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Technology Transfer Offices help build sustainable companies
Author: ​Joshua Romisher
Published: 27/04/2021

Monday (26 April) was World Intellectual Property Day. In an opinion piece for Business Day, Josh Romisher from the Stellenbosch University LaunchLab highlights the steps that Technology Transfer offices should take to turn intellectual property into high-impact and sustainable companies.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Joshua Romisher*

In 2018, universities around the world spent over R3.9B on research and development (R&D). According to the National Intellectual Property Management Office, in that same year South African universities generated 19,808 R&D publications. However, less than 4% of those publications were commercialised as inventions, patents or intellectual property (IP). It's perhaps no shock then that a study conducted among University Technology Transfer (TT) offices in the USA concluded that only 13% of those offices can cover their operating costs. Something is clearly amiss when less than one out of every eight TT offices in the most developed country in the world are actually viable entities themselves.

The key mandate of TT offices worldwide is to locate, protect, incubate and commercialise University R&D. This mandate is critically important not only so that R&D can benefit society, but also so TT organisations can become sustainable business units. This is the mission that we all subscribe and work so passionately to fulfill.

Drawing attention to this mandate of TT offices is important, especially on World Intellectual Property Day which is observed annually on 26 April. Given that the theme for 2021 is “IP & SMEs: Taking your ideas to market", the question that we have to ask is: how can these offices fulfil the aforementioned mandate? They can do this by following a clear, tested and proven four-step process:

Step 1: Locate the best ideas and entrepreneurs from within the University

This work falls directly in the 'Inspire' bucket of the strategy. Technology Transfer offices can, for example, utilise webinars, informational seminars, in-class presentations, office hours and happy hours to spread the word and offer potential entrepreneurs an opportunity to discuss their R&D work. They can also hold pitch competitions that focus on specific, high impact areas of R&D such as 'Agri + Data', 'Climate and Sustainability' and 'Health Sciences for Africa'.

Step 2: Quickly test the commercial viability of the idea & entrepreneur

Once potentially high-impact R&D has risen to the surface it's extremely important to answer the question, “I have an idea but is it a business?" Here TT offices can offer courses that forces academics to 'get out of the building (GOOTB!)' to test their idea with potential customers and partners. The focus should be on business as well as entrepreneur development to get a much clearer understanding of whether the idea and entrepreneur are ready for the startup world outside of academia.

Step 3: Begin the long, steady, necessary venture and entrepreneur building process

It takes a village to build a company especially when the technology needs to be IP protected and the entrepreneur requires assistance pivoting from their current role. During this step of the commercialisation process, TT offices could use a  divide-and-conquer strategy where, depending on how a particular office is structured, one division primarily works on the IP & spin out of the venture while another one continues entrepreneur and business development through, for example, mentoring, online curriculum and cohort sessions. Ideally, university technology spins out of the institution once it has a full-time, dedicated entrepreneur, sufficient funding runway, proof of concept and, ideally, a high potential of an initial customer. Having these critical foundations in place ensures the seamless transition from IP to SME.

Step 4: Keep building and building and building

Now that the IP and entrepreneur are outside the friendly confines of the university, the pace of progress must increase as every startup is in a race against time between product-market-fit and runway (aka running out of money). In this 'phase the spin-out should ideally be paired with industry-specific mentors and entrepreneurs to create world-shaping businesses in different sectors. The main aim of this step is to help the startup achieve the coveted product-market-fit, which simply means selling a product in a repeatable and scalable manner. This step leads to long-term financial viability.

At the Stellenbosch University LaunchLab we also follow a similar four-step process to turn the innovate ideas of aspiring entrepreneurs into reality. The LaunchLab works very closely with the university as well as SA's leading TT office, Innovus, to inspire, build, grow and support the transformation of IP into commercial products. There is also an extensive amount of work to train academics to be gritty, growth-focused entrepreneurs.

We believe that transforming university R&D into a product that inspires and delights a customer is a long, laborious and difficult process. It's also incredibly fun, invigorating and immensely fulfilling. As we teach in our incubation programmes  ̶  entrepreneurism is not a job but rather a calling. By following a collaborative and time-tested approach, we aim to grow university-backed SMEs across Africa and the world.

*Joshua Romisher is the CEO of Stellenbosch University LaunchLab.