During 2020, and despite the lockdown period, Stellenbosch University's (SU) technology transfer team, Innovus, established and welcomed five new spinout companies. The team also raised a total investment of R26 million for Stellenbosch University projects and spinout companies during the lockdown period with all staff members operating from their virtual offices.
The creation of these companies demonstrate the social impact of a reseach intensive university such as SU. When scientific breakthroughs become commercially available their beneficial impact on society is amplified dramatically.
The five new companies are BioCODE, Phagoflux, Susento, Biotikum, and Immobazyme. Anita Nel, Chief Director: Innovation and Business Development of SU and CEO of University of Stellenbosch Enterprises (Pty) Ltd (US Enterprises), previously known as Innovus Technology Transfer (Pty) Ltd advised that a name change was recently incorporated to distinguish the activities of Innovus, the division within SU, from the holding company through which SU holds equity in its group of companies.
Prof Resia Pretorius, head of Stellenbosch University's Physiological Sciences Department in the Faculty of Science, and her team of researchers, engineers and scientists developed the BioCODE 2-in-1 nanosensor to early detect disease risk in patients. The BioCode, which detects inflammatory biomarker levels from a drop of blood, is small enough to be used by a medical practitioner in his or her room and for nurses in mobile clinics. BioCODE is also a finalist in the international Falling Walls Breakthrough of the Year 2020 awards in the category Science start-ups.
The technology offered by Phagoflux describes 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 – this happens in dementia, Alzheimer's disease and unsuccessful aging. High autophagy delays ageing and prolongs life. The discovery of Autophagy earned the Nobel Prize in 2016. However, scientists have not yet succeeded to monitor the autophagy activity, achieved, until now. Phagoflux has developed a unique solution, to measure this self-cleaning process accurately, and wishes to make this unique metric for cellular health publically available. By monitoring autophagy and its activity with a Phagoflux device, it will for the first time be possible to accurately quantify the effect of lifestyle such as exercise and diet (critical to monitor obesity and Diabetes endemic) and even medications, such as those for neurodegeneration and cancer.
Dr Elsje Pieterse a senior lecturer at the Department of Animal Sciences at SU, Dr Michael Woods, co-founder and CEO, and Dr Neill Goosen, senior lecturer in the Department of Process Engineering at SU, launched Susento in 2019 in their quest to develop and produce a sustainable protein source from insects for both human and animal consumption. The product is a high-quality protein powder which can be used in any high protein product.
Biotikum Pty (Ltd) is a proudly South African company which was founded in 2020 by Dr Deon Neveling, Liesel van Emmenes, Prof Erick Strauss and US Enterprises Pty (Ltd). Biotikum develops and produces microbial additives for the agricultural industry. Microbial additives include host-specific animal probiotics, microbial silage inoculants, and soil inoculants. Microbial additives are environmentally friendly technology which promotes sustainable farming practices and improves profitability. Biotikum also provides large-scale microbial production services to various industries in Africa.
Immobazyme (Pty) Ltd was founded by Dominic Nicholas, Ethan Hunter and Nick Enslin who are also the inventors, together with Prof Leon Dicks from the department of Microbiology. Immobazyme has developed a novel device that uses a microporous cellulose matrix that immobilises enzymes (to retain most of its activity) in vitro and can be used in the organic synthesis of commodity metabolites such as antibiotics, antidepressants, food additives, and the like. The PepTrap™ can be used as a treatment device in the beverage and wine industry, as well as an aid in water purification systems. The cellulose matrix is biodegradable.
Furthermore, says Nel, four projects of Innovus received a total amount of R2 449 476 from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Seed Fund. “The University Technology Fund (UTF) Seed Fund also around invested R3 million in two companies, with due diligence being conducted on a third company. Four SU projects have also successfully obtained UTF Pre-Seed funding from Innovus, and the total value of this investment is R1 482 550. A more established SU spinout company received approval for an investment of R14m. An investor also invested an amount of R5 million in one of our recently established start-ups."
Measured against international standards, this is an outstanding achievement for Innovus and US Enterprises. Currently, there are 28 active companies under US Enterprises at various stages of their business life cycles. Despite COVID-19 several of these companies have declared and paid dividends in 2020.
At the annual CEO Awards function held today (4 November 2020) in Stellenbosch, the five new companies were welcomed as part of the holding company University of Stellenbosch Enterprises and the achievements of some of the existing companies were celebrated. Amongst them are:
· Stellenbosch Nanofibre Company (SNC) ™
During lockdown, Stellenbosch Nonofibre Company (SNC) (a company that mass produced nanofiber materials), start producing reusable masks. “By spinning nanofibers onto polyester fabric we found we could produce high quality, medical-grade reusable masks to counteract the single-use aspect of surgical masks, which creates waste management problems and can present health and environmental threats," said SNC CEO, Dr Eugene Smit.
Since then SNC has gone on to demonstrate that their filter media can easily achieve particle filtration efficiencies of between 98% and 99,8% in standardised tests for surgical masks. The filters have extremely good breathability, and filters could be subjected to at least 10 sanitisation cycles of submersion in boiling water and air drying, without any measurable impact on the filtration efficiency. SNC supplied 1,2 million masks over a period of four months.
GeoSmart, the company that finds solutions to geographical problems by combining out-of-the-box geospational thinking with cutting-edge technologies, became involved in the TerraClim initiative, a flagship research project on the impact of climate change on the wine industry, which is funded by Winetech. GeoSmart is the brainchild of geographer and computer scientist Prof Adriaan van Niekerk, Director: SU Centre for Geographical Analysis.
· Sein Media™
The spinout company Sein Media was able to produce content during the lockdown for KykNet, the Grahamstown Arts Festival, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, and the Cape Town Baroque Festival.
SharkSafe Barriers, an eco-friendly technology that combines magnetic and visual stimuli to deter Shark species considered dangerous to humans, won the prestigious South32's Lewis Foundation Green Economy award for outstanding contributions to science, engineering, technology and innovation in South Africa. The inventors of SharkSafe are Prof Conrad Matthee, Mike Rutzen, Dr Sara Andreotti and Dr Craig O'Connell.
SUNMagnetics, a software development company that provides layout and verification solutions for the superconductor and quantum electronics industries, announced that their largest customers, including Microsoft and IBM, who use this company's products for quantum computer design, all renewed their licences in 2020.
· Unistel Medical Laboratories (UML)™
UML, a dedicated human and animal genetics testing centre, have completed in excess of 35 000 COVID-19 tests during lockdown. An unexpected explosion in referrals for animal DNA testing resulted in the need to employ more staff on a contract basis.
Stellenbosch University LaunchLab, voted as Africa's top university-backed incubator for the last four years running, completed a successful rebranding and positioning, which includes a website redesign and the launch of several growth initiatives to create sustainable, high impact companies from Stellenbosch University and across Africa.