At the Forefront of Leading-edge Technologies
Professor Irene Moutlana, Vice Chancellor and Principal of the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), believes that South Africa and Africa are no longer in a developmental stage but are fast moving into a highly technological and knowledge-driven zone with the rest of the world. Busani Mabunda, Chairperson of the VUT Council, concurs and points out that the VUT is the home of innovation and technology, both of which are vital for ensuring the sustenance of South African society in the current era. A tour by CEO magazine of the VUT’s Southern Gauteng Science and Technology Park revealed that all bases are being covered in so far as innovation and technology in the fields of technology transfer, enterprise development, and chemical and biotechnology are concerned.
According to Professor Joe Modise, director of the University’s Institute of Chemical and Biotechnology (ICBT), the institute is all about innovation, which is its main driving force. “Each day, we all look
forward to something that we can discover in our research space. What makes our work here even more exciting is that we do more than just discover new technologies, as we also continuously strive to see if there is potential for commercialising any of the new discoveries we make,” he says. He elaborates that the ICBT operates at three levels, namely essential oils, indigenous knowledge systems, and, last but not least, the application thereof. Application can include products such as cosmetic, hair-care and drug formulations.
Innovation for the Purpose of Greener Products
Professor Modise enthusiastically mentions some of the ground-breaking discoveries which are ICBT products. “We have a partnership with the national Department of Environmental Affairs in terms of which we identify alien vegetation through the use of a database compiled by the Department. We characterise the vegetation from which we extract oils. This is almost unique, in that these are specimens of vegetation that would ordinarily be incinerated, as they are deemed to be ‘out of sync’ with what the environment needs,” he explains. Because these are almost unique formulas, the University is working on patenting them in order that they can become new products that generate employment for South Africa at large. Professor Modise indicates that they are spurred on by ‘Proudly South African’ technologies, as it is important to innovate oils that are marketable. “The question we continuously ask ourselves is: are the current technologies of extraction suitable enough to yield the quality oils that we would want to see? Simply stated, the answer to this is that we cannot afford to do anything but innovate, especially with regard to the new extraction technologies.” He further points out that his ultimate vision is that of green, environmentally friendly products free of chemical mixes.
Apart from equipping students with knowledge, the ICBT empowers its students to enter into the entrepreneurial space through their work. “From time to time, the unit has openings for internships and we encourage all the students to be registered for either a master’s or doctoral degree. Very soon, we will also be able to offer postdoctoral studies as well,” he reveals. Of critical importance to the success of the work done by the VUT, the unit and other universities in general, stresses Professor Modise, is the creation, fostering and maintenance of sound partnerships with stakeholders across the board. “No party can operate in a silo and want to give solutions to the whole world, yet seek to keep itself at a distance. Universities, government and industry need to get together and face the harsh realities of today’s environment in unison. If we are all honest about the issues that we have to deal with such as unemployment, the youth drug scourge and the fact that, two decades on, women are still not getting a fair chance when participating in the mainstream economy, we may yet be victorious. I am proud to say that our unit has more women working in it, though men still occupy the top echelons. If we avoid these issues, we will forever go around in circles and achieve little or nothing,” he concludes.
Leaving a Legacy Where It Matters Most
A few blocks from the ICBT building is the Enterprise Development Unit under the capable leadership of Mark Johnson, the head of the unit. The Enterprise Development Unit is responsible for commercialising the University’s research and offerings, he reveals. “The unit consists of four components: technology transfer, research and development, short learning-programme management, and a public relations partnership component.” Although Johnson has been with the VUT for just under five years, he has embarked on a journey that will see the institution leave a legacy and make its mark where it matters most: within the Vaal community. “Four years ago, there were no patents, but we presently have 37 patents in various stages of application. There were also no commercia-lisation-policy documents, but these have now been drafted and are in place. The unit recently also secured funding to the value of R33 million from the Industrial Development Corporation to set up a traditional-medicines platform over three years. “Although perhaps somewhat premature, I can say that we have already run a good race and are positioning the institution to compete in a class of its own among its peers,” he states. It is Johnson’s vision to build the Science and Technology Park into a national and international park that sets the tone in terms of high standards of excellence.
Johnson believes that, though the technology-transfer model in place at the VUT is one that is generic across many universities, his unit has the opportunity to stand out if high quality and standards are the order of the day during the implementation of the model, even with very limited resources. “That is really where the niche is, and pondering over the opportunity to partner with our community also creates a new niche that addresses intellectual-property issues to the benefit of the University and the community.” One project that has benefited all parties is the University’s partnership with Sasol for implemen-ting an entrepreneurial programme that targets disillusioned and disadvantaged youths and equips them with the skills to start their own businesses. “Twelve of the first 50 students on this programme, which has had a 70% success rate, already have solid business plans. We hope to secure seed funding that we can use to get the businesses off the ground. Critical to this funding as well will be offering follow-up and mentorship to these start-up businesses, as it is common knowledge that most businesses fold within the first few months. We cannot allow that to happen,” he stresses. The second cohort on the programme is under way and the third will commence as soon as 2015. Johnson adds that the VUT is now represented on the Corporate Social Investment (CSI) Forum of the Vaal Region where interaction takes place with such companies as Old Mutual, BHP Billiton, Heineken, ArcelorMittal and others. “This provides a lot of opportunities, because we then have direct access to these companies and we can also craft a strategic CSI vision for them in such a way that all parties emerge as victors.”
Leading-edge Innovation for Continued Competitiveness
With about half of all the foundries in the Vaal area having closed shop within the last five years, the work done by Jan Jooste, acting executive director of the Technology Transfer and Innovation Unit, and his team members is just the boost that South Africa needs in endeavouring to counter Chinese domination of South Africa’s industry. This by no means implies that a single unit’s work is more important than that of others. However, Jooste’s unit is at the forefront of the latest technology and is the only one with a 3D printer in the Southern Hemisphere. According to Jooste, the R12-million printer, “Empowers South African foundries to compete with China and other competitors. This is therefore a welcome innovation in view of the fact that so many of the foundries in the Vaal area and elsewhere in the country have closed down in the recent past.” The machine allows industry to take a 3D drawing and create a mould from it. The benefits for industry are numerous. Apart from saving time, precious resources can be saved and channelled elsewhere where they are needed most. Further, with regard to employment, it means that foundries can employ more people and produce more products to meet industry demand at a fraction of the cost.
The fact that the 3D machine at the VUT is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere automatically provides South Africa with leading-edge innovation that is so vital for continued competitiveness. “Firstly, the machine opens up new avenues of innovation in that we are able to identify opportunities for new technologies. At the same time, because this is a German product, industry can rest assured that we have the best in terms of technology. The onus will therefore be on all stakeholders to make these types of technologies and innovations available so that they are accessible to the general public,” indicates Jooste. The 3D printer can also be used to manufacture soft-body tissue for individuals who have been injured in accidents. Again, this is a huge leap forward, for it brings about savings when compared with plastic surgery, which is often expensive. He also reveals that the University is hard at work ensuring that South Africa has the technicians who are able to work on the printer and then, in turn, transfer the skills to the rest of the country.
Going forward, partnerships between academia and industry will be crucial for success, indicates Jooste. Enter the National Foundry Technology Network (NFTN), which was recently established by the Department of Higher Education and Training and with which Jooste’s unit is working closely. According to him, one must not underestimate this collaborative work, “It is vital because there are a lot of metal value-adds in the Vaal region and the industry cannot be allowed to collapse. As part of this collaboration, the University has introduced a programme called Advanced Foundry Front End Engineering.” He elaborates that this means that, when a client walks into a foundry and explains his or her needs, the foundry will have the capability to help with the design which will result in the manufactured final product. “One of the unique features of this programme is that the foundry can do a computer simulation test to assess a product’s strength before it is manufactured. We will then be able to remedy any shortcomings. In short, we will be able to ensure that the final part is optimal for the client’s application. We will also be able, at that point, to determine the cost and how much time it will take to produce the product,” Jooste points outs.
As the CEO magazine tour came to an end, the CEO team had no doubt that the VUT is at the apex of technological endeavour and is just what South Africa needs to take a step in the right direction in the next few years. Perhaps it would be apt to conclude that, with the technology and innovation at the VUT, South Africa can cease to talk of the future, for the future is not a distant feature on the horizon for one of Africa’s leading economies. Judging by what is taking place on the various VUT campuses and, indeed, at the Science and Technology Park, South Africa’s future is now!
STATE YOUR CASE | Vaal University of Technology
by Andrew Ngozo