UP academic innovators rewarded for creative excellence

Posted on July 04, 2019

University of Pretoria (UP) students and staff responsible for the creation of acclaimed commercially viable inventions were granted 40% rights to the first R1 million of revenues that have accrued to the University. 

UP’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) has been involved in the creation of at least 10 start-up companies that employ more than 200 people, the majority of whom are UP graduates. The UP TTO processes about 23 invention disclosures per year, and negotiates and drafts more than 250 research agreements.

The University of Pretoria has an impressive array of 11 inventors who have been granted a patent for more than one invention, and 50 inventors who have been granted a patent for a single invention. In addition to this great record, the University also has eight inventors who have registered a trademark. At an event hosted by the TTO on Friday, 28 June 2019, all inventors whose patents were granted between 2 August 2010 (the day on which the Intellectual Property Rights Act came into effect) and 30 June 2019 were honoured for their achievements.

UP was among the first institutions to establish a Technology Transfer Office (UP TTO) after the promulgation of the Act in 2010, and the University has since signed over 20 licence agreements with small and medium enterprises. Consequently, the TTO has accumulated more than R1 million in royalties that are held in trust. Some of the inventions that were honoured have already received local acclaim and have been recognised with innovation prizes, thereby ensuring their availability for commercial, retail and scientific use.

Most of the licence agreements benefit the University not only in monetary terms, but they also allow the University to strengthen its knowledge transfer activities. In particular, these licence agreements enable the University to gain new perspectives on possible directions and approaches for research through the transfer of knowledge between the University and industry.

These innovations include:

  • HearZA - a novel hearing screening mobile application;
  • A unique eco-friendly type of soil that can be used to replace imported peat soil;
  • The discovery of the anti-cancer activity of Helichrysum odoratissimum, an aromatic herbaceous shrub, commonly known as impepho in IsiZulu. It is one of about 600 species in the genus Helichrysum, 244 species of which are indigenous to southern Africa. The plant is reported to have many traditional usages for various ailments and is used culturally for religious purposes;
  • An invention based on shoot extracts from Euclea natalensis for use in modulating immune responses in a subject and/or providing hepatoprotection in a subject.  This is a plant extract composed of the shoots of E. natalensis that showed inhibitory activity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis with a minimum inhibitory concentration activity of 125 pg/mi.

The event was held to ensure that the creativity and ingenuity of staff members and students who take time to develop solutions and ideas were duly acknowledged and rewarded, particularly the contribution made by the commercialisation of the intellectual property created. All eligible inventors received a trophy, a certificate and a small incentive amount that was allocated from the government grant.

Technology transfer office

Professor Nico Labuschagne and Professor Lise Korsten are behind an invention based on Trichoderma, the know-how for which was licensed to the company BASF.  Standing to the left in the photograph is Dr Nthabiseng Taole, UP Director in the Department of Research and Innovation, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal at UP, Professor Tawana Kupe, who are photographed with the Deputy Director-General for Innovation at the Department of Science and Technology, Mr Mmboneni Muofhe.

The University of Pretoria strives to maximise the advantages created by its research outputs. By enhancing the intellectual property (IP) of its scientists and postgraduate students, as well as bringing these research outputs to commercial fruition, the University is positioned to support South Africa’s economic and social development.

Since technological innovation accounts for well over 50% of economic growth in many countries, it is not only significant that our university should contribute to this growth trajectory, but UP is proud to have so many academics and staff in our midst whose ideas and creative thoughts are being honoured and acknowledged.  It is therefore significant that these initiatives have not simply contributed to research excellence, but that they have led to job creation as well.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria Professor Tawana Kupe said, “Nationally and internationally, innovation based on scientific and engineering knowledge has become increasingly important for business development and wealth creation. Our long-term strategic plan, UP 2025, commits the University to maximise the advantages created by its research outputs, and thereby to supporting economic development and our competitiveness. In order to do so, we need to exploit our intellectual property (IP) by bringing our research outputs to commercial fruition.”

Through the facilitation of the TTO, a recent achievement that fosters knowledge transfer in a different manner is the establishment of a relationship between the University and Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), an agency of the Department of Small Business Development established in 2004 through the National Small Business Amendment Act 29 of 2004.

Technology Transfer Office

Seated in the middle is Professor Namrita Lall, who pioneered her research on medicinal plants and is now looking at prospects in the area of the development of cosmeceuticals.  Photographed with Prof Lall are some of her current and former students. Prof Lall has the highest number of filed patents and is the only inventor with more than six granted patents.

The University established a relationship with SEDA in order to encourage and foster a culture of knowledge transfer from the University to small and medium enterprises. This collaborative relationship led to the establishment of the business technology incubator (TuksNovation).

The objective of the incubator is to promote job creation by providing support for the commercialisation of technologies, networking, mentoring and spin-off technology companies that are sustainable. The collaboration is set to drive industrial cluster development with a positive economic impact around the area and communities within which the incubation is located. In addition, it aims to build strong networks among academia, government and industry.

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