves with very strong biomedical engineering departments.
It’s been great to see that whole ecosystem develop in the last 10 years. A lot of our industry interaction is beginning to move into the SME space, start-up companies, finance institutes, etc. It’s a time of renewal and looking for new industry partners and, importantly, looking out to foreign industry.
A challenge for us is sometimes the absorptive capacity of local industry and that is why, particularly in the pharmaceutical space, we would find that we are interacting more with the foreign farmer than the local farmer.
It’s great to hear that there is a wave of diversification of stakeholder types in the race of university industry collaboration. From your experience, what would you say would be the key factors that would be contributing to that success to that race?
We would have to look at the different modes of interaction. Consulting is an interesting one. Often, technical experts can provide specific insights, but what it really speaks to is a mismatch, maybe in terms of the time horizon to get to results.
If it’s a smaller company, they are needing a problem solved within a couple of days, consulting could well assist that. What want to do is to develop longer term interactions with companies and build a multi-year relationship with them.
Talking about challenges, accessing these government funding schemes for this type of collaborations is one of them. It’s interesting because companies have tax incentives and can deduct 150 percent of their R&D expenses, but they tend to be administratively onerous. And that doesn’t become as much of an incentive.
We also need people spanning borders who can almost interpret the industry’s requirement or needs and frame the project into the research side. We do that in part through something that we call a Catalyst Lunch, where we bring together funders, local industry players, and researchers from across the university, just to have a lunch. No one is asking anyone for anything, but we have aligned people with a topic that could be fairly broad that brings all of those people together with industry. What’s interesting is that you find industry making connections with industry, but also your academics, chatting about their work and suddenly realizing: Oh, yeah, I could do that for you.
And one of the things that really shocked me was one of the SMEs said that they were really scared about coming to the university to engage. Through the lunch, they realised that they don’t need to have a very high-tech project, there’s an opportunity to engage.
That’s a wonderful example of how serendipitous connection can lead to ground-breaking innovation. How can industry partners actively enhance and foster more collaborations with universities in South Africa?
One of the touch points is the graduate programs, where they are on advisory boards for departments and steering the curriculum development, ensuring that they have got relevant graduates going out. Giving opportunities for graduates to do some practical experience be it either in the certification periods or, maybe even as part of a module in a semester to allow them to effectively get that first feel of real- life industry with within their field.
A challenge that some of our spin off companies raised was that, the university must do more to business-ready their graduates, and that is actually where industry could play a role.
Another thing is where industry players get together in a particular sector, and they put funding together to focus on specific research topics. In that way, especially for smaller players, companies will benefit from the research output. Obviously, this is in the pre-competitive space, but you can then have 10 companies putting money in and funding a particular research activity area.
We have also seen an interest where a particular research group has managed to attract several industry partners. They are interested in the output of that research group but they are not prescribing specific sort of research contracts.
It’s more of a “let’s see what happens”. They support the group and then maybe they get a first bright if something comes out that aligns with their business. To me, that is a really useful way for industry to support and guide research to a large extent so that it meets their requirements.
Interested in more Insights like this?
If you would like to collaborate with external stakeholders but are not sure of where to start, our video How to turn transactional university-business relationships into strategic partnerships? can help you get started with four simple actions to turn your university-business relationships into strategic partnerships.
You can also explore the success story of a pioneering Australian animation and visualisation school that firmly believes that industry should lead education in our episode Lessons from Hollywood: How industry can benefit higher education institutions.
Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!