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Maximising social impact through constant innovation

The Journey

Established in 2002 to generate third stream revenue for Wits, Wits Enterprise consisted of a handful of consultants who worked on a few projects per year, valued at around R100 000.00 each. Today, the entity manages over one hundred projects, with some of the larger projects valued at R15-20 million per annum.

Wits Enterprise really “took off” when the University took the strategic decision in 2004 later to move four academics from an Engineering and Consulting group, with their R12 million portfolio of projects to Wits Enterprise; this signalled the birth of the Research and Consulting Unit.

Responding to internal and external stakeholder needs, and the need to maximise its social impact, Wits Enterprise has continued to innovate; and subsequently got divided into three Units: Short Courses, Innovation Support and Research Support.

Generating third stream revenue has become increasingly important to ensure the university’s sustainability in the wake of declining Government subsidies, growing student numbers, and financial pressure from the #FeesMustFall campaign.

In 2017, the Research and Consulting Support Unit, headed by Pamish Pillay,secured R64 million in externally funded research and contracting contacts; SARIMA recognised her team as the best Research and Consulting team in Southern Africa for 2017.

World-class research

Wits University’s vision is “to be a leading world-class research-intensive University firmly embedded among international top league universities by 2022.”

The University has around 1 300 academics; 457 are NRF-rated researchers, and 29 are A-rated (among the top 1% globally).  The university’s strong research track record coupled with its breadth of expertise positions Wits as a compelling research or consulting partner for government, private sector organisations, NGOs and organisations, which provide grants such as the European Union (EU) or the Department of Trade and Industry (dti).

It takes very specialised skills to manage contracts and externally funded research; the process entails compelling written proposals, finding project partners, negotiating contracts, managing projects, and compliance with funding and reporting requirements.

The Research and Consulting Unit facilitates the entire process. A pre-Award team manages the process until the contract is in place; the project is then handed over to a post-Award team which provides project management support.

The Unit is currently managing the R70 million DFID funded project to develop biostatistical skills among researchers. The project’s social impact is considerable; biostatistical skills are essential for clinical trials, and could, therefore, potentially impact millions of people worldwide.

It has also managed over fifteen EU Framework Programmes. Wits Enterprise is very proud of the fact that it was appointed the South African Legal and Financial contact point for the EU 7TH Financial Programme for Research and Technological Support (FP7) programmes.

The Unit has also secured and managed funding from the IDRC, the DIFID, the Hewlett Foundation and the ESRC.

Funded research enables the University to appoint students as junior researchers; this creates capacity and shifts experience from theory to real issues industry faces. Industry often hires talented young researchers from these projects, thereby helping to alleviate high levels of youth unemployment in the country.

The Research and Consulting Unit is working very closely with the School of Education on a project to improve Maths and English literacy in Schools. South African learners are rated amongst the least proficient in Mathematics globally.  By improving proficiency in Maths and English, some of these learners may gain admission into higher education and even pursue careers in scarce skills areas, which often require proficiency in Maths.

Enhancing skills to maximise impact in the workplace

Recognising that employers needed to upskill employees to enable them to have maximum impact in the workplace, Wits Enterprise established a Short Courses Unit. The Unit offers short courses at the Wits Enterprise campus in Braamfontein, in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Tanzania and Namibia.

Its Public and customised courses are accredited by the University.  Students can choose from 208 short courses. The biggest portfolio sits in Engineering, in the Built Environment, in the Property sector. South Africa is part of the global village; students often look for internationally recognised qualifications. Responding to this need in the property sector, the Unit offers the internationally recognised Real Estate Management (IREM) qualification.

Some courses culminate in a certificate of attendance, others in a certificate of competence. Some Engineering short courses have CPD accreditation. The Unit is currently working very closely with the HSPCA to get the University’s Health Sciences short courses accredited.

The Unit has a very positive social impact at an individual level. It has developed a short courses training route for individuals who have years of work experience, but who do not have a degree. Provided students achieve a pass mark of 65% in four short courses; they can gain admission to the Masters degree in Construction. These skills are in very short supply in South Africa and are essential to improve and enhance infrastructure delivery.

Cognisant of the fact that learning is continually changing, Wits Enterprise has established a digital campus online platform; this provides students with the flexibility many require. Wits Enterprise, will, however, continue to offer classroom-based training as some students prefer face-to-face learning; many also want to share experiences and learn from individuals from other industries.

Driving innovation

Innovation and technology are key to creating sustainable businesses and economies, creating jobs and new industries, providing more efficient and reliable services, bringing previously excluded individuals into the mainstream economy, and improving the lives of individuals.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, very little funding is available to support innovation and based on university research.

Recognising the importance of innovation in the South African economy, Wits Enterprise has established a dedicated Innovation Support Unit.

The Director, Ela Romanowska was awarded the Department of Science and Innovation/Southern Africa Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), Distinguished Contribution to Innovation Management 2017 Award.

The team manages the entire commercialisation process from identifying innovations from Wits’ world-class research suitable for commercialisation to writing business plans, curating the IP, providing technical and legal know-how, negotiating deals, raising funds, structuring contracts and performing due diligence on investments.

Two technologies developed by Wits researchers and commercialised by the Innovation and Support/Technology Transfer Unit confirm that Wits researchers are in touch with the needs of government, industry and society.

SmartSpot Quality (Pty) Ltd is Wits Enterprise’s flagship project and one which has had a huge impact globally. The Unit assisted Professor Lesley Scott from the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology in collaboration with Professor Bavesh Kana from the Centre of Excellence for BioMedical Research, to commercialise SmartSpot TB Check, and to create a spin-out company to ensure scalability and to expand the programme to other infectious diseases such as HIV and HPV.

Providing technology which verifies the accuracy and speeds up the TB testing and treatment process can have a very positive impact on millions of people worldwide. TB remains a scourge globally. According to the World Health Organisation in 2018, 10 million fell ill with TB, and 1, 6 million people died. SmartSpot Quality (Pty) Ltd exports to 20 countries currently

Another Wits innovation, the PIKO grid, a scalable DC Microgrid, developed under the leadership of Professor Willie Cronje from the School of Electrical and Information Engineering can potentially uplift one billion people worldwide, and 600 million people in Africa, who currently do not have access to electricity. The device is an affordable, off-grid, green power solution, scalable to any number of power sources, loads and batteries.

The Innovation and Support/Technology Transfer Unit has assisted Wits enter into a partnership with an investment company, and a business partner.

The Unit is also currently looking for partners for an additional twenty-three technologies.

Looking ahead 

Over the past seventeen years, Wits Enterprise has had a huge social impact; it has empowered, upskilled,uplifted or improved the employability of thousands of individuals, and capacitated businesses and government, as a direct result of its research and consulting, skills upliftment, and technology transfer.

Wits Enterprise managed 100 projects last year. Imagine if it managed one project for every academic at the university. If Wits Enterprise commercialised each of these technologies,  South Africa would establish new industries, create millions of jobs and add billions of Rands to South Africa’s GDP.

Wits Enterprise –

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