Slowed economic growth and high unemployment almost seem the norm across Sub-Saharan Africa. There are many factors that has caused this including varying skills levels, low levels of digital literacy and ageing infrastructure. Not to mention the constantly changing technologies that affect the work we do, and how we do it.
Despite these barriers, the private sector is driving economic growth through several innovation strategies. New business areas are being created to compete locally as well as globally. For example, local small and medium sized enterprises (SME) initiatives have seen technology centric start-ups develop new products that have significant impact in local markets. Unsurprisingly, since the pandemic, innovation using advanced technologies has become a top priority in several private sector arenas, including SMEs, to create new markets and products.
Globally, there are huge leaps being made in technological innovation and adaptation. These latest developments have been grouped under the umbrella of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The key question is how to develop entrepreneurial capabilities for the transfer of these technological innovations to entrepreneurs who can put them into use. This question is important because the entities that develop the basic technology and those that can put it into use are different.
So, how the transfer of technology happens matters.
Several variables – and actions – have to occur for such transfer to happen. They include a concerted effort to share knowledge, skills, technologies or methods to a wider range of potential users who can further develop and exploit the technology.
The transfer of technology doesn’t happen in isolation. In the main, there are three actors involved in the process. They are universities, governments and entrepreneurs.
Our research study looked at how the uptake towards innovation can be supported. We unpacked the ecosystems that can support technology transfer. At the core are certain innovation mechanisms. These can act as a launchpad for technological innovation.
Supporting the ecosystem
Technological innovation has experienced exponential growth, drawing further attention on ways to use the opportunities they bring with them. South Africa itself is seeking strategies to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem, with universities playing an important role in skills development, research, intellectual property (IP) protection, licensing and spin-offs.
The reason for these specific kinds of strategic activities is that they produce tangible value. This includes research outputs, business spin-offs, new products, and even optimising value chains through data creation and associated businesses.
This is not only within enterprises, but also in higher education environments. Not surprisingly, strategic activities have been a focal point in technikons and universities, among others. This is because they are tasked with delivering skilled graduates especially since
skill shortages hamper the ability of entrepreneurs to identify technology application potentials and effectively prototype towards viable ventures.
Also, part of the issue of innovation development is insufficient policy coherence and coordination, weak partnerships between actors and a lack of technical and soft skills continue to impede technology transfer.
Our study found that there are various mechanisms in South Africa that drive innovation outputs by universities as well as in the private sector. We found that these spaces are no longer limited to more elite areas or academic institutions.
We used technology readiness levels to determine what kind of support is needed to ensure the innovation is realised. Technology readiness level is a useful tool to guide decisions, actions and requirements of ventures. It can help determine where an entrepreneur, business, product or service concept is in its lifecycle.
Using this information, the relevant skills and support can be channelled to get their idea either to minimum viable product, to IP/ copyright or to the development of an actual, scalable business.
By assessing the mechanisms in place based on technology readiness levels, we found that there are certain key practices that innovation mechanisms can fulfil to support entrepreneurs. These mechanisms can enhance the ability of entrepreneurs to seize opportunities attributed to the development of the new-generation technologies.
The key practices range from support to engage with these new technologies, to ensuring industry engagements for product with commercial and scalable potential.
This however, depends on expertise and the ability to provide the right advice and leverage the right technology for the right problem.
If well managed, these practices can accelerate the creation of entrepreneurial ventures. They can do this by ensuring a strong collaboration between universities and entrepreneurs on research and development.
This means that innovation spaces offer an early access point to technology innovation. These can emanate from academic research to accelerate the development of entrepreneurial ventures through an array of support resources and services.
So, what do the innovation mechanisms mean for “normal” business people?
If you are struggling to innovate, or at the very least create value from research and development activities, then this these mechanisms can:
- act as a place to channel innovation through collaboration, upskilling, rapid prototyping and consulting services
- can be integrated to bridge gaps like a lack of certain skills, or access to resources. It can also enable the pooling of resources within businesses.
From a university perspective, such mechanisms can be used to guide SMEs and entrepreneurs in a key aspect of innovation, technology transfer and specifically address a lack of necessary skills – both technical (ICT) and soft skills.
Our findings show that technology transfer continues to play a pivotal role where strategies to address disruptions of technology require coordinated activities. These mechanisms offer activities to support businesses to innovate. More importantly, they provide practical guidance on how to derive the value part of innovation. Technology transfer lies at the heart of this because it opens the door to IP, copyright or business spin-offs.
Technology transfer can also be integrated into larger institutions to channel innovation activities, pooling expertise from various departments.