Are South African scientists good innovators and entrepeneurs?

Robert Zipplies, Catalyst Innovation Incubator

Reshan Sewnarain, first prize winner with Chief Executive of Deloitte and Touche, Vassi Naidoo. Our scientists are definitely good innovators. Over the years, our scientists have developed a number of technologies that are now being used globally. Some of the better-known ones include Pratley Putty, the Kreepy Crauly, ultra-deep mining techniques and the CAT Scanner. If one looks at international patent applications as a measure of innovativeness, South Africa fares very well. During the year 2000, South Africa filed 386 PCT (Patent Corporation Treaty) Applications, which places South Africa 22nd in the world, just behind Austria and Spain, and ahead of countries such as Singapore, Ireland and Brazil. But, do South African scientists make good entrepreneurs? The answer here is probably that they get at best a "C". We do not have a strong track record of converting our stream of innovations into viable businesses. Currently too many of our innovations never make it out of the laboratory, or they are snapped up by large industry with little or no benefit to the inventor and the country. South Africa would benefit immensely if we were able to convert more innovations into globally competitive businesses.  While there are a number of reasons for our poor track record in commercialisation, a vital aspect lacking is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship does not require a full set of financial, managerial, strategic and marketing skills. These skills can be learnt or hired in as appropriate. Entrepreneurs are people who have the drive and vision to create new businesses, and are people who are able to manage and organise the risks in creating new enterprises. Our scientists need to develop the vision to take things from laboratory to industry. While there have been a number of success stories (mostly in the IT field), we have had very few successes in the life sciences and engineering disciplines that can act as role models. It will take time to develop more success stories and to create a culture of technology-based entrepreneurship. To help stimulate entrepreneurship amongst South Africa's scientists, Catalyst Innovation Incubator and Deloitte & Touche, launched the Catalyst Innovation Competition. The competition was open to MSc and PhD students in the Science, Engineering and Health Science faculties. The objective of the competition was to encourage researchers to look beyond the technical aspects of their work and to explore the commercial aspects of their innovation. Entrants were asked to submit abbreviated business plans that covered such issues as financial requirements, marketing, commercialisation strategy, staffing, and competitor analysis. To help potential entrants prepare for the competition, nine workshops were held at major universities around the country. More than 500 students and staff attended these workshops, which covered entrepreneurial topics such as writing a business plan, who to approach for finance, and protecting innovations through patents and copyright. During the workshops Catalyst and Deloitte staff also provided real-life examples and learning points of managing a technology-driven business. Entries were received from all the major universities in the country and of these 10 finalists were chosen for a final round of judging in Cape Town. The finalists covered all three areas, science, engineering and health science. For the final round, finalists had to make a presentation to a panel of judges. The finalists were judged on aspects falling into three categories: 1. The Innovation: its innovativeness, the verification thereof, its competitiveness, its Protectability, the customer proposition, and whether there was an existing market. 2. The Business Aspects: the business model, potential profitability, plan for implementation, market size, risks, finance required, and time to market. 3. The Presentation: level of interest raised, relevancy, language used, layout, and how well finalists fielded questions. The winners were announced that evening at a cocktail function, which was hosted by the Chief Executives of Catalyst Innovation Incubator and Deloitte & Touche. Dr Rob Adam, Director General of DACST (Dept of Arts Culture Science and Technology), was the guest speaker. The first prize of R35 000 was won by Reshan Sewnarain, of the University of Natal. Reshan, who is completing his MSc in Chemical Engineering, developed a simple, yet effective method of recovering valuable organic acids from waste streams produced by the petrochemical industries. These organic acids can be used in the production of plasticicers, flavouring, fragrances and pharmaceuticals. The process offers waste generators globally a revenue-generating alternative to disposal by incineration. Peter Gross and Coenrad Fourie of the University of Stellenbosch won the second prize of R25 000 with their development of a Superconductor Array and CAD package. 

The third prize of R15 000 went to Sarah Taylor of the University of the Witwatersrand for her work on developing a Nematode based Bio-insecticide.  The top ten entries all had potential global appeal and shared the capacity for creating viable local businesses with international sales, thereby creating opportunities for employment. It is such contributions to the South African economy that will stimulate further innovation within our borders and create value-added secondary industries. The Catalyst Innovation Competition will become an annual event, and we hope to see an increase in the number of entrants and the quality of entries.


November 2001