Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2019
Theme: Entrepreneurship through the arts

Not all of us prioritise profiting from our innovations, a student at DUT says

The transfer to end users of new technologies developed by student entrepreneurs is often not a smooth road, as the story below testifies.

Mr Tendai Chiwandamira is a Masters student in Graphic Design at the Durban University of Technology. He developed a product as part of his Bachelor of Technology (BTech) project called Incontact, which was displayed at the EDHE Lekgotla 2019 entrepreneurs' exhibition in Durban last week. This product is essentially a book using multimedia, that is, pyrography (burn marks engraving in wood or other objects), linocut printing and string art -- to tell a story to the visually impaired.

Tendai Chiwandamira
Tendai's project, Incontact

"Not all of us aim to profit from our innovations, but that is not how universities see it," Chiwandamira says of the challenges he has faced regarding the transfer of his product to the commercial market. His goal, in creating the book, was more to contribute to improving the lives of people living with visual impairment. "For me, making money was only a secondary consideration.

"The biggest problem is funding," he explains, referring particularly to the means to test the acceptability of this product in the marketplace. "Not all innovations are fuelled by the goal of making money. However, in their consideration to partner you, investors always want assurance of a return on their investment."

Ironically, Chiwandamira only learned for the first time about the DUT Entrepreneurship Centre from the recent EDHE Lekgotla 2019. "The Lekgotla 2019 was a huge eye-opener for me. Through this event I learned of existing support services and opportunities, not only at my own institution, DUT, but also within the KwaZulu-Natal province." He believes he might be able to resolve some of the challenges he has faced in the past, through some of these support initiatives.

He says all along he has felt inadequately equipped to clearly articulate his product to the market (investors and potential end users of his product), hence his search for a sweat equity partner. "When you are a student and you have an idea, you need all the support you can get -- not only to complete your product but to also test its acceptability in the target market. It therefore becomes a challenge when you place a higher premium on the potential of your product to improve the quality of life of disabled people, than in its sales potential."

Chiwandamira says he could have continued with the Incontact project in his Masters programme. However, the risk he faced -- of failing to launch the product in the market due to the absence of funding, could have frustrated his progress. He says although he decided to park the project and pursue something else for his post-graduate studies, things could change in the short to medium term as he engages a technology transfer entity in KZN, that he also discovered through the EDHE Lekgotla 2019.

Common challenges that students encounter

On Day Two of the EDHE Lekgotla, a panel discussion took place on Technology Transfer and Commercialisation, led by representatives of various universities' technology transfer offices (TTOs), which help to grow and develop student entrepreneurs. In the course of expert commentary on the type of challenges expressed by Chiwandamira and more, the panel also highlighted various other issues and offered solutions. One important advice to students was to align products with appropriate stakeholders -- perhaps an established social entrepreneur in Chiwandamira's case.

Panel of TTOs from universities
From left, Ms Nolene Singh, Manager of Technology Transfer at Stellenbosch University's technology transfer company Innovus; Ms Charlotte Mashaba, Regional Manager: KwaZulu-Natal TTO; Ms Suvina Singh, Director: University of KwaZulu-Natal inQubate and TTO representative and Mr Thabang Qumza, Commercialisation Director, Tuksnovation.

Ms Suvina Singh, Director at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's inQubate, introduced another challenge. "The commercialisation of any student product will remain a problem when the discussion around intellectual property is misguided. Students themselves are ill equipped to understand the various protocols of intellectual property, and it is through platforms like inQubate that students acquire such scarce knowledge and guidance." UKZN inQubate has a business development programme called Inspire, which guides students in the startup and running of their business and also provides mentorship, which young entrepreneurs such as Tendai Chiwandamira could and should use.

Singh emphasised the need for business incubators to work with student entrepreneurs and not have students floundering on their own. The guidance that student entrepreneurs need is extensive: financial literacy, knowing what the value chain is, comprehending the licensing process and disclosure, to name a few.

Mr Thabang Qumza, Commercialisation Director at the University of Pretoria's Tuksnovation expressed another concern that "researchers are more focused on getting published than on protecting their discoveries. This is how novel technologies become public knowledge and can no longer be protected by patents, for example."

Ms Charlotte Mashaba, Regional Manager: KwaZulu-Natal Regional Office of Technology Transfer, elaborated, "Our role is to identify who in the industry will be interested in what is being produced through research. Even if the product cannot be commercialised, linking industry with the researcher introduces a research project with potential to yield a product or new ideas at a later stage. That is also important."

The panel emphasised the importance of students making use of the various incubation hubs existing within universities across South Africa. Leveraging this opportunity is the best that entrepreneurial students can do for themselves along the journeys of establishing new businesses and making successes of them.

The EDHE Programme; some background

Entrepreneurship centres, business incubators as well as technology transfer entities within universities are all part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem being developed within public universities to achieve the three goals of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme. The EDHE goals are:

  • Student entrepreneurship, i.e. mobilising the national student and graduate resource to create successful enterprises that will ultimately lead to both wealth and job creation.
  • Entrepreneurship development in academia, i.e. support academics in instilling an entrepreneurial mindset within all students and graduates through the offering of relevant knowledge, transferral of practical skills and the application of business principles within and across disciplines.
  • Developing entrepreneurial universities, i.e. creating a conducive environment that will enable universities to adapt strategically and embark on projects whereby third-stream income can be generated through innovative business ideas.

The EDHE programme was established in 2016 by the then Department of Higher Education and Training to gear graduates towards starting their own businesses when they exit the higher education system. Recognising universities as centres of entrepreneurship development, the programme was in mid-2018 relocated to Universities South Africa (USAf) for implementation and day-to-day administration. EDHE is being funded for three years starting in 2018, from the Department of Higher Education and Science and Technology's University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP). EDHE therefore represents a solid partnership between USAf and DHET.

Hosted by Universities South Africa (USAf) in collaboration with the Department Higher Education and Science and Technology, and the Durban University of Technology (DUT), this year's EDHE Lekgotla was also supported by the British Council, DUT's Confucius Institute, the Small Enterprises Development Agency (SEDA) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Ntokozo Thembela, the writer, is a 3rd year Journalism student in Durban University of Technology's Department of Media, Language and Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Design.

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