InnovUS e-news 11th edition

Friday, 12 August 2011

SU concludes licensing agreement with leading biotech company

The Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University (SU) has, with the help of InnovUS, entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Genetwister Africa, a biotechnology company that provides services to the agricultural sector. In terms of the agreement, Genetwister will be responsible for the commercial testing of specific viruses commonly found in deciduous fruit. The diagnostic protocol was pioneered at the University and will be tested on a large scale by Genetwister. “It is hoped that this agreement will lay the foundation for similar licences in the diagnosis of plant viruses in future,” says Dr Reinette Champanis, Chief Operating Officer of Genetwister Africa.

The agreement is the result of an increasing demand from the agricultural industry for diagnostic tests for plant viruses. While the SU Genetics Department is capable of developing new diagnostic tests, as an academic institution, they do not have the required capacity to test vast amounts of plant samples. Following discussions between Professor Johan Burger, head of the SU Genetics Department, and Dr Champanis, a former student of the University, an agreement was reached whereby the diagnostic protocol for specific viruses would flow to Genetwister for commercial application. The SU Genetics Department approached InnovUS for assistance with the facilitation of the licence discussion and agreement. “We met with Genetwister on a number of occasions, compiled a licence agreement and ensured that the licence was successfully concluded,” explains InnovUS Business Developer Saberi Marais.

The benefits for both the SU Genetics Department and Genetwister are evident. “It is important that our research results are translated into useful applications in industry, and this agreement is an example of such a success story. It all started as a humble Honours project and now it will be rolled out in industry,” says Prof. Johan Burger. “It’s a very exciting development,” adds Dr Champanis. “The agricultural industry isn’t always aware of the technology that is available to them and I hope that this agreement will be the beginning of a movement to bring high technology directly to the farmer.”  

While the test concerned is widely used to detect pathogens, what makes it exciting is its specificity and applicability. “The diagnostic test has been specifically designed and optimised to detect a number of viruses infecting fruit trees in the local industry. This makes it a ‘first’ for South Africa,” explains Prof. Burger. The diagnostic protocol concerned makes use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to screen for the presence of the viruses. The fruit is first cut into small pieces and frozen in liquid nitrogen. It is then ground into a fine powder and subjected to a nucleic acid extraction process to remove the unwanted plant material, following which the PCR process can begin. The genetic code of the target virus is converted to DNA, which serves as a template for selective amplification by means of alternating temperature cycles and the use of specific primers, to give a detectable signal. The PCR process at Genetwister is capable of testing for the presence of the virus as well as quantifying the viral load.

Besides its molecular biology capabilities, Genetwister also offers tissue culture services, including embryo rescue procedures and micro-propagation, which can significantly enhance and speed up the development of new plant cultivars. Genetwister Africa is a South African company with local and international shareholding, of which the latter is a recognised entity in the global biotechnology industry. For more information on the services offered by Genetwister, contact Dr Reinette Champanis on 021 865 2531 or info@genetwister.co.za

InnovUS and Kommunity Desk target job creation

Job creation starts at school where learners are afforded the opportunity to make critical subject choices to support future career prospects. This, in turn, will enhance job opportunities for the skills they can offer. This is what Kommunity Desk – an initiative which is currently running parallel to Tutudesk, previously known as Lapdesk – firmly believes. And this is why InnovUS has facilitated a licensing agreement between Kommunity Desk and Stellenbosch University as the intellectual property owner of KODUS, a psychological interest questionnaire.

Professor Johann Meyer developed the KODUS questionnaire in 1980 as a psychometric tool for learners and students. He was a student counsellor at Stellenbosch University at the time and therefore KODUS is currently the intellectual property of the University. In 2010 one of Professor Meyer’s former students contacted him regarding the use of the questionnaire also by teachers and not only by qualified psychologists.

Consequently, InnovUS started facilitating Kommunity Desk’s licensing process free of charge. Anita Nel, CEO of InnovUS, says this was done in order to roll out the project at the lowest possible cost. “This is simply one more example of how the University’s technology can make a difference in the lives of the community at large and how InnovUS can facilitate the use of the University’s intellectual property to the advantage of the people of South Africa,” says Anita.

“This is a non-profit initiative aligned with the University’s Hope Project,” adds Professor Meyer, who has been practising privately as a counselling psychologist specialising in career guidance and human resource development since his retirement in 2007. He will act as consultant for the project which he believes is a wonderful initiative.

And he is not the only one. Kommunity Desk also enjoys the patronage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who believes that the project “provides a unique, practical and innovative solution to learners, teachers and education ministries alike in a proven programme of work that is both relevant and dignified, ensuring a better chance to succeed in the improvement of educational upliftment for all of the beneficiaries”.

According to Gavin Launder from Kommunity Desk, it is estimated that about 70% of high school learners make critical subject choices regarding career prospects without any qualified and direct intervention from their educators or parents. “If we want to successfully address employment equity and the challenges of workforce skills in South Africa we need to focus immediately on career guidance in our schools,” says Gavin. “Informed choices simply have to start at school level as a strategic and proactive intervention for South Africa’s skills’ challenges if we hope to build an inclusive economy and level the playing field, also at a global level.”

He explains that with this in mind, Kommunity Desk has now compiled The Kommunity Career Handbook, including KODUS, as an aptitude test and vital guide for students and schools. The handbook enjoys the support and endorsement of the South African Department of Education and provides comprehensive additional information regarding careers, bursaries, tertiary and technical study options, as well as important life skills information. The Kommunity Career Handbook is provided free of charge to all high school learners.

Gavin explains that this is made possible by Kommunity Desk’s corporate partners who recruit the most talented students in South Africa. “We facilitate this process by allowing our corporate partners exclusive access to our national database of learners, thereby assisting them with their human resources development by reducing competition for these learners,” says Gavin. “This interaction includes, among others, bursary allocations, learner support and early career identification.”

MRC and Stellenbosch University conclude agreement with US company for an antibody against ovarian cancer

A monoclonal antibody against ovarian cancer developed by Dr Hanne Veenstra at the Medical Research Council (MRC)/Stellenbosch University Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology has been licensed to a research tools company in Colorado, USA. The antibody, known as SM047, binds to an epitope on a multivalent antigen which is associated with the glycocalyx of ovarian carcinoma cells and a limited variety of other malignant and normal tissue. “This non-exclusive licence agreement was initiated by the MRC Innovation Centre, which negotiated with the company for the licence. In the latter stages InnovUS provided valuable input to the licensing agreement itself,” says Dr Michelle Mulder, Manager: IP and Business Development at the MRC Innovation Centre.

Ovarian cancer (OvC) is one of the most treatable solid tumours known; however, approximately 75% of all cases are only diagnosed in the later stages, which are far more difficult to treat. Current diagnostic methods for OvC are generally expensive, invasive or non-specific. The limitations of the most commonly used OvC test, the CA 125 assay, in detecting the disease, particularly in the early stages, as well as its low sensitivity and specificity are widely accepted.

A small trial at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town comparing the SM047-based diagnostic assay with the well known CA125 tumour marker has yielded encouraging results. Although further testing on a larger sample size is required, early indications are that SM047 represents a potential opportunity for the development of a more sensitive and specific diagnostic test for OvC.

While the current licence agreement is not for the diagnostic potential of the antibody, it is hoped that its availability as a research tool will contribute to the advancement of knowledge on ovarian and other types of cancer, ultimately leading to improved treatments and diagnosis of the disease. The US-based company licenses, produces and markets antibodies to support niche and emerging areas of research. “The antibody will now be added to its list of products that are available to researchers all around the world,” concludes Dr Mulder.

IP may not be “sold” by students

Students are not the owners of any intellectual property (IP) developed during the course of their studies at Stellenbosch University. This means that they cannot assign their IP to a company in exchange for a bursary.

There have been a number of cases recently in which companies have provided bursaries to students and, as part of the agreement with the students, they have claimed the IP developed as part of the student's studies. This kind of agreement is not legal, for a number of reasons:

  • When a student receives a bursary for study at a recognised academic institution, the receipt of the amount is tax-free in the hands of the student, says Charles de Wet, tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.  “The purpose of a bursary is to fund academic study, which is aimed at increasing the intellectual capacity of an individual, and not at providing a service to a company,” he explains. “Practice Note 17, issued by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) in March 1993 [subsequently followed by a Draft Interpretation Note] states that when a person undertakes research on behalf of another party, the payment is taxable. However, this would only apply in the case of someone being paid by a company to undertake specific research at a university, in other words they would be receiving a salary from the company, and not a bursary for study.”
  • The Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act, no. 51 of 2008 (the IPR Act) states that state-funded research belongs to the University. If research is not sponsored on a full cost basis, this applies. A bursary does not constitute full-cost research funding, as University study is subsidised by the state.
  • Co-ownership of the IP could be possible, but section 15.2 of the Act provides the conditions for this. All of these conditions must be met, including 15.2(b) which requires that inventorship must take place both at University level and within the company funding the research.

“The IPR Act supports the InnovUS IP Policy, which – in keeping with standard IP policy at universities around the world – states that the student’s IP belongs to the University. As companies normally enter into bursary agreements with the students and not the University, the student cannot assign IP through such an agreement because he or she is not the owner thereof,” says Anita Nel, Chief Executive Officer of InnovUS.

However, says Anita, InnovUS is open to negotiation with companies regarding the issue of IP and the organisation has a very flexible approach to the structuring of transactions with companies. “We work closely – and very successfully – with the Division for Research Development in this regard and we have not yet had a case in which we were not able to reach a suitable agreement with an interested company,” she says.

Innovative solar chimney software now available

In the world of clean energy generation, solar chimney production plants have become an area of particular interest, especially given the current trend to reduce the world’s dependence on energy sourced from the consumption of fossil fuels. Understandably then, a software tool that can optimise and control large-scale solar chimney power plants, is proving to be extremely valuable in this field. InnovUS is currently offering interested parties the opportunity to obtain a licence to this software, as well as scope for collaboration with the inventor.

“This is an extremely exciting innovation for us, particularly because the effects of solar energy are becoming more and more relevant,” says Saberi Marais, Business Developer: InnovUS. He explains that the software was recently developed by a Stellenbosch University student while completing a PhD in mechanical engineering. “Since this student has developed this innovation while studying at SU, it is the intellectual property of the University,” says Saberi. “And as the University’s wholly-owned technology transfer company, InnovUS wants to facilitate the use of copyright-protected licences by alternative energy plant production companies and construction companies in the domain of solar chimney plant energy.”

Saberi explains that solar chimney plants make use of geo-thermal fluctuations to channel rising hot air through a chimney to drive turbines which, in turn, produce electricity. Solar chimney plant design can be challenging and to achieve the most efficient production of energy from their design is at the heart of this technology innovation. “In laymen’s terms, this software can help designers of solar chimney plants to make the design and the running of the plant more effective by measuring and controlling the output,” says Saberi.

Click here to contact InnovUS for more information on this innovation.

Biosafety SA backs Stellenbosch University researchers

The work of two Stellenbosch University (SU) researchers, Dr Helet Lambrechts and Professor Jens Kossmann, has earned financial backing from Biosafety South Africa, an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and a Technology Innovation Agency platform which aims to promote the development of safe and sustainable biotechnology products. The research projects are among the first of their kind in the international biosafety arena and focus on risk mitigating strategies (RMSs), one of the most important aspects in the assessment and management of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). InnovUS and the SU Division for Research Development played an integral role in the conclusion of the research contracts.

The first project, headed by Dr Lambrechts, a senior lecturer at the SU Department of Animal Sciences, will focus on the development and evaluation of different containment strategies for abalone. The availability of effective confinement measures is an important prerequisite for a possible future GM research and development programme in this area. In addition, methods developed during this project could possibly be applied to a variety of other aquaculture organisms.  

The second project, headed by Prof Kossmann, Director of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology in the SU Department of Genetics, will focus on the development of technologies to enable cis-genetics (cis is the Latin word for “on the same side as”) in sugarcane. Cis-genetics is also regarded as an RMS as it enables the production of genetically modified plants that do not contain any foreign DNA. The project further provides an opportunity to advance the existing knowledge and understanding of the biosafety and regulatory issues relevant to cis-genetics. Both projects will run for two years and provide for a total of four post-graduate bursaries.

South Africa is one of the world’s 17 biotech mega-countries, the largest one in Africa, and has a special responsibility in promoting and engaging in scientifically sound biosafety research. The grants awarded to Stellenbosch University complement other strategic biosafety research projects funded by Biosafety SA, two at the North West University in Potchefstroom, one at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria and another at the Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services in Cape Town. For more information visit www.biosafety.org.za

Interns to join InnovUS

InnovUS and the Department of Business Management in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at Stellenbosch University have joined forces to launch the first ever internship programme at InnovUS. The programme will not only assist InnovUS to create the capacity for possibly appointing some of the interns on a permanent basis in future, but it will also give those who participate in the programme excellent exposure to, and experience of, the operations of a technology transfer company.

Anita Nel, CEO of InnovUS, says: “By working on our projects, these interns will gain first-hand, practical experience of how business negotiations are conducted, how contracts are concluded and how technology is applied in business.” She adds that the interns will be either business- or technology-orientated, but that they will work together on all aspects of projects including the technology which serves as the basis of a project; the development of business models and plans; financial analysis; and patent applications.

Dr Sameshnee Pelly was the first to start her technology internship with InnovUS this year and joined the team at the end of July. Apart from holding a PhD in Synthetic Organic Chemistry and currently completing a law degree, she is also a candidate attorney in the patent department of Von Seidels Intellectual Property Attorneys with which InnovUS cooperates closely. “I am truly enjoying this experience and I am currently investigating which of the various new technologies at InnovUS are patentable, as well as assisting with their patent applications,” says Dr Pelly, who is completing a six-month internship with InnovUS. Anita says "we are very grateful to Von Seidels for placing Sameshnee with us".

The appointment of business interns is done in collaboration with Awie Vlok from the Department of Business Management. During the past 20 years he has gained wide experience in directing new innovation to the marketplace, especially during his time as head of the Innovation Leadership and Learning Academy at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) within the national Department of Science and Technology.

Mr Vlok says that when he joined Stellenbosch University at the beginning of this year, he realised that there was a great need to expose students to the reality of what takes place in the world of technology transfer. “I met with Anita and since the internship programme has been announced, there has been great excitement and immense interest. This internship programme is an extremely rare, multi-disciplinary field and we hope that this first programme will act as a prototype for more to follow.”

InnovUS plans to enrol between three and five interns as from this month and each intern will be expected to commit to between 30 and 100 hours during the semester. These will include, among others, doing research and gathering data for existing projects; generating reports based on data and information analyses; and compiling case studies. Upon completion, each intern will receive a certificate of completion and, says Mr Vlok, this will prove to be invaluable in the field in future.

Are you interested in the InnovUS internship programme?

Then you have to meet the following criteria:

  • You must be available to work on allocated InnovUS projects for the agreed period;
  • You must at least hold a BComm degree and be working towards a post-graduate qualification;
  • Your studies must have covered critical components of the innovation chain;
  • You must be enthusiastic and open to acquire practical learning experience to complement your studies;
  • You must commit to recording your learning experience and/or writing a case study as a review mechanism to be used in future learning processes.

If you are confident that you meet all these criteria and would like to be considered for any future internship positions with InnovUS, send your CV and a letter of application to Awie Vlok at avlok@sun.ac.zaand Anita Nel at ajnel@sun.ac.za