Monday 25 November 2013


CLIPDC and Global Entrepreneurship from (American) experts

Perhaps the most exciting session of the CLIPDC conference (which is now finished) in Durban, SA, was titled “Global entrepreneurs” and featured Prof. Robert (Bob) Langer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Alex Klibanov (also from MIT), and Dennis Liotta (from Emory University in Alabama). For the non-scientist readers, Bob Langer is equivalent to Beyonce in music or Steve Jobs in business – a true rock star. Alex and Dennis are also quite famous in the science circles. [Sadly, Bob and Alex could only join by video link, so this once-scientist-Leo didn’t have the privilege of meeting them in person.]
Great Dome at MIT -
watch out for firetrucks and police cars on top

Bob is an inventor on over 800 patents (yes, that’s 800 patents), and has well over 1,000 publications to his name, so he knows something about innovation and intellectual property (i.e., patent) systems. Bob’s recommendation to Developing Countries is to start building the IPR ecosystem, while planning for the future. Implement a good patent system, which will be attractive to investors, will lure Venture Capitalists, and which will reward innovation. Bob used the oft-cited example of Silicon Valley, which, he noted, has been developing over 70-80 years.

Similarly, Alex suggested a multi-step process for encouraging innovation via IPR. First, identify unmet needs that are specific to the Developing Country. This will reduce the likelihood that the innovators are competing with large multinational corporations with nearly unlimited resources. Second, apply technology to the need, whether it is your own technology or that of others. [This Leo finds that innovators are frequently surprised to learn that patents from Developed Countries are available online for free, and that they are supposed to thoroughly describe the state of the art at the time of publication.]    Third, businesses/innovators should have an exit strategy. Finally, work hard and keep pushing, and good things will happen. Sounds great, and works well in America.

One complication is that global IP systems have been undergoing rapid evolution as pro-protection and pro-open movements clash and (sometimes) try to find common ground. It’s difficult to plan for the future when one cannot guess what global IPR regimes will look like in 20-30 years. Historically, such discussions have been spearheaded by developed countries (even today this is true, given the recent revelations about the TPP negotiations). The rise of BRICS countries has altered this somewhat; Indian court decisions about pharmaceuticals and Brazilian policies regarding genetic resources are two examples of BRICS beginning to redefine the conversation.

There are two ways to interpret Bob and Alex’s suggestions: (1) “start now to lay the foundation for a strong IPR regime, like the one in the US and Europe which has worked so well”; or (2) “start now to determine what sort of IPR regime would function best in Africa, providing suitable incentive for innovation yet accounting for local needs and situations.”

One fascinating topic raised by the three scientists relates to creating incentives for entrepreneurship and innovation within universities. Apparently, MIT owns all of the IP generated by professors, but gives the professors 28% of all royalties generated by the IP.  Also, if professors wish to create a spin-off company from their inventions, MIT licenses those inventions to the spin-off at zero initial cost. Instead of charging a royalty, MIT takes an equity stake in the company.

Even more interesting is that all professors at MIT are allowed and encouraged to devote one day per week to “extracurricular activities,” which may be of a public service nature or of a private industry nature.  Clearly MIT makes great effort to encourage creativity, entrepreneurship, and diversity among faculty.

Are there any African universities that go to such lengths in encouraging innovation? Readers are encouraged to chime in…



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