The vision of Sleep Science – a spin-off company from the University of Cape Town (UCT) – is to optimise the health, well-being and performance of South Africans through evidence-based, best-practice sleep research, teaching, education and other services.
How Sleep Science came to the marketplace was presented in a case study by Mr Francois Oosthuizen (left), Innovation Commercialisation Manager at UCT, as part of the Train-the-Trainer Workshops of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme held recently. The workshop, aimed at bridging the gap between research, innovation and commercialisation at South Africa’s public universities, was funded by the British Council and facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd — Oxford’s Global Innovation Consultancy.
“Sleep Science is spin-off company that we launched to commercialise the extensive research output from UCT and a group of our academics. The research focused on the multidisciplinary aspects of sleep and strategies to improve it, which is far more complex than anyone can imagine. It involved studying and trying to help many different groups, from the elderly to children and athletes,” he said.
During the taking to market of Sleep Science, both challenges and opportunities were identified.
Continued Oosthuizen: “In Africa particularly, the challenge of sustainable research and development funding is always an issue so we were aware that we should diversify income streams. Sleep is an important element in lifestyle and we realised that there was real market potential for this product. The spin-off company also provides employment and training opportunities for graduates. The company also allows us the ability to raise funds or seek different investment opportunities.”
He emphasised that commercialising Sleep Science did not happen overnight and took a concerted effort from many different stakeholders.
“We did a thorough review of the research portfolio. This went way beyond the actual research projects but also focused on the group’s skillsets, their infrastructure and their contacts. We unpacked and immersed ourselves in their research. Once that had been completed, we identified a pipeline of potential opportunities that could be translated into a commercialisation strategy. We developed business and financial models and identified resources that would be needed to take both the product and the company to market,” he explained.
“Once Sleep Science was launched we moved into a support role which encompasses everything from management and advisory support to access to networks. In the future, Sleep Science is likely to encounter new problems and challenges including new research questions but it can refer these back to the university. As the company develops and grows, this flows back to the university which deals with sustainability. The Sleep Science process is one that we would like to replicate with other research ventures.”
Oosthuizen said that, at the outset, a good understanding of the institution’s governance was required: “In our instance, multiple approvals were needed as we moved through the process. A lot of support and guidance was sought from many stakeholders. The team, and especially the technical champion for this research commercialisation start-up, was very important. In this case it was the lead researcher Dr Dale Rae.
Dr Rae is a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town whose research focuses on sleep and circadian rhythms (the body’s 24 hour clock). She is particularly interested in how sleep is associated with health, disease and obesity, and the relationship between sleep, the body clock, athletic and work-place performance. She is now the director of Sleep Science.
Oosthuizen revealed that Sleep Science does not have a patent.
“Traditionally, we’ve been heavy on patents and commercialising technologies where there are patents involved. In this instance, with Sleep Science, there is no patent but, more critically, it has a very rich IP portfolio. This includes deep know how and understanding of the sleep field; access to infrastructure and facilities and the software needed to deploy various interventions.
“Our commercialisation strategy was not built on a patent portfolio but rather an IP portfolio as data remains an invaluable asset going forward. However, continuing R&D may yield patents in the future and focused R&D could also be undertaken to build a patent portfolio,” he said.
So why did UCT go through this process?
“The simple answer is to make a difference. This one company has translated research work done at UCT for a number of years into some other product and service for the market and the impact has been immense. It’s very important for research institutions to remain relevant to society. It’s also a case of using taxpayer investment very wisely. We have to focus on the sustainability of R&D and continue to grow and sustain high quality research and researchers. We have to find innovative ways to sustain the people who do the research. We are confident Sleep Science will lead to new collaborations and opportunities for many stakeholders.”
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.