General Manager Commercial Nigel Slaughter recently returned from a workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. This article gives an outline of what he got up to, as well as some insight into the state of technology commercialisation at home and abroad.

NEWS, EVENTS & BLOG — Posted on Thursday, 4 April 2013

Commercial Manager Nigel Slaughter recently returned from a workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. The following interview gives an outline of what he got up to, as well as some insight into the state of technology commercialisation at home and abroad.

Can you give a brief run-down on what you got up to in Pretoria?

I ran a three day workshop with South African researchers and some of their Tech Transfer Office staff, the aim being to help them to help themselves and their institutions to transfer their IP and know-how into companies, looking at both commercialisation and contract research. The focus was on increasing their capability to communicate the value of their ideas, both in written form and verbally. I also met up with a couple of Government institutions that are supporting knowledge transfer and some local commercialisation experts. The workshop was sponsored by NIPMO, the Government agency that was established to increase the protection and use of South African ideas and know-how.

Are there any key differences in how TTO’s in South Africa operate compared to over here?

As in NZ there’s a wide range of institutions, each with its own mix of commercialisation staff and capabilities – some are advanced, some are only just starting out. The key difference is that, given the shortage of staff, many of the South African TTOs choose to focus their limited resources on protecting their IP rather than on commercialising it – they protect first and might ask question later. This is partly due to the ease with which they can file provisional patents, partly due to a shortage of experienced commercial staff. Here in NZ we tend to check out the commercial case before we protect, though that’s not always possible. Looking more broadly, South African institutions are a key driver of social and economic development in Africa and tend to have more of a focus on achieving social change than on making money. The need to be able to communicate good ideas remains the same, however.

Is there anything we can learn from the way they do things and vice versa?

My role was to demystify the technology communication and commercialisation process, partly by showing the participants how we do things here. Hopefully they will be able to adapt and apply what they picked up from the workshop (along with the previous one in October 2012) to suit their social and commercial environment. While SA research organisations might not be making as much money as they could out of their ideas, most of the researchers I spoke to already had strong connections with companies and an understanding of social and market needs. Most are solving real problems and transferring their knowledge, if only by giving it away. This is great – while in some cases they need to improve how they get a fair return for their efforts (additional research funding from companies being a start), this closer connection creates value and a huge amount of satisfaction for the researchers.

Were there any interesting technologies that caught your attention?

Two in particular were interesting. The first – an instant water heater – was interesting as we are working on exactly the same idea, just taking a different approach. There may be potential to combine the two. The second is a novel, accidently-discovered polymer which has the potential to marry up with products we are developing here. We’ve also introduced one of our technologies there and are working up a collaborative project to use it in ways we hadn’t thought of to solve problems and create value in South Africa – in fact, if we can prove it there we’ll be able to sell it for that application across the globe.

How important is this type of collaboration?

I cannot overstate how important partnerships are for successful early stage technology development. With instant and easy communication, working with partners in South Africa is as easy as working with partners in NZ or Australia, once you get used to talking in the evenings! Partnerships give us access to networks, to market understanding (especially of market pains and unmet needs), to resources, to research expertise, to new ways of combining technologies to create value. The combination of novel technologies from two or three different fields leads to synergies, to much greater total value than our individual efforts.