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Editor-in-Chief,   Anatole Krattiger

Editorial Board

Concept Foundation


Fiocruz, Brazil

bioDevelopments-   Institute

CHAPTER NO. 17.7   Technology Transfer in South African Public Research Institutions
Editor's Summary, Implications and Best Practices

Krattiger A, RT Mahoney, L Nelsen, JA Thomson, AB Bennett, K Satyanarayana, GD Graff, C Fernandez and SP Kowalski. 2007. Editor’s Summary, Implications and Best Practices (Chapter 17.7). From the online version of Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices. MIHR: Oxford, U.K., and PIPRA: Davis, U.S.A. Available online at

© 2007. A Krattiger et al. Sharing the Art of IP Management: Photocopying and distribution through the Internet for noncommercial purposes is permitted and encouraged.

Editor's Summary

This chapter provides an analytical overview of current complexities vis-à-vis technology transfer in South Africa. As the chapter explains, the situation in South Africa is indeed dynamic, undergoing many changes and adjustments. Yet, the chapter is instructive, not only narrowly within the context of South Africa, but broadly as a case study of how a technology transfer system and infrastructure gradually takes shape in a developing country, all the while providing a realistic view of the challenges, obstacles, misunderstandings and other bumps in the road that must be dealt with, and overcome.

Technology transfer offices (TTOs) are relatively new in South Africa. Indeed, not all universities even have explicit IP policies. Where policies are in place, these are not uniform across institutions. This can place them at a disadvantage when negotiating with the private sector, especially regarding the ownership of intellectual property funded by a company but developed by a university. An analysis of the current performance of TTOs reveals that the income accruing to universities from technology transfer activities is still insubstantial, that there is a time lag before a TTO can generate sufficient income to become self-supporting, and that the performance of TTOs at different institutions can vary widely. However, it must be remember that these results are similar to the experiences of TTOs in other countries (including developed countries).

There are a number of problems that the nascent TTOs in South Africa face: a weak flow of invention disclosures to South African TTOs (due largely to overburdened academics reluctant to take on the additional obligations of an invention disclosure), skepticism or a lack of awareness among faculty about the role of the TTO, low research funding levels, high patenting costs, few experienced technology transfer practitioners to act as mentors, and the unrealistic expectations of executive management concerning financial returns from TTOs. For example, in South Africa it remains a fairly common perception that the main motivation for undertaking technology transfer activities at a university is to generate income. This is fortunately not a universal perception, but technology transfer practitioners, government, and agencies will have to dispel such misperceptions via effective communication.

Solutions to these problems are explored organizationally in the context of the Southern African Research & Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), legislatively in the context of the Framework for Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research (the “Framework”) and financially in the context of the Innovation Fund. In addition, there is also the commonsense approach of how perhaps the most important step that can be taken by TTO administrators and supporters is a consistent effort to communicate clearly the mission of the TTO.

Established in 2002, SARIMA is a stakeholder organization that provides a platform for those from government, academia, and industry with an interest in research and innovation management to foster networking and the promotion of common interests. SARIMA has links with several local, African, and international organizations with related objectives. SARIMA’s objectives include:

  • Professional development to improve the management of research and the creation of intellectual capital
  • Promotion of best practices in the management and administration of research and the use of intellectual capital to create value for the overall public welfare
  • Advocacy of appropriate national and institutional policy to support research and generate intellectual capital
  • Advancement of science, technology, and innovation.

This Framework is intended to bridge the “innovation chasm,” which describes the gap in South Africa between knowledge generators (in particular, universities and research institutions) and the market. The Framework calls for a consistent approach to protecting intellectual property developed with public financing. Institutions will be required to put in place IP policies consistent with pending Framework-based legislation within a limited timeframe after it takes effect. This will ensure a level of harmonization across institutions. One of the more significant provisions is that these policies would obligate employees and students to disclose all intellectual property that they develop. The Framework draws heavily on the U.S. Bayh-Dole Act and proposes the adoption of several similar provisions. These include:

  • Conferring on institutions the responsibility to seek protection for their intellectual property in exchange for the right to own and exploit it
  • A reporting duty to a designated government agency about IP management activity
  • The obligation to share revenues earned from the exploitation of intellectual property with the individual inventors or creators of the intellectual property concerned
  • A right for government to a “free license” to intellectual property should this be in the national interest
  • A preference for licensing to local companies and small business.

However, and somewhat paradoxically, the chapter points out that few South African universities substantially contribute to research from their own internal budgets. Government funding makes up a relatively small proportion of total research expenditure, and so the greatest share of research funding comes from external sources, including local and international companies, philanthropic organizations, development agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The research projects carried out with such funding are governed by research agreements that, among other things, lay out terms for the use and ownership of project intellectual property. Commercial entities frequently insist on the assignment of any project intellectual property, and even not-for-profit funding entities are increasingly demanding more stringent IP provisions.

The Innovation Fund, which directs funding programs for research, development, and innovation, is one of the main agencies responsible for implementing the R&D Strategy. It aims to promote competitiveness by investing in technologically innovative R&D projects, the effect of which will be new knowledge and widespread national benefits in the form of novel products, processes or services. Although essentially a funding agency that supports research projects carried out by consortia (typically a combination of universities, science councils, and/or firms), more recently the Innovation Fund has assumed a more proactive role in promoting technology transfer and assisting eligible South African institutions and researchers in their technology transfer activities.

Whereas the chapter, perhaps unflinchingly so, does not hesitate to point out the challenges which technology transfer faces in South Africa, it also optimistically points to encouraging signs of progress:

  • A handful of TTOs have been operating for several years and are now regarded as established entities within their organizations.
  • Several new TTOs have recently been set up or are in the process of being launched.
  • A track record of licensing deals and spinout companies is gradually being built up.
  • A core of professional, experienced technology transfer practitioners who are enthusiastic about sharing their skills with newcomers to the profession is in place.
  • A vibrant stakeholder organization provides a platform for networking and professional development in the field.
  • Links have been forged that strengthen research collaborations and technology transfer partnerships with organizations elsewhere on the African continent and internationally.
  • All of this is underpinned by support from government.

Therefore, the challenges, obstacles and other bumps in the road, although sometimes daunting, are certainly not insurmountable, a lesson that all developing nations can learn from this chapter.

Key Implications and Best Practices

Given that IP management is heavily context specific, these Key Implications and Best Practices are intended as starting points to be adapted to specific needs and circumstances.

For Government Policy-makers

  • Ensure that policies are enabling rather than overly prescriptive
  • Learn from experiences elsewhere, but take local circumstances into account, in order to craft policy that is both relevant and viable
  • Consult with stakeholders
  • Pay attention to local practical experience in technology transfer activities
  • Provide financial support for research, innovation and technology transfer

For Senior Management (university president, R&D manager, etc)

  • Provide a supportive and enabling institutional environment
  • Provide guidance to ensure that the objectives of the technology transfer office (TTO) are aligned with institutional strategic priorities
  • Be realistic about expected outcomes
  • Have close links to the TTO - know what’s happening
  • Provide adequate resources to equip the TTO to fulfill its functions effectively
  • Secure resources to support complementary activities (for example, building prototypes, scaling up, etc.)

For Scientists

  • Use the TTO as a resource
  • Regard the TTO as a partner and ally
  • Disclose any potential patentable or commercial inventions promptly
  • Consider who might benefit from your research and how you might assist in getting it to them
  • Think longer-term in research design - try and line up funding for the next stage early on
  • Keep meticulous lab notebooks
  • Consider whether a proposed publication might contain patentable subject matter and if so, ensure that you file a patent application in advance

For Technology Transfer Officers

  • Market the TTO both internally to institutional stakeholders, as well as externally, to potential partners, funders, investors and licensees
  • Implement clear institutional policies to support technology transfer, communicate these articulately and apply them consistently
  • Keep learning and stay informed of the latest developments
  • Work very hard at building and maintaining relationships - conflict resolution is part of the job, but wherever possible, try for avoidance!
  • Be professional at all times

Krattiger A, RT Mahoney, L Nelsen, JA Thomson, AB Bennett, K Satyanarayana, GD Graff, C Fernandez and SP Kowalski. 2007. Editor’s Summary, Implications and Best Practices (Chapter 17.7). From the online version of Intellectual Property Management in Health and Agricultural Innovation: A Handbook of Best Practices. MIHR: Oxford, U.K., and PIPRA: Davis, U.S.A. Available online at

© 2007. A Krattiger et al. Sharing the Art of IP Management: Photocopying and distribution through the Internet for noncommercial purposes is permitted and encouraged.