South African innovation agency takes shape

South African research needs to leave the laboratory Copyright: Flickr/TheFemGeek

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[CAPE TOWN] South Africa’s government has taken a key step towards establishing an agency that it hopes will improve the country’s patchy record in commercialising research.

Science minister Naledi Pandor unveiled the board members of the soon-to-be-launched Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) in Johannesburg this month (6 July).

The TIA, to be launched in November, will coordinate innovation funding and provide strategic advice to the government on how to transform South Africa into a knowledge economy.

South Africa houses excellent research, according to a 2007 evaluation by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but has made only modest progress in translating this potential into substantial economic growth.

The OECD report identified a lack of trained scientists and engineers; poor coordination of innovation efforts; a preoccupation with the role of the state in promoting innovation — instead of establishing the right conditions for companies to innovate independently — and a tendency to spread funding too thinly as barriers to innovation.

Pandor told the board that the TIA will address these challenges: "TIA will have to ponder [the OECD’s] views and encourage the development of a more enterprising perspective".

The TIA will take over the responsibilities of a handful of existing South African innovation schemes including the Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres (BRICs), the Innovation Fund, the National Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy and the Tshumisano Trust.

These were set up over the past decade but have had limited impact. One problem was that the BRICs and the Innovation Fund focused on funding companies, creating a funding gap between basic research and product commercialisation, says a South African academic who wishes to remain anonymous.

"Hopefully, the TIA will address this gap," he says.

Mamphela Ramphele, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 1996–2000 and World Bank managing director from 2000–2004, will chair the TIA board.

Other members of the board include Susan Harrison, chair of the Cape Biotechnology Trust board and professor of bioprocess engineering at the University of Cape Town; Nhlanhla Msomi, president of the South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; and Craig Venter, chief executive officer of Altech, a South African information technology company.

Venter told SciDev.Net: "We need a knowledge-based industry with home-grown intellectual property. We need to make sure that we reclaim slogans like ‘made in South Africa’."

The government has been tight-lipped about the agency’s budget and exact structure. But the TIA is expected to inherit the budgets of its parent organisations, providing, according to media sources, an initial funding pot of just under 500 million South African rand (US$64 million).

The budget will be large for a new South African agency, Pandor said in Johannesburg. She added that the agency must focus from the start on providing value for money.