Inventors' agency

The Department of Science and Technology is setting up the technology innovation agency to pull together expertise and funding and so fast-track the development of new technology products and services.

The agency’s task is to ensure that government-funded applied research ends up as commercially viable products in the marketplace—something that often fails to happen at present.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General of the department, said the agency was needed because of the complexities and cost of taking research to its commercial conclusion, notably in the area of intellectual property.

“What the agency will do is find sources of funding for product development that is high-risk and not viable yet for venture capitalists or banks,” Mjwara said.

As an example of the kind of initiative that the agency will support, the department’s Innovation Fund ­supported a successful project to create a ceramic artificial eye that could move in ­synchrony with a person’s other eye.

Another example is a project to convert titanium into parts for aeroplanes. “Titanium is a lightweight material but is extremely strong. If parts are produced from titanium, aeroplanes will consume less fuel. The next Boeing is set to be 18% titanium,” said Mjwara.

“We are trying to latch onto this development. I believe in South Africa we have a number of research initiatives with the potential to effect this conversion.”

Many projects like these cannot be funded by one institution, so the agency will pull experts together from different research hubs into “centres of competency”.

“This will create large-scale projects,” Mjwara said.

The agency will absorb other funding instruments of the department: the Innovation Fund, Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres, the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy and the Tshumisano Trust, through which universities of technology respond to the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mjwara said pulling these resources together will create a pool of funds of about R500-million that the agency could exploit.

The agency was announced earlier this year in the budget speech of the Minister of Science and Technology, Mosibudi Mangena. The Technology Innovation Agency Bill has gone through Parliament and is in its final stages of approval.

In anticipation of approval, the science and technology department has established a project management office to prepare for the migration of the various existing entities to the agency. The agency is expected to be up and running by April next year.

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