The rapid pace of technological advancement and innovation demand that universities change and adapt to better prepare students for an ever-changing, more technologically focused entrepreneurially-driven world.

Globally, universities have reconsidered ways of teaching, research focus, and intellectual property commercialisation strategies to stay abreast of these changing forces. The University of Pretoria is no exception. Similar to other universities, the University of Pretoria is also faced with the need to develop multi-helix collaboration approaches such as between the University and industry or the University and government cooperations. These allow for inventions and innovations to be channelled in a systematic way from universities via university-based incubators into various new-age applications in industry or government that can aid an ever-growing entrepreneurial economy.

We interviewed Professor Sunil Maharaj, the Acting Vice-Principal of Research, Postgraduate Studies, and Innovation Support to expand on TuksNovation’s role as the University of Pretoria’s high-technology incubator.

What were the key factors that motivated the foundation of TuksNovation?

Creating TuksNovation is perfectly in line with Pretoria’s University’s aspiration to be an entrepreneurial university. We want to develop the entrepreneurial thinking and practice of our students to give them a real sense of entrepreneurship by developing their business skills, while they complete their academic programmes. This is how the concept of a university incubator came about. Not only did we want to create a space for students to bring their ideas to life, but most importantly, we wanted TuksNovation to serve as a vehicle to capture and tap into the true value of the intellectual property created within the University’s environment, for example, patents and research. Ideally, we want the entrepreneurship skills developed through TuksNovation to be transferable beyond the academic life of our students and spill over into, and contribute to, industry and the broader ecosystem. We want our students and the academic staff to tap into this opportunity and take their ideas or intellectual property forward to the next level, where they can either start a business or see the commercial opportunity for their concepts beyond their own current or future business.

What is the importance of incubation for the University, its aspiring student entrepreneurs, and industry?

Students’ concepts and ideas need an ecosystem, which includes industry, that will enable them to access capital, broaden their networks, and be given practical business implementation support, and other resources.

Ideally, incubation at the University is about a space to learn and fail safely, fail fast and then develop again. We want people to take risks, considered risks, as any business idea carries with it a certain level of risks. So, the idea is to create a space where these potential entrepreneurs can take risks in a non-threatening environment.

What sets TuksNovation apart from other university incubators in terms of enhancing an entrepreneurial culture at the University of Pretoria?

There are two optimal conditions for the breeding and growth of student-created or student-led ventures. We are aiming for businesses that are relatively high-tech, and therefore, we encourage and challenge students to become creators of jobs in the knowledge economy. I think that this aspect is very important, because we want to create jobs in the knowledge economy as a response to the job demands of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Access to venture capital is hard to come by, so we have created a small technology fund as one of the funding options to facilitate the development of an idea to a certain level. This will make further investment more attractive for other funding partners such as venture capitalists, as well as industry and corporates to partner with these ventures. Of course, at this stage, what we started is still relatively small, rather embryonic, but with a great potential for growth.

What are the three leading global disruptive or emerging IR technology trends that will positively affect society? Are we followers or trendsetters in Africa? Are there any gaps, or opportunities that Africa can or should exploit with regard to the leading trends?

Africa has not been a major disruptor, whereas in most cases, we have been disrupted. We need to become disruptors. The big trends in innovation are sustainable food systems, education technology, optimising health systems and sustainable energy. From a technology perspective, artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, applied in ways that solve unique African problems, can bring us a better quality of life, improved education, good healthcare and access to sustainable energy. We can disrupt the world, because we are part of the rapidly growing population in Africa, which is projected to grow to over 2 billion over the next decades. That means that Africa has to find new ways to develop rapidly to become fully compatible with global demands. This also means that Africa has to be at the forefront of technology developments, artificial intelligence and all other disruptors.

How do you foresee TuksNovation’s role in facilitating and strengthening, as well as unlocking the commercialisation of knowledge across UP’ facilities?

TuksNovation is an environment, where students and faculty can come and try new concepts and ideas, and where they are allowed to experience failure, because failure allows for great learning. You learn, improve and mature. Entrepreneurial education is transferrable, so even if students do not become successful entrepreneurs in future, at least they have some entrepreneurial knowledge and experience embedded in them from the programme, and that is what industry and the corporate sector want. They want potential employees who have some corporate or business exposure. Although they may not be a marketing person, at least they will have gained some business acumen or some business ideas, and that is going to add value to that business. They will also add a noteworthy benefit to the University, because it means that we are thereby producing graduates who are fit for the world of work, because of the University’s particular emphasis on what we are calling the future of work. This is part of the important facets that we want our graduates to have. We encourage our student ventures to think globally and act locally.

Would you like to share some last thoughts?

In closing, I want to add that we need to think critically about unlocking the commercial value of university-developed intellectual property in all its domains: patents, trademarks, designs, and copyright. Rather than having intellectual property as a token of one’s intellectual success, taking it into a commercial entity gives it a commercial existence, raising it to a totally new level. We have created that ecosystem with TuksNovation, which is very important, because universities traditionally create IP and create knowledge, but how do you turn such knowledge into a business? That is why TuksNovation is an essential element of what we as a University want to achieve.

Interview conducted:  Puno Selesho

Transcription extract:  Phindile Tshabangu

Writing, sub-edit:  Chani Macauley