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Covid-19 solutions just the start of benefits in university IP investment, say researchers

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Covid-19 solutions just the start of benefits in university IP investment, say researchers

26th November 2020

By: News24Wire

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The University Technology Fund raised R230-million and invested this in five companies that have developed technology. Wayne Stocks of Stocks and Strauss funding gaps made things challenging for South African tech start-ups. SA SME Fund CEO Ketso Gordhan said the fund found a fund manager who was able to take its targets for technology development and support.

Researchers, funders and entrepreneurs in the technology development space said on Thursday that South Africa needed to invest more aggressively into the intellectual property of its universities if it hoped to kickstart the economy as well as develop solutions to new and longstanding challenges.

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These discussions took place during a virtual webinar on Thursday organised by the University Technology Fund (UTF). The event was also attended and addressed by tech start-ups and the SA SME Fund.

Before the South African economy was battered by the Covid-19 novel coronavirus over the past eight months, unemployment was stubbornly high and economic growth was tepid due to longstanding challenges such as load shedding.

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The Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, tabled before Parliament in October by President Cyril Ramaphosa, envisages the localisation of key sectors to help the economy recover from the pandemic, as competition on the trade front between economies is expected to intensify.

The UTF announced that it raised R230-million and invested this in five companies that have developed technology for use in the biosciences, biotech, health and medical diagnostics, as well as energy industries.

The recipient companies are BioCODE and Phagoflux – both based in University Stellenbosch – Cape Bio Pharms, Hydrogen Energy Applications – based in the University of Cape Town – and Hyrax Biosciences based in the University of the Western Cape.

Wayne Stocks of investment holding company, Stocks and Strauss, said being a tech start-up in the South African economy remained challenging, but that a lack of funding for technological projects at a university level added a layer of complexity for these start-ups.

"Tens of billions are spent annually funding tech and research in SA universities annually with a lack of commercial focus to drive technology development. The UTF fills this gap and make sure SA universities contribute to an asset class that is incredibly successful globally," said Stocks.

Stocks said commercialising tech from universities for commercial means and social impact potential and that university tech could be a viable asset class for investment as well as a key problem solver for South Africa's unique and systemic challenges.

University Technology Fund analyst Sive Fikelepi said the UTF made use of its technology transfer offices to assist technology projects based in universities with commercial viability and positive social impact to access funding and support.

"Potential projects in the pipelines include opportunities ready for investment and those that are not ready for UTF funding but have potential. We get complete visibility of pipeline technology and assist in adding value during the development of each project," said Fikelepi.

Anita Nel of Stellenbosch University said while the university had great capacity for technological research, it did not have funding for development or to take technological research to the market. This sector has been mushrooming abroad but has not moved as fast domestically, she said.

"We saw knowledge regions emerge. In ten years, a small town managed to develop ten smart parks that developed. Companies that invest in university tech don't just employ those in science and technology faculties. There are various spinoffs to this kind of investment," said Nel.

SA SME Fund CEO Ketso Gordhan said the fund found a fund manager who was able to take its targets for technology development and support. He said scientists, capital providers and entrepreneurs are critical to this process.

"Having looked at what was happening in SA, we chose to spend half R1.4-billion in venture capital. Today we have invested in first time funds, including UTF. We also did this after looking at what was happening throughout the world.

"We expect this process to continue generating the exciting kinds of deals that you have been hearing about. We hope in the next six to nine months to launch a science council technology fund to assist many projects in becoming commercially viable ventures," said Gordhan.

Gordhan said the SA SME Fund would work to establish a track record to support IP development. He added that there was potentially room get pension funds unlocked to determine their strength as an asset class in this space, having committed R1-billion towards venture capital last year.

Head of the physiological sciences department at Stellenbosch University Resia Pretorius said BioCODE Technologies was receiving support for its early detection solution for cancer and cardiovascular conditions through a small blood sample.

"We want to transform healthcare with innovative biotech solutions that will empower people and improve lives. A large percentage of people diagnosed with these conditions will be sent home with no treatment," said Pretorius.

Founder of Cape Bio Farms Belinda Shaw said the support systems were critical to tech solutions in South Africa, because South Africa was losing intellectual property to other countries. She highlighted a two-tier testing system for Covid-19 as an example of solutions being developed.

"The first test kit tells you if you've had the virus and the second test kit will tell you if you have it. We have not only produced the test kits, but we have employed people and will have created 35 jobs soon. We have scaled up substantially, doubled our lab and might me heading into that global space," said Shaw.

Hyena's Niels Luchters said the tech business had developed an electricity generation solution through hydrogen fuel cells, which would provide support in energy challenges in the country and sub Saharan African region.

"Hyena has developed the tech to develop hydrogen through a fuel. We use LPG gas as the available fuel. It is the same gas used in your heater or stove at home. This will power towers where the grid is unstable. There are a quarter of a million such towers in sub Saharan Africa and this number is growing," said Luchters.

Simon Travers of Hyrax Biosciences said the Cape Town based software company leveraged its tech research and capability, using genetics to detect Covid-19 as well as to determine the most effective treatment systems.

"We have a unique algorithm for next generation sequencing data and a sensitive in distinguishing true sequences from noise. We have also wrapped up these algorithms in a platform which can be easily extended to any test. It is cloud based solution and is scalable," said Travers.

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