AAS Open Research

Africa needs better links between research and business

Innovators in Africa are yet to fulfil their potential, write Moses Alobo and Simon Ndoria

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s practical adage, “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”, held true in the days of the Industrial Revolution, where the key to success as an innovator was having a better production concept than your competitors. Whether such simplicity holds true in the modern world is less clear with things like convenience, customer service and after-sales support coming into play.

Researchers in Africa are doing an incredible job at making breakthrough discoveries and innovations—creating fantastic ‘mousetraps’—but few have translated into products and services that solve Africa’s most daunting challenges. For innovations coming from researchers in Africa to have real impact on economies and communities, researchers have to beat their own path out of their laboratories to the market. Therein lies the challenge.

Searching for support

Financing for commercialisation and product development is still low, with few government grant schemes across the continent and only a handful of opportunities from other funders. This presents a major challenge to innovators who need reliable capital to survive the infamous ‘valley of death’, in which promising innovations fail to make it to market.

While government and individual universities have traditionally been the main sources of funding for translating research into innovation, such funding tends to be limited to the earliest stages of commercialisation, at which point there is less opportunity for engagement with industry.

Researchers should be on the lookout for opportunities from philanthropists and non-governmental organisations, which are increasingly offering seed funding to innovators. Another growing source of financing is angel investment, where innovators with a strong proof-of-concept are offered the means to scale up, usually in return for a stake in profits. Angel investors come not only with patient capital but with expertise, experience and networks that are vital for commercialisation.

Knowledge gap

One of the key obstacles preventing commercialisation is that most research organisations have grown in isolation to the private sector and the market at large. This means that researchers first develop innovations and then attempt to push them into the commercial sector.

Commercialisation and intellectual property issues are mostly dealt with internally at universities, and in most cases commercialisation is not embedded within the strategic plans of institutions. While technology transfer offices have been created at research institutions to forge links with industry, they often lack the competencies to identify the most viable projects and are under-resourced to engage with industry. Researchers therefore often face difficulty managing intellectual property—in terms of using it to produce impact—with little incentive or encouragement to bring their ideas to market.

The commercialisation process is not one-dimensional. It requires diverse knowledge about intellectual property, marketing and finance, and calls for a completely different skillset compared with what is required in the lab. Through applications we receive via Grand Challenge Africa’s Transition to Scale calls, which fund innovation projects from proof-of-concept through to market-readiness, we can clearly attest to this knowledge gap. We have received many proposals with top-notch technical detail which fail to make a business case worth investing in.

Researchers should be thinking about commercialisation at the point at which they start research. This means thinking about potential partnerships and considering where an innovation sits within a wider value chain. Seeking consultation from industry partners at an early stage is a great way to foster understanding and can lead to powerful collaborations and joint ventures.

The nature of the commercial path researchers choose to take—whether a start-up, spin-off or a licensing agreement—will determine the product they develop. For an innovation to be well-received by potential users, it is important to incorporate those users’ perspectives and insights in the development process, alongside hard-proven scientific facts, thus co-creating a solution.

Networking works

For researchers launching a start-up, business incubators can provide invaluable resources including working spaces, business training programmes, advisory services and sometimes links with potential commercialisation partners. For those innovators who have already established new ventures and are ready to scale up, accelerator programmes are a good choice for enabling faster take-off. Accelerators can help refine the product offering and build sustainable business plans, as well as offer opportunities for individualised coaching and mentoring.

Networks are a crucial tool for budding innovators, who should never limit themselves to one source of knowledge. Incubators play a big role in bringing together networks of innovators and start-ups for knowledge-sharing, but researchers should be searching deep and wide across the entire innovation ecosystem. The Grand Challenges Africa Innovation Network, launched in June 2020, provides a platform for connections and dialogue with African grantees, as well as funders, governments, venture capitalists and innovation incubator experts.

Given the unique challenges facing Africa and its nascent innovation ecosystem, it is imperative that solutions are tailored for the continent and individual countries. Researchers and innovators cannot afford to paint Africa with a big brush and should adapt the solution to fit local communities of users.

The research output of African researchers is demonstrably excellent by international standards. Likewise, African researchers should be thinking of international standards for innovation in order to make their mark on global markets. Otherwise, the sparse local innovation system here will continue to be dominated by foreign players with superior support from their countries of origin.

This blog was originally published as an article on Research Professional