December 3, 2023

This led to the launch in 2021 of an ambitious platform for collaboration and learning, Innovation for African Universities, with a mandate to support universities in building their entrepreneurial ecosystems by creating the necessary resources, structures and policies, in collaboration with UK universities and industry partners.

IAU has been implemented in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa through partnerships with UK institutions and has reached over 7,000 beneficiaries.

On the other hand, a study mapping the innovation ecosystem of public universities in South Africa revealed that the commercialization of non-STEM research outputs is an area that is often ignored or underutilized in most South African universities.

The mapping study was commissioned by South African universities as part of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education initiative, supported by the British Council as a strategic partner and carried out by Oxentia, a UK innovation management and technology commercialization consultancy, as a delivery partner between 2021 and early 2022.

The findings suggest that the South African innovation ecosystem is a relatively well-developed, fast-changing landscape with places of excellence and best practice and huge potential to contribute to economic growth through university research commercialization activities.

As encouraging as it sounds, the commercialization of the humanities, arts and social sciences is said to be the missing piece in the current commercialization puzzle!

The report presented a set of recommendations for three target groups – government, universities and other supporting entities – to stimulate the commercialization and impact generation of research outputs. One of the recommendations to the supporting entities was to stimulate and support the commercialization of humanities, arts and social research.

Why focus on the commercialization of HASS research:

1. The rising rate of unemployment and other related economic and social challenges require a radical change in the concept and conduct of research, creating impact should not be optional, research should be conducted with the aim of contributing to social impact.

2. Equipping students and researchers with skills to enhance non-STEM research outputs into services, products and businesses could significantly increase the creation of SDG-compliant research outputs with not only intellectual value but also economic and social value.

3. Turning graduates into job creators and not just job seekers requires a focus on all fields, not just STEM.

In a study mapping the innovation ecosystem of public universities in South Africa, we conducted a survey that confirmed that most universities have implemented systems, mechanisms and processes in their institutions to support the commercialization of STEM research.

Commercialization of humanities, arts and social research, on the other hand, was not common. This was due to several reasons, including a lack of non-STEM research in some institutions, a lack of knowledge about how to commercialize non-STEM research outputs, and non-STEM research being conducted but not considered a priority.

The British Council-led initiative developed in response to these gaps

In response to the study’s findings, the British Council, with support from Universities South Africa, the Higher Education Entrepreneurship Development Program and the Humanities Research Council, launched a pilot initiative.

The Enhancing Commercialization Skills Program aims to up-skill non-STEM academics and technology transfer professionals with the skills needed to accelerate and stimulate research commercialization.

“The secondary aim of the program is to unlock opportunities for academics in the UK and South Africa”

A secondary aim of the program is to unlock opportunities for UK and South African academics and technology transfer practitioners to work together to advance the commercialization of non-STEM research.

Seven pairs of academics and technology transfer professionals were recruited through a competitive process that required them to demonstrate that they have a project, idea or research that has the potential to be scaled up for impact or commercialized.

Through a virtual training and mentoring program, participants were able to exchange knowledge on the commercialization of non-STEM research outputs, culminating in a five-day residential program recently held in the UK in February 2023.

We wanted to put together a dynamic group with different levels of experience. We knew that the training and mentoring aspects could be delivered through ZOOM or TEAMS, but we wanted to ensure that a dynamic program made the most of the connections and immersion in the Cambridge and Oxford University ecosystems. It offered:

1. exchange knowledge with like-minded colleagues with the same expertise in HASS, but from a UK context.

2. Immersion in some UK ecosystems

3. Strengthening cooperation between the technology transfer department and academics

In the coming months, a set of contextualized guidelines for the commercialization of non-STEM research applicable to the sub-Saharan African context will be published as an output of the pilot project.

In addition, participants will conduct a suite of trainings, trainer workshops and dissemination events to share their knowledge and continue advocacy work within their institutions.

About the Author: Meekness Lunga is a Senior Regional Program Manager for Higher Education – SSA at the British Council.

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