After a week-long residential programme in the United Kingdom, two innovators from the North-West University (NWU) recently returned with renewed vigour to promote commercialisation in the fields of the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS).
Prof Henk Louw, an associate professor of Academic Literacy in the Faculty of Humanities, and Dr Mesuli Mbanjwa, a commercialisation manager at the NWU’s Technology Transfer and Innovation Support (TTIS) office, attended the residential programme in Oxford from 13 to 17 February. The programme activities included workshop participation, innovation showcasing and networking. These aligned with visits to various innovation and entrepreneurship centres at Oxentia, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The residential programme is part of the inaugural Strengthening Commercialisation Skills (SCS) programme of the British Council in South Africa, for which Prof Louw and Dr Mbanjwa were selected in November last year.
The SCS programme consists of five phases. It involves training, mentoring, showcasing and dissemination workshops, and network opportunities.
Opportunities for commercialisation in HASS fields
Prof Louw developed an educational software program known as Backchat, an innovation that enables educators such as teachers and academics to provide personalised and effective performance feedback to their learners.
According to him, the residential programme was a great learning opportunity. “Some South African universities first think of making money when it comes to commercialisation, but it should rather be about transforming research to the benefit of society. One thing I have learned is that even if an innovation does not necessarily turn a profit, it still has additional societal benefits that could also be considered a ‘profit’.”
He says although funding is an issue, it is not the biggest challenge. “In South Africa we need to get a mindset change for those involved in the humanities, arts and social sciences. We need to inspire more of these people to realise that commercialisation is an option and that it is a service to the humanities, the country and the public.”
Prof Louw believes research is often done just for the sake of research, with the main purpose of being published. “Researchers need to know that there are opportunities beyond this and that their research can have a positive long-term impact because of commercialisation. My intention is to have a few discussions with people in management in my division and help to identify a number of projects for this purpose.”
Dr Mbanjwa agrees that there must be a mindset change by all players, including researchers and innovation support bodies. “Innovations that are generally commercialised from universities largely emanate from research and development in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This programme aims to strengthen the commercialisation of research outputs from the HASS fields, which are often oriented towards social good.”
He says there must be an understanding that in order to broaden the impact of solutions and innovations created for social benefit in a self-sustaining manner, it may be necessary to undertake a commercial transaction or create a venture that can bring in income. That is the context of commercialisation in the HASS fields.
According to him, the first step is to remove barriers, and to use more effective language to reach those in the HASS fields – the language and terminology generally used in innovation and commercialisation are such that many HASS researchers do not relate or are uninterested.
“We need to give them the right support and make commercialisation opportunities attractive. This can be done through mission-driven initiatives or social ventures in a language that is appealing to them.”
He says when it comes to commercialisation, there are vast opportunities for collaboration between STEM and HASS experts. “Not enough collaborations are taking place. It is through multidisciplinary collaborations on research projects focusing on social problems that more impact in the HASS fields can be accelerated.”
According to Dr Mbanjwa, another good starting point to promote innovation in the HASS fields at the NWU is to widely showcase the innovations that the university has already supported in these fields. He says this can be an inspiration to other researchers and innovators to follow the commercialisation route.
The TTIS office geared up to assist NWU HASS researchers
The TTIS office has been putting more effort into ensuring that its internal processes are appropriate and effective in supporting innovations from across all NWU faculties.
“That means the criteria that we use to evaluate new projects and in due diligence processes take into consideration that not all solutions are technology- or science-driven. We also like our clients to understand that there are various forms of intellectual property beyond patents,” Dr Mbanjwa explains.
Staff and researchers in the HASS fields who are interested in finding out about commercialisation or upscaling the impact of their research outputs may contact Dr Mbanjwa at firstname.lastname@example.org, or any member of the TTIS office.
Prof Louw is also eager to engage with anyone who is interested in hearing about his experience with and perspective of commercialisation as a humanities academic. Prof Louw can be reached by email at email@example.com.
To learn more about the SCS programme, visit: Innovators participate in British Council’s commercialisation programme | news.nwu.ac.za.
Dr Mesuli Mbanjwa and Prof Henk Louw (both at the back) together with South African delegates outside the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Prof Henk Louw and Dr Mesuli Mbanjwa during the residential programme in the United Kingdom. Videos supplied by Oxtentia Ltd, Oxford and the British Council South Africa.
Prof Henk Louw
Dr Mesuli Mbanjwa