South Africa has an enormous amount of un-tapped commercial and research potential tied up in our universities and State Owned Enterprises (SOE) and if we can coordinate resources more effectively, we could kickstart economic growth in the country.
Our medical technology business – Dynamic Body Technology – was recently selected as a finalist in the GAP Medical Awards in conjunction with The Innovation Hub. GAP was looking for innovative businesses and ideas, which they could back with grant funding and incubation specifically in the biotechnology and medical sectors.
These were some of my key takeaways from the program:
South Africa mustn’t shun international skills
Perhaps it is anecdotal (bit I know I’m definitely guilty of it) but South Africans are quite closed minded about drawing on international skills. While SA has a number of very bright people, we need to constantly be drawing on international skills to make us more competitive in the global economy. We can’t simply be saying that we can solve all our own problems. I’ve set myself a goal of adding at least 1 high quality international person to my network each week to ensure I can stay on the pulse of international trends.
Incubation DOES have a place
As somebody who comes out of a financial media background, you become quite cynical when it seems like every man and his dog is offering “incubation”, “acceleration” and “entrepreneur education” initiatives. Often those with a little bit of commercial know-how don’t realise how many people are craving a basic foundation in business strategy and finance.
“Go it alone” doesn’t work
A drawback of pitching competitions is that entrepreneurs are reluctant to share their ideas or to collaborate. We need to emphasise to entrepreneurs that there is more value in collaborating and sharing skills and knowledge. If we can put the smart researchers and academics together with commercially-minded teams, we can put South Africa on the entrepreneurship map.
The “pre-prototype” / POC gap could be an Enterprise Development funding opportunity
A number of the projects are pre-prototype or “proof of concept” which makes it incredibly difficult to finance and bring to market. It becomes a chicken and egg situation with products not coming to market because they can’t get the early stage capital.
Something which struck me was that this could be a perfect use for Enterprise Development (ED) funding which has a higher risk appetite. ED is tied to the tax year and is topped up regularly so could fit with the “fail-fast” requirements of these businesses. If more of these entries had rough “proof of concept”, then you could accelerate the growth trajectory for the competition.
There could also be an opportunity to look at Section12j playing a more active role here.
Enormous potential but IP commercialisation is a challenge
I was very surprised – and encouraged – by the high level of representation from the various universities and the Agriculture Research Council.
Having chatted to their representatives though it became clear that restrictions around Intellectual Property (IP) and commercialisation is a major issue. Many of the participants were frustrated or concerned that they would be unable to commercialise their technology and had received very little guidance from their institutions around IP restrictions.
Government does get a bad rap when it comes to supporting entrepreneurship
Mainstream media often paints “government” as being highly inept when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs and I’m not sure this is 100% correct. I think we need to be careful to distinguish between the success / failure of entrepreneurs (the outcomes) and the foundation level work that government can be effective at providing – EG this partnership with The Innovation Hub. If you look the various grant schemes and initiatives (Export Marketing, Black Industrialist, SPII, TIA etc etc.), government does do a lot to lay a foundation for entrepreneurs. They can’t be charged with the subsequent success or failure of the initiative.
These initiatives need wins… and to celebrate them!
A very telling question which was asked by one of the participants related to a question around success stories that had come through the program. The example or answer which was held up was EyeSlices. Taking nothing away from EyeSlices – and being cognizant of the South African economic climate over the last decade – it’s imperative that these initiatives secure some regular high-profile wins to inspire regular high quality entries. I spoke to one of the mentors post the session and she pointed out that there were other success stories – they just weren’t great at the marketing of their achievements.
I thought this was one area where I thought the program could have had some more depth – marketing and its relationship with the business strategy.
Supporting early stage businesses requires an enormous amount of capital and time. The marketing and celebration of these achievements is a key element in helping initiatives like this attract further funding and skills.
It is easy to be a pessimist in South Africa. We can say that government is not enough, we can say that the private sector isn’t coming to the party. What I can tell you is that there were 30 young, ambitious and intelligent people looking to solve problems across the spectrum of biosciences in South Africa and many of them were more interested in social good than necessarily financial benefits. Initiatives like this give me a reason to feel optimistic about South Africa.
If you are in the private sector, are an optimist about South Africa, passionate about developing innovators in the medical technology, healthcare and bioscience sectors, and have some capital or skills to contribute to this initiative then reach out to the Innovation Hub team and see if you can fuel the next leg of economic growth.