The technology transfer unit at Stellenbosch University (SU) has helped raise R26 million from outside investors to support five new start-up businesses based on research conducted at the university.
The university hopes that by commercialising its research, it can drive the country’s development, says Anita Nel, chief director of innovation and business development, at SU and CEO of University of Stellenbosch Enterprises, previously known as Innovus Technology Transfer.
“What we want is to put our technology that has viable business models into the market.”
Though these companies are among 28 businesses spun out of the university over the past decade, bringing in outside angel investors is an indication that there is a shift in some quarters to start taking university technology more seriously as an asset class.
Nel says aside from these investments, there was also the establishment of the R150 million University Technology Fund in January – a seed fund put together by an initiative of the SA SME Fund.
Nel says some of the incubated companies have now grown into sizeable ventures.
She did not want to get into the specifics of their performance as it is still putting together case studies, but one has a turnover of about R100 million a year and another has seen its turnover rise from R6 million to R24 million over three years. Several have already paid out dividends.
The companies it has helped start vary greatly in applications and sectors.
Over the years it has helped develop:
- Stellenbosch Nanofibre Company spins nanofibres onto polyester fabric, which enables the making of medical-grade reusable masks, which reduces waste.
- GeoSmart finds solutions to geographical problems by combining geospational thinking with cutting-edge technologies.
- SharkSafe develops eco-friendly technology that combines magnetic and visual stimuli to deter shark species considered dangerous to humans.
- Unistel Medical Laboratories is a human and animal genetics testing centre that completed in excess of 35 000 Covid-19 tests during the lockdown. Unexpected demand has led to it employing more contract staff.
The companies that have received outside backing are no less innovative:
- Phagoflux offers the ability to monitor health and wellness by measuring the self-cleaning activity (autophagy) of bodily cells. When cells cannot undergo autophagy, toxic material builds up and the cell dies – resulting in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Susento is looking into developing and producing a sustainable protein source from insects for both human and animal consumption. The product is a high-quality protein powder that can be used in any high protein product.
- Biotikum develops and produces microbial additives for the agricultural industry. Microbial additives are environmentally friendly technology that promotes sustainable farming practices and improves profitability.
- BioCODE is a nanosensor for the early detection of disease risk in patients. It detects inflammatory biomarker levels from a drop of blood and is small enough to be used by nurses in mobile clinics.
- Immobazyme has developed a device that can remove enzymes, which can get rid of unwanted compounds in the sugar industry, produce antibody derivative compounds and make wine taste better.
Nel says though the outside funding is welcome, South Africa still has a long way to go when it comes to getting institutional investors to invest money in university technology.
She says universities like Oxford and Cambridge have long had associations with institutional investors but in SA there is no real connection with transfer offices, the units that specialise in commercialising their research.
Searching for Google
Getting researchers to start businesses is good for society but can also work out well for institutions of higher learning, as they will retain ownership of the intellectual property and retain some shareholding in these firms.
The model of universities supporting start-up businesses based on research conducted at the institution emulates Stanford University in the US, which supported the development of several technology businesses, including Google.
Stanford University owned the rights to the PageRank search engine, which it licensed to Google until 2011. It also sold its holding in the tech giant for $336 million in 2005.
Nel says while it would be great if Stellenbosch University could nurture another Google, she acknowledges that many institutions have tried and but none have succeeded.
“Everyone is always looking for a Google, but only Stanford has found it. Our aims are much broader than that.”
The broader aims she speaks of includes creating a possible employment destination for Stellenbosch University graduates. The thinking is that in getting students to do interesting work with their lectures, it might entice them to join their companies.