InnovUS e-news 15th edition

June 2012

SU satellite components join the space race

In a groundbreaking move for Stellenbosch University (SU), CubeSat satellite components manufactured by the University’s Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) will be sold to buyers around the world, for use in cutting edge space programmes. This marks the first time that the University is exporting goods for sale in foreign countries.

The CubeSat satellite components concerned are an attitude sensor board called CubeSense, an onboard computer known as CubeComputer and Cubetorquer rods for attitude control. The products were developed at the ESL under the watchful eye of Professor Herman Steyn, satellite engineering specialist and head of the Electronic Engineering Department at SU.

The CubeSat standard was first formalised in 1999 by professors at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University. “The idea was to formulate a standard satellite format to help universities worldwide to perform space science and exploration. The dimensions of the standard cube are 10cmx10cmx10cm and the satellite weighs about 1kg,” explains Prof Steyn.

Although the CubeSat standard was initially set for development by academic institutions, many commercial companies have since built their own CubeSats. CubeSats can be used for a myriad of purposes, including the recording of aerial photographs, the detection of cosmic dust and even the prediction of earthquakes. To date, more than 100 CubeSats have been launched into space.

“We are very excited about the agreement that we have concluded with Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS), a satellite company based in the Netherlands,” says InnovUS CEO Anita Nel. In terms of the agreement, ISIS will market the SU-manufactured satellite components in countries around the globe. Customers will place their orders via CubeSatShop, an ISIS initiative, and components will be manufactured to order at the ESL within a timeframe of three months.

“It was quite a long process to finalise this agreement due to the international trade implications. We were, however, able to receive approval from the SA Reserve Bank in record time, which helped things along. I’m very excited about the possibilities of this agreement and, now that the groundwork has been done in the field of exporting goods internationally, I look forward to similar agreements being concluded in future,” says Anita.

Besides the three existing CubeSat components manufactured by the ESL, work is also underway on a fourth component, a nano-momentum wheel, which will also eventually be commecialised. “The purpose of a momentum wheel is to ensure that the satellite is not thrown off course if it encounters an external disturbance,” says Prof Steyn.

The ESL has established itself as a leading presence in the field of small satellite technology, first as the birth place of SUNSAT-1, Africa’s first indigenously developed microsatellite, and then through the establishment of SunSpace, a spin-off company which utilises the facilities at the ESL to research and develop new satellite technologies.  More recently project support was given to SunSpace during the development and commissioning of SumbandilaSat, South Africa’s second remote sensing microsatellite.  

Much of this is thanks to the leadership of Prof. Steyn, who is widely regarded as a world leader in the field of control systems for small satellites. Prof Steyn’s experience includes a four-year stint as Principal Engineer and Team Leader at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, a spin-off company at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom and the largest producer of small satellites in the world.

The CubeSat components were developed for a European-sponsored FP7 project known as “DeOrbitSail”, a 3-unit CubeSat to deploy a 5x5m drag sail in low earth orbit and to demonstrate rapid deorbiting of a typical satellite nearing its end-of-life.  Prof Steyn will also be attending a Nano-Satellite Symposium in Japan in October this year, where the ESL CubeSat components will be displayed and marketed to interested parties.

Mapping SA’s highs and lows

Thanks to the efforts of a Stellenbosch University researcher, South Africa now boasts an accurate, high resolution depiction of the country’s terrain. SUDEM (Stellenbosch University Digital Elevation Model) offers vastly improved accuracy over the SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) data which is relied on globally to provide a visual representation of terrain.

SUDEM is the brainchild of Dr Adriaan van Niekerk, Director of the Centre for Geographical Analysis (CGA) at Stellenbosch University. Van Niekerk’s work in this field began with the development of a DEM for the Western Cape, as part of his PhD degree. The WC DEM was so well received that the CGA was soon flooded with requests for a similar model for the entire South African region, and one which provided a higher level of detail.

SUDEM relies on contour data and elevation points as well as SRTM data to provide an accurate depiction of terrain. “In those areas where contours are very close together (i.e. in areas of steep slopes), the contour data provides a superior source of information to SRTM data. However, in areas where contours are spaced very far apart (e.g. very flat areas like the Karoo or Kalahari), SRTM data is relied upon,” says Van Niekerk.

What makes the SUDEM particularly useful is that it uses an algorithm to identify and correct input errors in digitised contours and spot heights. It also corrects spatial errors such as gaps, STRM voids (areas with no elevation information) and spikes, and the mismatching of contours at map edges. Preliminary studies show that the SUDEM provides a mean vertical error value of just 2.2m in height, while SRTM data yields a significantly larger mean error of 4.6m.

The potential uses of the SUDEM are manifold. “It offers the opportunity to model hydrological processes (and thereby determine where floods are most likely to occur); it can be used to determine the agricultural potential of land; it can be used to interpolate climate data to provide a more accurate depiction; it is indispensable in visual impact studies, and it can be used to geometrically and topographically correct aerial and satellite images,” says Van Niekerk.

In February 2012 InnovUS assisted the CGA to apply for a patent for the DEM and to successfully license the 2011 edition of SUDEM to Southern Mapping, who will market and sell the product in future. In the meantime, Dr Van Niekerk and his team at the CGA are hard at work on improving the current model. “In future we hope to use data from other sources to improve the accuracy of the model further. We will incorporate high resolution aerial photographs and satellite imagery, as well as river lines and data from other leading DEMs,” he says.

Thanks to the high resolution of SUDEM – and the planned future improvements – it seems likely that every horizontal metre of South Africa’s terrain will soon be accurately recorded.

Genetwister agreement to benefit local grapevine industry

The Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University has, with the help of InnovUS, concluded a second licence agreement with local agri-biotechnology company Genetwister. The licence agreement relates to a grapevine virus diagnostic that will allow Genetwister to accurately identify the following viral infections in grapevines: Grapevine Leafroll Virus, Grapevine Virus Complex, Rupestiris Stem-pitting Virus and Grapevine Fanleaf Nepovirus.

While these grapevine viruses cannot be transferred to humans, they can have a significant impact on the economics of wine production and general vineyard health. The innovation is the brainchild of the Vitis Laboratory in the Department of Genetics at Stellenbosch University and inculcates the know-how and methods developed in this laboratory for local viral strains.

This licence agreement follows a similar agreement concluded with Genetwister last year which concerned the diagnostic protocol used to test for a variety of viruses affecting deciduous fruit trees in the local industry.

Bright ideas abound in SIC

The Stellenbosch Idea Competition (SIC), initiated by InnovUS, has demonstrated the tremendous innovation and creativity that exists on the Stellenbosch University campus. The competition, which seeks to reward and encourage innovative ideas among students and staff at Stellenbosch University, attracted an impressive total of 69 ideas.

“The initial closing date of the competition was 10 April, but this was subsequently extended to 11 May to give entrants the opportunity to submit a more detailed entry based on a fixed template. The template allowed entrants to draw up a viability study – or mini business plan – for their idea. A total of 46 of these viability studies were received,” says Philip Marais, part-time business developer at InnovUS.

The first round of judging took place on 17 May and 16 finalists were subsequently selected to progress to the next round. “There were some very good ideas among the entries we received. Many were unique in the local context, and there was generally a good level of innovation in the entries,” says Philip.

A pitching workshop, presented by Alan Knott-Craig Jnr, the owner and CEO of social networking service MXit, will take place on 17 July. The 16 finalists, and any other interested parties, are invited to attend the workshop to hone their pitching skills. A week after the workshop the 16 finalists will pitch to a new panel of judges, who will select the 10 winning ideas of the competition. “This final judging panel will consist of leading figures in the local investment and technology sectors, as well as a representative from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC),” says Philip.

The 10 winners of the SIC will be announced at a gala event at the end of July. Each winner will walk away with R10 000 in cash to turn their idea into reality, as well as valuable mentorship time with local business leaders. Keep your eye on future editions of the InnovUS newsletter for an overview of the 10 winning ideas. You never know, the next Steve Jobs might be right here on our campus!

InnovUS would also like to thank the sponsors who have helped the competition be the success it has been so far. These sponsors include Vidyo (www.qdist.co.za), Projector and Sound Services, and the Provincial Government.

Protecting intellectual property in South Africa

Intellectual property rights can be summarised as title deeds to creations of the human mind. Intellectual property rights take on many different forms and must, in most cases, be registered to be enforceable.

“Copyright is one form of intellectual property that needs not be registered. Copyright automatically vests in creations such as the likes of the print and visual media. Other forms of intellectual property, however, must be registered. These include patents, trademarks and registered designs,” says Llewellyn du Toit, intern at InnovUS seconded by Von Seidels Intellectual Property Attorneys.

For many people the idea of a patent conjures up images of what could be referred to as “mouse-traps” or clever mechanical devices contrived by backyard inventors. However, these comprise only a tiny fraction of the patents that are registered. Most patents are granted to large companies wanting to protect their interests in the areas in which they are developing new technology, including electronics, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications.

A patent is, in essence, a relationship between an inventor and the State in which the State gives the inventor certain exclusive rights to the invention for a limited duration, and the inventor agrees to make the previously secret invention public knowledge.

“In order for an invention to be patentable, it has to fulfil certain extrinsic and intrinsic requirements. The extrinsic requirements are novelty and inventiveness. An invention is only considered to be novel if it has never been disclosed before. The inventiveness requirement is only fulfilled if the invention is considered not to be obvious or trite. A patent will not be granted for inventions if both these requirements are not met. These extrinsic requirements are more or less the same all around the world.”

Unlike extrinsic requirements, intrinsic requirements differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In the United States (“the US”), for instance, a Supreme Court Decision held that “anything under the sun that is made by man” may be patentable in the US. It is however important to keep in mind that not all jurisdictions are this liberal.

The South African Patents Act includes a number of exclusions as to what is patentable, the most important of these being:

  • business methods;
  • programs for computers; and
  • methods of treatment of the human or animal body.

One should, however, bear in mind that these restrictions apply only to the extent that the patent relates to that invention as such. In other words, a process of controlling a blast furnace would be patentable, despite the fact that the process is implemented as a computer program. Similarly, a method of managing a hospital by controlling information flow may be patentable if the method makes use of distinct entities that interact with each other in certain ways.

A common misconception relating to patents is that there is something called an “international patent” and that no one anywhere in the world can use an invention if another person has a granted patent for such an invention. This could not be further from the truth. Patents are territorial and a patentee only enjoys patent protection in a jurisdiction if a patent was granted in that specific jurisdiction. For instance, if a proprietor of a patent wants his/her invention to enjoy patent protection in China, Australia, Canada and South Africa, he/she has to file a patent in each of these jurisdictions.  

While patents protect the functionality of an invention, registered designs protect the appearance of an article, such as the shape of a piece of office furniture or the ornamentation on a cool drink bottle.

“In South Africa we do not have a patent or design examination process. This means that it is relatively easy and cheap to obtain granted patents and designs. These can, however, always be challenged in our courts.  In South Africa there is thus a heavier reliance on industry to expel bad patents and designs from the system,” says Llewellyn.

Now, more than ever before, intellectual property is considered to be one of the most valuable assets of a business and major companies place huge emphasis on expanding their intellectual property portfolios. Managing intellectual property wisely can set a business apart from competitors as it is a powerful branding tool and can provide an important revenue stream by selling or licensing the intellectual property.

The responsibility for enforcing intellectual property rights is vested in the proprietor of the rights. This means that proprietors of intellectual property have to police their rights and bring legal action where necessary. Our court system is well equipped to deal with such cases.  In particular we have a specialist court for all patent-related matters.

South Africa is an intellectual property-friendly country and businesses should use this to their advantage. Our laws are similar to those of the vast majority of economically significant countries in the world, where the protection of intellectual property rights provides an incentive for innovation.

“It is up to South African businesses to embrace this favourable intellectual property environment and to use it not only to further their own business ventures, but also to create an environment conducive for economic growth in South Africa.”

Creativity boosts business ideas

The InnovUS Mavericks Entrepreneurs Evening held on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 provided budding entrepreneurs with valuable advice on how to brainstorm their next business ideas. The event was attended by over 50 students who had the opportunity to listen to engaging speakers and take part in an interactive workshop aimed at boosting creativity and innovation. “This event was slightly different to previous Mavericks events in that it was primarily aimed at encouraging idea generation,” explains Philip Marais, part-time business developer at InnovUS.

The evening included presentations by Saberi Marais, business developer at InnovUS, Lelani Strydom from the University’s Department of Business Management and David Weber, CTO of Acorn Venture Capital. “Those who attended the evening were all seated in groups around tables. Before the presentations each group was given a prop on their table and they were asked to come up with ideas on how to use the prop as a business proposition,” says Philip. The final presentation was by Dr Petro Janse van Rensburg, from the theatre group Playing Mantis, who led participants in a session which was aimed at encouraging lateral and strategic thinking. Playing Mantis uses theatre and drama to help people in all industry sectors to find their voices and create meaningful stories. “After the Playing Mantis presentation everyone played the prop game again, and it was amazing to see the new ideas that came out,” says Philip.

The evening was another huge success for InnovUS. It will be followed by a business idea pitching workshop for participants in the Stellenbosch Idea Competition (SIC), as well as an additional Mavericks evening on 14 August. Keep your eye on the InnovUS website for further details about the 14 August event.

Position available

TIA is seeking an engineering or science post-graduate student nearing the completion of their studies for a one year internship program within the Western Cape Business Development unit based in Cape Town. The internship would begin on 1 September and would primarily entail getting involved in the roll-out of regional technology innovation projects and initiatives. Other activities would be assisting with screening of TIA enquiries, representing TIA at events and undertaking research analysis. Mentorship will be provided in the area of technology innovation. No prior work experience is required but an interest in technology innovation and an attitude to learn will be sought. Please email a comprehensive CV to babre.muller@tia.org.za.