National Higher Education Conference : Reinventing South Africa's Universities of the Future

Giant leaps for mankind - South African universities must stop being shy and move from research to entrepreneurial success

The session titled Imagining the exponential and entrepreneurial university of the 21st century at University South Africa's recent national higher education conference scored top marks for its dramatic opening.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), presented a video clip of the Nasa lift-off for the moon landing 50 years ago, saying it was an intellectual, physical, technical and engineering leap of faith.

Prof Zeblon Vilakazi
Can someone stop the speed with which technology is advancing? What implications does this hold for universities? Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand posed this rhetorical question.

Prof Vilakazi pointed out that the power of the computer that guided the men on the moon was "a millionth of the power of the computer you have in your pocket". He used the moon landing to spark off a discussion about what he termed "great accelerations", such as the electronic wrist watch which in 1965 had only a display and 44 years later is operated by mood, and how interconnecting computers creates exponential power. Now quantum computing can crack a code within minutes that a normal computer would take almost a million years to do. And it's predicted that by 2040 we will be hitting another acceleration.

"Can someone stop this train?" and "What does it do for universities?" asked Prof Vilakazi.

Bringing the technology to where it needs to be

The first speaker was Prof Bavesh Kana, Director of the Wits node of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research.

He presented a picture of Phumeza Tisile, who had contracted TB when she was a teenager. By the time she was 23, she had swallowed 20 000 pills to cure drug resistant TB. When she was done, "she cried tears of joy" said Prof Kana, but she was deaf.

"This is the reality of drug resistant TB; we give drugs that make people deaf." Tisile's story ended happily in that she had a cochlear implant to restore her hearing. But that did not solve other problems we were still grappling with, in TB diagnostics.

"We have all this technological advancement but we still have a lot of human suffering," said Prof Kana. "Is the technology where it needs to be?" he asked.

He said innovation lies in bringing the technology to the problem and in that way "you can start to change the world. To some extent that's what we were able to do," he said. He was referring to what his research centre did to innovate diagnosing TB, the biggest killer disease in South Africa. For 120 years it was diagnosed in the same way as when first identified, with a sputum sample. And in all that time it took six weeks to get a result. In 2008, US company Cepheid developed GeneXpert, a diagnostic tool that detects a molecule inside the TB bacteria. And it takes only two hours to get a result.

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, then Minister of Health, wanted GeneXpert machines in all microscopy level centres throughout South Africa. But he needed to test whether this huge investment (the GeneXpert) would work in remote sites. That's where Wits stepped in to develop a verification system for external quality assurance.

Prof Bavesh Kana
Professor Bavesh Kana, Director at the University of the Witwatersrand's Biomedical TB Research Unit, that invented a simple paper-based platform now recognised by the World Health Organisation as having been revolutionary in TB diagnostics.

"For this we needed to put a known number of TB bacteria in the machine and check if we got the right result. But this was challenging because TB bacteria are dangerous. It is hard to work with them."

To address this, his research centre grew large amounts of dangerous TB bacteria and then killed them. "Our research centre developed a product that used these dead TB bacteria that are safe to work with. These dead bacteria we spotted on pieces of paper and these spots we then delivered all over the country. At a remote site, the operator popped out the little spot, put it into the GeneXpert machine and used cloud-based software to see if the machine detected the bacteria. If the machine did, the operator declared: "hey, that machine at Khayelitsha is working. You can flag it green and start giving results to patients'," said Prof Kana. "We've heard of 4IR. But things don't always have to be complicated. Simple sometimes works," he said, referring to these spotted pieces of paper.

Once the prototype was proven to work, the Wits research node had to refine it, to determine things like, could the GeneXpert operate in 42-degrees-temperature conditions of Springbok in the Northern Cape? Eventually the Centre was able to use gene editing to train the GeneXpert to pick up drug resistant TB.

This is where the Wits researchers made a contribution they could call their own intellectual property. They had developed this product in partnership with Professor Lesley Scott and Professor Wendy Stevens, who worked with the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) to implement the use of these spots in all NHLS laboratories throughout South Africa.

Then the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute of the United States, asked to endorse the product. "They stuck a little label at the bottom ... and we started giving the dry cultures spots to almost every country in Africa that had a TB problem," said Prof Kana.

Being in a university environment made all the difference to help overcome problems, such as when they encountered a cheaper competitor. "Universities are wonderful innovational hubs," said Prof Kana. "You can just go brainstorm with your academic colleagues."

Eventually they had to create a company "because it was becoming like Star Wars in my lab", he said, later elaborating that he had been getting 2am calls from countries in different time zones. Initially exhilarating, he was juggling his research, running the lab, training students and giving lectures - and doing the TB work over and above that.

"Wits was really proactive and forward thinking by saying if they don't take this and convert it into a business, it's going to die, " he said. They founded a company called SmartSpot Quality, run with the same team within the department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology at Wits, plus a managing director, a Mr Dean Sher.

"From this little lab in Wits University we send bacteria out to all these different countries in their national programmes to verify TB diagnosis. If you go onto SmartSpot's website, you'll see 64 500 spots dispersed to over 570 sites around the world. It's that wonderful," said Prof Kana.

Unsurprisingly, about a week after the USAf conference, Prof Kana and his team won the Vice-Chancellor's Innovation Award at Wits for driving research with impact. The award singled out Kana for his inoculated TB material and the novel technology developed by Professor Lesley Scott from the School of Pathology.

Dr Dianne Parker, Deputy Director-General of University Education from the Department of Higher Education and Training, said there was uncertainty whether government should regulate universities spinning out companies.

Prof Kana responded by saying SmartSpot is regulated in that it has a Board and the centre in which it is based is itself a scientific advisory board.

No matter how digital universities become, their humanity will set them apart

Prof Brian Armstrong, Adjunct Prof at the Wits Graduate School of Business Administration, was the second speaker. He focused on Exponential Organisations by Salim Ismail from Singularity, "who call themselves a university", he said.

Prof Armstrong said he knew it was popular literature that wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny of academic peer review but its insights had value. (See Salim Ismail on YouTube.)

The book defines an exponential organisation as one whose impact is at least 10 times larger that of its peers because of the way it embraces new digital ways of operating. Examples are Airbnb, Uber and Google.

Prof Brian Armstrong
Prof Brian Armstrong, Adjunct Prof at the Wits Graduate School of Business Administration.

Prof Armstrong said when Facebook bought Whatsapp in 2013 for $19billion, it already had 400 million subscribers yet employed only 56 people, because all customer engagements were automated. Another thing we can learn from exponential organisations is that they experiment and create a culture which enables risk-taking and failure but, said Prof Armstrong, university structures favour predictability and safety.

He said he had asked the CEO of one of South Africa's top four banks what was their key focus. The answer? All the banks are digitising their processes "and what will differentiate them is being the most human bank in the country". Prof Armstrong believes it's true for universities too.

He said universities' massive transformative purpose "is to equip the nation with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the 21st century". This means making sure they are developing the necessary skills, such as being able to programme, think critically and process complex information.

He said the most critical thing to get right is leadership. To become exponential and innovative universities all need to appoint chief digital officers who are visionary strategists, digital innovators, change managers and can do the hard work, pay attention to detail and get the job done. If we don't do this we will end up like Theunis Wessels - and Prof Armstrong brought up the image that went viral of the South African who lives in Alberta, Canada and who was snapped mowing his law while a tornado approached.

In his case all ended well because the tornado missed his home but Prof Armstrong said "the digital tornado is going to affect all of us .... it's not going to miss our universities".

Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), asked him if our school system was going to affect what needed to be learnt.

Prof Armstrong acknowledged it was "hugely disempowering" if people did not have basic mathematical skills and literacy. Furthermore, they also needed "the ability to autonomously navigate cyberspace and to do targeted navigation", plus device familiarity, which came only from using them.

Fluid thoughts about water and entrepreneurship

The third speaker was Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the Water Research Commission (WRC), who wittily said he had some "fluid thoughts" about water and how it might impact on the idea of exponential and entrepreneurial universities. He said water is not a Cape Town or Joburg problem but one which for the past nine years has been in the top five risks to the global economy.

There had been an exponential increase in academic papers about the water crises, he said, but in South Africa, new knowledge was not converting into tangible products and solutions.He said Prof Kana's presentation was really encouraging because it was rare: South Africa has been responsible for some of the world's dynamic and disruptive innovations, from lithium batteries to reverse osmosis systems to dry cooling systems. But other people have commercialised them and we have had to buy those products.

Naidoo said the WRC had "tons of work with the universities" and he expressed hope they would scale up to commercialise the research. One project was changing the 2000-year-old technology about how people go to the toilet. He was co-ordinating a smart design with partners including Columbia University, about reinventing the toilet, taking it from six litres per flush to less than half a litre. Their target is 250ml. This new technique will save 30% of household water. A by-product is the production of energy and it looks set to generate a $1b annual revenue.

He said universities shouldn't struggle with creating spin-off companies to deal with their technological innovations because they had huge expertise on how to set up companies.

Mr Dhesigen Naidoo
"I hope universities will scale up and commercialise the innovations coming out of some of our joint research projects", Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the Water Research Commission, said.

Questions and reflections

Prof Bawa said USAf had set up Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education because universities lacked entrepreneurship; and needed to work out how to put the knowledge from Masters and PhDs to work.

Prof Peter Maassen of Higher Education Studies at the University of Oslo challenged the notion that the university is an organisation. "If it's an organisation, it's definitely not a complete organisation," he said.

Mr Ashley Francis
Universities must be brave enough to commercialise and make the billions that other nations are making out of innovation, Mr Ashley Francis, Executive Director of Finance at UCT, said.

Ashley Francis, Executive Director of Finance at UCT, said they had formed a private equity fund to provide capital for innovation. He said universities are shy but "must be brave enough and bold enough to commercialise and make the billions that other countries and other nations are making out of innovation".

Kevin Pather, Finance Executive at the University of Mpumalanga, said he thought what Prof Kana did for TB could surely be done for other diseases too. Prof Kana responded that they had gone from TB to 17 diseases in the last 18 months. He said he agreed with Francis that universities had to stop being shy about making money and added that if they are shy about promoting what they do, they run the risk of losing talent. He said applications for Masters and PhDs in his laboratory had since gone up by 700%.

Regarding Bawa's comment about entrepreneurship, he said we had to find hybrid ways of teaching it. He used the example of how he had tried to draw up a business plan when they had initially partnered with an American company. "Add widgets, think of a multidimensional value chain" they had said, using language he did not understand. He tried four times and eventually someone flew out from Seattle to sit down with him to do it. "Some things we just can learn, some things you have to do," he said.

Prof Armstrong said when it came to entrepreneurship, they had to look for local demand factors that had a global relevance.

He responded to Prof Maassen, saying maybe universities were not organisations "but they are almost like organisms" and they didn't have the luxury to wait for the perfect science of organisational design for the 21st century university. "We need to start experimenting now," he said.

Naidoo said other universities had funds such as the UCT one but they were old endowment funds and overregulated.

Dr Parker said the government didn't want over-regulating but it was easy for these enterprises to lead to corrupt practices. She said there were examples which had gone "very haywire", saying they didn't have to name these institutions - a comment which left those not-in-the-know a lot to think about.

Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities SA

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