Wednesday 6 November 2019


African universities and their role in innovation

Richard Branson once said that if you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline. Alternatively, you could start an Office of Tech Transfer at a University.

There are two schools of thought around IP and tech transfer in universities in Africa. The first is that tech transfer is irrelevant because most big research universities are public institutions and are therefore not allowed to acquire IP and control research output through the use of IP. The second is that IP acquisition and tech transfer would be a game changer, allowing universities to access the vast resources of global private industries through royalty payments. Neither view is entirely accurate, in general.

(Unfortunately, there's also a third view: what is an Office of Tech Transfer and why should we start one? Although this view is probably more common than the others, it isn't terribly relevant to this post.)

A good friend to this blogger recently pointed out this article about the failure by most Universities in Canada to transfer technologies from university labs to Canadian industries. The conclusion is that patents are not helpful enough, and cost too much, to justify the focus placed on them by universities.

To be sure, universities in Africa don't own very many patents. Even in Kenya, one of the most active countries in terms of patent filings, Kenyan universities own a very small (albeit growing) handful of patents.

This blogger is convinced that the solution to moving technology from African universities to African businesses is not by way of patents, but rather by way of direct partnerships. African universities have R&D resources (the three Ls: labs, labour, and literature) but like most universities around the world are not equipped to commercialize products. African companies don't generally do much R&D but are very aware of local needs/challenges, have some financial resources, and are relatively good at marketing solutions.

Patents are not needed for such partnerships. Ideally, private industry would work directly with university researchers to identify and solve local problems. Industry can cover some of the research expenses in exchange for access to the three Ls and first access to the research outcomes.

This model may not work in highly developed countries with universities that are very well equipped and very good at obtaining large research grants. But in Africa, where universities are available to do research but (very) rarely see the impact of that research, it may be a better model than the traditional OTT model we know from developed countries.

A perfect example of this model exists already - it's called BioInnovate and it is a successful example of industry/academia partnerships in Africa, mostly or entirely without patents.



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