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World IP Day sparks energy solutions dialogue at Stellenbosch University
Author: Jeraldine Menon, Innovus
Published: 16/05/2024

​​World Intellectual Property Day is an occasion that highlights the importance of Intellectual Property (IP) in recognising creativity and innovation. The event takes place on 26 April annually and is marked by discussions and networking between researchers, academics, industry, and policymakers. The Innovus Technology Transfer Office (TTO) held two events during the week of World IP Day, one to educate and interact with undergraduates and the other, to connect researchers and academic through dialogue around Sustainable Development Goal 7[AN1]  (SDG7), affordable and clean energy.

At Stellenbosch University (SU), Innovus TTO champions the protection and utilisation of IP from the excellent research pipeline in our various faculties. The events held during the week of World IP Day explored the symbiotic relationship between IP and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demonstrating how IP can be used as a critical tool in addressing global challenges.[PM2]  One of the highlights of these events was seeing the eagerness of students to participate in the Q&A around what IP is and identifying its various forms.

The theme for 2024 World IP Day as set out by the World Intellectual Property [PM3] Organisation (WIPO) was: “IP and the SDGs: Building our common future with innovation and creativity". According to the WIPO's official statement, the aim of this year's theme was to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in “how we live, work and play. World IP Day 2024 is an opportunity to explore how intellectual property (IP) encourages and can amplify the innovative and creative solutions that are so crucial to building our common future."

Educating students on the complexity of IP is one of Innovus TTO's core priorities. Through their extensive interactions with students, both undergraduates and postgraduates, there is enthusiasm around topics of IP and entrepreneurship. Therefore, in celebrating World IP Day 2024, Innovus TTO collaborated with IP attorneys, Spoor and Fisher, to host a student event which took place at the Neelsie Cinema on 24 April. Providing a comprehensive overview of IP, patent attorney Dirk Hanekom explained what it is, what it can look like and its real-world relevance. He also highlighted the alignment of IP with the SDGs, emphasising the need for more innovation, creativity, and collaboration, particularly focusing on SDG 6, 'Clean Water and Sanitation.

Expanding on the role of IP, Dirk clarified how it incentivises innovation, promotes market competition, enhances public welfare and drives economic growth. Drawing from practical examples in research, he demonstrated how IP empowers individuals and institutions, such as universities, to assess the commercial viability of their ventures. By safeguarding their IP, it not only protects their innovations but enables industry-wide efforts to avoid duplication and promote adoption of best-in-class technologies. This depth of understanding is crucial for students as it equips them with the knowledge to identify research gaps early in their academic journeys and to recognise newly created IP that may have commercial value. This will enable them to either expand existing research or introduce fresh perspectives, products, or methodologies to enrich existing knowledge.

Echoing Dirk's sentiments, Jason Samuels, co-founder and CEO of GreenX Engineering, an SU and Innovus spinout company, recounted their experience with IP in their startup phases. GreenX Engineering was birthed from the energy crisis and specifically its effect on schools in South Africa. They identified a gap in the market for a tool that can accurately assess energy consumption and its source. Their research revealed significant energy saving opportunities in schools. In his talk at the student event Jason recounted how protecting their IP assets enabled them to make a tangible impact on schools, further demonstrating the value of IP in fostering innovation, specifically with SDG 7 'Affordable and Clean Energy.' The event was hosted by Ian van Zyl, Technology Transfer Specialist at Innovus TTO, who kept the student audience engaged with a visual representation of what every day IP looks like using a Maties Coffee Hub disposable cup. The students were amused to find that the IP in that cup was a lot more than just the logo. Ending off the hour-long event, the students answered quiz questions and won fantastic prizes. They concluded the event with a good chat and a lunch goodie bag.

Conversations around IP and SDG7 intensified at the researcher's event, held on the evening of 24 April 2024. GeoSun founder Riaan Meyer, set the scene with a captivating overview of trends in the solar power industry, showcasing fascinating images of inventions such as sprawling utility solar farms in China, floating solar panels and inverters - although he reckoned that South Africa (SA) isn't likely to adopt this trend due to the unoccupied land still available in the country. He further revealed images of solar-panel-clad buildings, which is already a trend in SA. Interestingly, he briefly touched on agrivoltaics, using regular Photovoltaic (PV) modules with crops growing in the shade of the panels. These crops could not previously be produced in those environments.

As a parting sentiment on solar trends, Riaan touched on how PV modules and batteries are increasing in size. The biggest battery on record in SA is 540watts in size, although this is an Eskom project that is still currently underway.

The momentum of the discussion carried into a candid panel discussion featuring Andrew Taylor, Head of Legal and Trading at NOA Group, Ralph Van Niekerk, Patent Attorney and Partner at Von Seidels, Prof. Thinus Booysen, Professor in Engineering at SU and Riaan Meyer. Facilitator Ian van Zyl from the Innovus TTO, dove straight into the commercialisation of IP. Taylor responded by stating that technology is often (not) the hardest aspect of a solution for industry because apart from it needing to be technically viable for the SA landscape, there needs to be a return on investment (RoI) and most importantly, there needs to be a Just Energy Transition. All of this will determine whether a technology can be deployed.

In response to this and referencing the electric taxi retrofit project, Prof. Booysen highlighted the value of know-how over patents, especially in the context of a developing country like SA.

Sharing Prof. Booysen's sentiments, van Niekerk discussed United States companies and how they value know-how and trademarks above patents. He also noted that SU's high energy patenting activity suggests the high level of progress being made in a variety of novel technologies.

The panel's bottom line was the urgency for liberalisation of the energy industry to ensure growth of the SA economy. One potential solution was a suggestion to reopen the Independent Power Procurement Office. Van Niekerk also encouraged IP licensing for innovative solutions, citing National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO) incentives. While Riaan Meyer suggested more solar power and PV module recycling to reduce energy costs. As a long-term solution to the energy crisis, Prof. Booysen iterated that South Africans need increased awareness of energy, noting that this is where innovation should be prioritised.

Commenting on the planning and outcome of the two World IP Day events Nolene Singh, Deputy Director of Innovus TTO shared that “these events were more than just a dialogue; they created a space for insightful discussions that have a high potential to influence renewable energy research and industry trends."

Whilst the World IP Day events provided valuable insights it also brought to the fore the sobering reality of our energy crisis, underscoring the need for more research and innovation to save our planet.