Nature Biotechnology | Trade Secrets

South Africa’s TIA plans


In my earlier post, I talked about how TIA came into being. Now I want to talk about what it does.

In 2007, the new Department of Science and Technology (DST) carried out an audit of its activities and achievements, and used the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to do this. The results showed a lack of focus, thinly spread human resources, lack of an appropriate intellectual property regime, lack of long-term planning instruments, narrow definition of innovation, fragmentation of instruments and the existence of the “innovation chasm,” otherwise known as the “valley of death.”

In response to the OECD findings, the government through the DST crafted a 10-year innovation plan to address both the technology infrastructure planning and fragmentation gap, and the lack of focus. The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Act and the Intellectual Property Rights Act were enacted by parliament in 2008 to address the innovation chasm and the intellectual property protection gaps. The Human Capital Development Strategy is currently under discussion, but a number of initiatives are being taken to address this weakness.

The DST’s 10-year plan sets out projections to address the countries grand challenges, described as: Farmer to Pharma, energy security, global change, human and social dynamics, and space science & technology (Farmer to Pharma is directly related to the biotech space). This plan aims to have South Africa among the top 10 nations in the world in terms of the pharmaceutical, nutraceuticals, flavour, fragrance and bio-pesticide industries by 2018.

To improve in the area of intellectual property, the government established the National Intellectual Property Management office (NIPMO). This office was formed in order to address challenges of Intellectual Property Rights in the country. The Act further advocates for the establishment of Technology Transfer Offices at all universities that conduct research in the country in order to manage the IP generated and provide mechanisms for commercialization. As a foresight of the department, research chair positions in strategic fields were established.

The purpose is to increase the number of world class researchers, retain and/or attract back qualified research scientists, stimulate strategic research across the knowledge spectrum and create research career pathways for young scientists. In addition, the department is liaising closely with the government departments of higher education and basic education toward the development and training of a pipeline of high-level skilled scientists, engineers and technologists.

Like most emerging economies, South Africa is experiencing a major scarcity of high-level skilled individuals who have entrepreneurial flair. To change this situation, there are universities in the country that have started to teach students entrepreneurial skills at Honors level. These programmes will continue right up to the post-graduate level. To make the courses more interesting, industry experts are invited to share their experience with the students. To improve the skills shortage, universities are also creating MBA programmes that target or are tailored to certain industry sectors such as pharmaceutical, diagnostics or agriculture production.

There is, of course, no magic wand that can be waved to create a successful biotechnology industry. After establishing the innovation centers previously discussed, it was realized that consolidating these institutions would result in a better throughput of converting ideas to products and services. This led to the establishment of TIA with a mandate of stimulating and intensifying technological innovation in order to improve economic growth and quality of life of all South Africans by developing and exploiting technological innovations. TIA is attempting to mine the existing knowledge from its former entities, as well as generate new knowledge to bridge the innovation chasm in the country by developing technology-based products and services that have the potential of being commercialized and distributed locally and abroad. The TIA building blocks are the former institutions in the innovation centers, the Innovation Fund, Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy and Tshumisano.

The products offering of the TIA are aimed at maximizing socioeconomic benefits throughout the country by:

• Providing appropriately structured financial and non-financial interventions for the commercialisation of research and development results

• The development and maintenance of advanced human capacity for innovation as opposed to just research and development

• Establishing technology nursery programmes aimed at supporting technology development and the establishment of technology-based enterprises

• Facilitating national and international collaboration for technology development and innovation and proactively encouraging and supporting inbound technology transfer

• Leveraging local and international partnerships in order to facilitate technology transfer, build local technological competencies, and encourage foreign direct investment for the commercialisation of technologies in South Africa.

The other institutions that foster innovation in the country are the nine science councils, 16 universities and 8 universities of technology. Science councils involved in biotechnology research are the council for scientific and industrial research (CSIR), medical research council (MRC), the agricultural research council (ARC) and Mintek. The universities are focusing more on basic research while the science councils are focusing in the area of applied research. Together with TIA and the private sector, it is hoped that the innovation chasm will be closed and there will be more biotech products and services coming into the market.

Blessed Okole


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    Karl Kunert said:

    Dr Okole’s post represents an accurate description of the innovation chasm that is a major challenge for most emerging economies including South Africa. The Biotech industry will only flourish if high-level skilled individuals are trained not only in science but also in professional and entrepreneurial skills. We agree that universities should focus on basic research but we think they should also play a substantial role in training their students in skills that are easily transferable to the commercial and entrepreneurial sectors. There are two major outputs from universities that are of value to the biotech industry; first new knowledge and technologies and secondly providing highly skilled recruits. South Africa might invest more in this second output by developing closer training links between the academic and commercial sectors. For example, at the University of Pretoria in South Africa we have recently developed training activities that introduce students to concepts and working practices that they will need in order to make the transition to the world of work. We have established an Honours course termed “Biotechnology in the Workplace” which presents the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. This course is a mandatory component of the UP Biotechnology Honours degree programme. It is partly focussed around group activities involving active experienced entrepreneurs, which is designed to involve the students in the development of a biotechnology business idea. The programme also includes a link to training activities at the John Innes Centre (JIC) which is a UK biotechnology institute associated with the University of East Anglia. We are planning to extend this training approach to young researchers at Masters and PhD level. This would, however, be greatly facilitated by the support of large and small companies that will ultimately recruit young researchers into bio-industry and also by government departments like DST in South Africa in order to promote skills development and greater interaction between academic and entrepreneurial sectors.

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    Andrew Marshall said:

    Karl and Blessed, these are very positive developments. Courses that actually provide some basic guidance as to the processes involved in translating a discovery out of academia and in the commercial world are crucially important. It is a problem not only in South Africa, but elsewhere in the world (including Europe and US), where many institutions teach biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology and genetics courses without any reference to commercialization issues. Staggeringly, considering we are 30 or more into the biotech era, I often find on visits to academic institutions, that even those institutions offering biotech curricula sometimes myopically focus on basic research or applied (bioprocessing) science but fail to provide their students with information on patents, licensing. Part of the problem is that faculty simply do not have the right contacts or network to bring in the right speakers. At Nature Biotech, we launched Bioentrepreneur to provide some free resources to academic institutions. But this only helps so much. We have also been keen to provide bioentrpeneur courses internationally but it has been difficult to find the right partner with resources to support such an initiative.

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    Nicholas Brewin said:

    Andrew and Blessed, I strongly agree that universities and biotechnology industries need to work more closely together in order to develop new training programmes that will allow biotechnology students to make the transition from the academic to the entrepreneurial environment. The University of Pretoria (UP) has recently developed a range of training activities for biotechnology students in conjunction with the John Innes Centre, UK. As described by Karl Kunert in his comment, the project was focussed around an Honours module entitled “Biotechnology in the Workplace”. It also pioneered three training activities that could be implemented by any university involved with the development of the next generation of biotechnology students and researchers. These training activities were: – (1) a Biotechnology Careers Symposium; (2) a Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Workshop; and (3) a system of sponsored Biotechnology Student Travel Grants.


    The 2-day Careers Symposium involved a wide range of participants from bio-industry and other potential employers of biotech graduates. The first day focussed on what employers are looking for in recruitment. The second day focussed on how biotech students (at Honours, Masters and PhD level) could prepare themselves to compete in the job market through career and professional development. During the 3-day Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Workshop, students were involved as small teams in the competitive development, presentation and judging of potential business ideas. They received intensive support and mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs and industrialists. This followed the model of the UK’s Biotechnology Young Enterprise Scheme (YES). The Biotechnology Student Travel Grants enabled several students from UP to undertake research and training at the John Innes Centre during a 5-month internship. They were able to sample a range of training activities for career and professional development and, simultaneously, to gain valuable experience of research in a world-leading biotechnology laboratory.


    This pilot programme, sponsored by the British Council, has shown how universities in Southern Africa (and elsewhere) can successfully promote a new approach to career and professional development for biotechnology students. In order to sustain these innovative training programmes within universities, it will be important to provide special resources from Government agencies and from the bio-industries who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the skilled biotechnologists being developed by this initiative.


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    Christopher Cullis said:

    I would like to address Andrew’s comment about the lack of courses that provide some basic guidance as to the processes involved in translating a discovery out of academia and in the commercial world. The MS in Biotechnology Entrepreneurship has been offered at Case Western Reserve University for the past decade. This program was the model on which the Biotechnology in the Workplace course was developed. I was involved in the first implementation of the course as part of my sabbatical, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, at the University of Pretoria in 2006. The MS in Biotechnology Entrepreneurship at CWRU a 2-year program. The essential elements are a 4-course core sequence and at least a year internship in a biotechnology company. The four courses are Biotechnology for Innovation I and II, New Venture Creation and Feasibility Analysis. The last two courses are common for all the students in the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP) who are concentrated in the Biotechnology and Physics programs. These courses are taken in the first year of the program during which the students identify their internship activity. We are still in the process of developing the appropriate accounting course to complete the core of the program. None of the accounting courses currently offered through the Weatherhead School of Management are structured to provide the level of competency needed by our students. The two biotechnology courses are orientated towards the translation of scientific discovery into commercial products and the evaluation of the potential of such discoveries. Guest participants include venture fund managers, technology transfer professionals and principal scientists of some of the many start-up companies in North-east Ohio.

    The internship activities usually include the help in the preparation of business plans and SBIR grant proposals. We have been trying to develop metrics to measure the success of these students in their initial assignments.  As one measure we surveyed the students and their sponsors and requested information in 2 categories:

    1. What resources would you directly attribute to the Intern’s activities as an intern or subsequently as an employee?

    2: What resources would you attribute to being acquired associated with, but not solely due to, the Intern’s activities as an intern or subsequently as an employee?

    The data for the past 5 years combined for the all the STEP students in Physics and Biotechnology were:

    For question 1 – $30 million directly due to the students efforts

    For question 2 – $90 million associated with the presence of the students

    All of the students who have obtained the MS over the past year have managed to find appropriate employment, which is a positive evaluation of the quality of both the students and the program considering the state of the economy.

    The Biotechnology students have been involved with the technology transfer offices in Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic and the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine. They have been employed by the bio-related technology support organizations involved in assisting new companies (BioEnterprise and the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron in addition to more than a dozen small companies. An integral function in the vision of the program is also to have these students placed in academic laboratories to evaluate technology being developed and then play a part in any initial commercialization effort. Many faculty are not interested in being heavily invested in the commercialization efforts and so do not think about invention disclosures and pursue the subsequent step in the process. The restriction on the size of the program, which attracts internationalization students, has been the availability of local internships. However, with the model for at distance internships has been implemented with students participating in these activities across the USA and in India. Since the MS thesis is based on the internship and includes both the science and business plan activities the defense sometimes precedes through a video-conferencing format.