Innovus e-news 28th edition

June 2015

Innovation abounds at SU

In 2013, the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), a division of the Department of Science and Technology, created the TIA Seed Fund to support the funding of innovation-oriented projects undertaken at higher education institutions and science councils, or to spin-out companies that are based on intellectual property emanating from these institutions. The TIA Seed Fund contributes up to R500 000 per project.

"Stellenbosch University (SU) welcomes the establishment of the TIA Seed Fund and has delegated its management to Innovus, the technology transfer and innovation company of SU. Since the inception of the fund, Innovus has invited SU researchers to submit proposals for funding by the TIA Seed Fund during each funding round. An increasing number of researchers respond each time to these calls. Earlier this year we had a very short timeframe for responses, yet we received 39 proposals! This shows that the TIA Seed Fund enjoys great credibility among our research community. This is probably due to the successes that we have been able to generate through this fund," said Anita Nel, Innovus CEO and Senior Director: Innovation and Business Development at SU. Innovus provides guidance to interested researchers with the preparation of their research proposals, as well as support to report on successful applications.

Since 2013, a total of 21 SU projects have been approved for funding by the TIA Seed Fund. Examples include new technology directed at making South Africa's shores safe from shark attacks, the installation of solar energy batteries in the rural areas of Transkei and a skin patch which measures hydration levels.

"Stellenbosch University is incredibly proud of the outstanding quality of innovation that is produced by our researchers and spin-out companies, and we are committed to working in partnership with TIA to further innovation in the Western Cape," said Anita. She added that the TIA Seed Fund is "probably the best intervention in the local technology transfer industry to date" and thanked TIA management for their vision to establish this fund and to enable the University to support researchers with projects that are close to the commercialisation phase. "We are especially grateful for the incredible support we get from Mr Saberi Marais, the newly appointed TIA Seed Fund Manager," she added.

This special edition of the Innovus newsletter profiles a few of the innovative SU projects that have benefited from funding from the TIA Seed Fund thus far.

Sharksafe Barrier keeps sharks, sea life and people safe

Shark attacks have a way of capturing the public imagination, terrifying beach goers, and causing governments to occasionally make drastic decisions. Reacting to a string of deadly attacks, Western Australia, for example, recently ordered a cull of large sharks, followed by substantial scientific and public outcry centered on concerns that sharks are essential components of marine ecosystems.

Here in South Africa, governments use shark nets to protect some beaches. Installing nets to keep sharks out of popular swimming beaches may seem like a reasonable and more civil solution, until you realise that the nets are actually an ecological disaster themselves. Instead of just deterring sharks, nets entangle and kill hundreds of sharks each year in KwaZulu-Natal alone. Worse, they also kill other species, including dolphins, sea turtles, rays, birds and other fish. Globally, nets are estimated to kill 2 500 sharks every year. Because sharks are slow growing and long-lived, many species can't reproduce fast enough to withstand current levels of exploitation.

A team comprising Stellenbosch Professor Conrad Matthee, Dr Sara Andreotti, Dr Craig O' Connell (O'Seas Conservation Foundation), and Michael Rutzen (Shark Diving Unlimited) is proposing an attractive alternative - they've developed a Sharksafe Barrier that can deter sharks, even from highly desirable bait, without posing any danger to the sharks or other sea life. Physically, the barrier resembles an underwater kelp forest, a natural habitat that sharks tend to avoid. The barrier is constructed of long pieces of piping that float vertically in the water from moorings on the sea floor, mimicking the "stalks" of kelp.

The Sharksafe Barrier keeps sharks out by influencing their behaviour, not by physically restricting their movement - sharks, particularly great whites, don't like to go into kelp forests, so they don't cross the Sharksafe Barrier even though physically, they could get through. This means that the barrier won't entangle and kill any sea life. Animals other than sharks, like seals and bony fishes, can pass through the barrier.

Even though the rigid barrier structure alone has proven sufficient to deter white sharks in many cases, the Sharksafe Barrier employs another technology, barium-ferrite magnets, to ensure the highest level of shark exclusion. Several shark species, including bull sharks, are sensitive to permanent magnetic fields and will avoid them. Sharks have a type of "sixth sense" in the form of an organ called ampullae of Lorenzini, a network of jelly-filled pores that allows them to detect electromagnetic fields. They use this special ability to find prey, and possibly also to navigate by using the earth's magnetic field. Therefore, they dislike and avoid the strong magnetic field generated by the Sharksafe Barrier.

The Technology Innovation Agency awarded seed funding to the Sharksafe Barrier project in 2014. This award is intended to help develop the project and take it from a proven concept to a refined and viable project ready for commercial roll-out. The concept has been shown to work in initial scientific trials. The challenge now is tweaking the engineering to make a commercial grade product that can withstand the harsh conditions of permanent deployment in the sea. The Sharksafe Barrier needs to be able to endure surf and swell, day in and day out, and to withstand inclement weather.

Besides ongoing testing of shark deterrence in "shark alley" near Gansbaai this year, the Sharksafe Barrier team is working with Laurie Barwell, a coastal environmental engineer, and SKEG (Pty) Ltd, an engineering consulting company, to refine the product. Together, they are striving to determine the best material and design to improve durability, minimise maintenance, and reduce the cost of installation. The aim is to develop a product that can survive for around two decades of use.

The Sharksafe Barrier team is currently also negotiating their first commercial deal. Although the initial cost of installing the Sharksafe Barrier is likely to be greater than of shark nets, the Sharksafe Barrier requires far less ongoing maintenance and moreover can have significant impacts towards a sustainable green economy.

The Sharksafe Barrier project has received significant media attention. It's been featured recently on television programmes 50/50, CCTV Africa, Australia's 60 minutes, and French television's Linge de Front, and it's been discussed widely in the media, for example in Discovery News, the Independent , the Mail & Guardian, surf magazine Zigzag and even Plastics Today.

It's easy to see why the technology is so appealing. Even though shark attacks are rare, fear of sharks is entrenched in the public psyche. If the Sharksafe Barrier can provide safe swimming beaches without using the environmentally unacceptable shark nets, it's a win-win-win situation. Sea life doesn't get entangled in nets and drown, beachgoers can relax and enjoy the sea, and local governments and businesses stand to profit from happy tourists.

SU researchers develop skin patch that helps to prevent dehydration

Researchers in the Department of Physiological Sciences at Stellenbosch University have developed a skin patch that measures moisture loss during physical exertion and thereby prevents dehydration. Professor Kathryn Myburgh, her postdoctoral fellow, Dr Filippo Macaluso, and her research assistant, Mr Jeandre Viljoen, created the potentially lifesaving device which indicates sweat loss in real time, so that the wearer can immediately take action to replenish lost fluid.

The Sweat Patch is an important scientific breakthrough as it solves a biological limitation in the physiology of humans. Unlike breathing, which happens automatically, fluid replacement is a conscious decision, as thirst is not a reliable indicator of fluid loss. Thirst can occur long after lost fluid should have been replaced.

Athletes and people who do physical work or spend extended time outdoors experience fluid loss, which varies according to the intensity of the activity, the prevailing temperature and ambient humidity of the environment. "This fluid loss, if not replenished, can lead to dehydration and the risk of hyperthermia. On the other hand, overhydration by taking in too much fluid can be even more life-threatening for some people due to the dilution of sodium in the blood," says prof. Myburgh.

The Sweat Patch solves this problem by providing an accurate measurement of body water loss, so the user knows exactly how much liquid to consume to replace moisture lost while the patch is worn.

The successful development of this biomedical device was made possible through seed funding from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), a division of the Department of Science and Technology. "The TIA funding was crucial to the refinement of our prototype. It helped us to experiment with different materials until we found one that is optimal for our purpose," says prof. Myburgh.

"We now have a professional-looking product that we are proud to show to prospective partners for eventual commercialisation. Without the TIA funding, we would not have been able to move the patch beyond an idea or something that looks handmade."

The complex prototype manufacturing process necessitated the use of advanced 3D printing technology, a technology that is costly and not yet widely in use South Africa. The prototype manufacture was greatly facilitated by the TIA seed funding, making the advantages of 3D printing technology available to SU researchers. The TIA funding also facilitated the testing and final calibration of the device.

The intellectual property in the invention is protected, as the device is patented in many countries worldwide. The protection includes the device and possible alternatives of the device.

The Sweat Patch also has a much wider application. Runners at all levels, marathon athletes, hikers, mine workers, the military, spectators at outdoor events, and participants in festivals and charity walks can all benefit from a cheap and disposable skin patch that warns them when they need to drink some water. The device will also have an important application in hospitals for patients who have malaria or other fever-inducing illnesses.

Because it's easy to add branding to the Sweat Patch, the device also has great potential as a marketing tool. Outdoor events companies can use the patch, printed with their brand, to promote events and sponsors of major sports can add the Sweat Patch to their existing range of hydration products.

Custos combats piracy by turning participants against each other

Stellenbosch University inventors Professor Gert-Jan van Rooyen, Frederick Lutz and Dr Herman Engelbrecht developed Custos, a promising media rights product, by leveraging two seemingly disparate trends of the digital age - rampant digital piracy and the rise of cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin.

Piracy - copyright infringement in the form of illegal media sharing - is ubiquitous, and media companies are desperate for a solution to curb the flow of pirated files. Illegal sharing and downloading of copyrighted material costs the global economy approximately 75 billion US dollars every year. That's a lot of stolen movies, e-books, music, games and software.

Major media corporations have made some attempts to stop or slow piracy, which have often just irritated customers. They've made strides in their distribution models to make media more readily and immediately available to consumers, making it easier for consumers to make the conscionable decision to pay for products. Convenient services like Netflix and iTunes allow instant access to video and audio through streaming or direct purchases - perfect for a generation of tech users accustomed to instant gratification. However, many such services employ unwieldy security systems that can alienate customers by restricting their ability to use and enjoy the media they rightfully paid for. For example, they restrict the duration of access to media or the number of devices customers can use to enjoy it.

Even so, the anti-piracy systems are not hack-proof, and many files end up being pirated anyway. Once pirated files are "out there", they proliferate, and it is nearly impossible to regain control. Media companies have used legal action and sued for frightening sums, but consumers often see these strong-arm tactics negatively - as wealthy companies bullying the little guys.

However, the three Custos inventors have come up with a solution that allows media companies to dissuade consumers from illegally sharing media they've purchased. Their technology uses cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, a medium of exchange that relies on cryptography to secure financial transactions and control availability. They've developed a system which embeds a unique code into each media file that unlocks a cryptocurrency deposit. If media users illegally share files they've been granted access to, someone else can find the code and anonymously claim their deposit - it's like a finder's fee or bounty for illegal copies.

The media company will then be able to trace the unique code used in the cryptocurrency transaction to know who initially shared the file and when; the infringer loses their deposit and opens themselves up to further penalties or legal action. Custos technology thus allows the media companies to turn the downloaders against the uploaders, and thus they can avoid looking like the bully. Unsurprisingly, media companies, both locally and globally, have shown a keen interest in Custos.

Seed funding received from the Technology Innovation Agency has allowed Custos to develop a media distribution platform that allows clients to effortlessly distribute Custos-protected copies of their files. The product is currently undergoing pilot testing with a South African film distributor and an African multiplatform media company.

Professor van Rooyen and Mr Lutz attended the 2014 Anti-Piracy and Content Protection Summit in California and were greatly encouraged by the keen interest in their product from major players in the worlds of film, music, books and software. "The reactions at the summit further supported our belief that the market is desperate for a solution to the ongoing threat of piracy. Through existing and new connections, we were introduced to representatives from other media companies, potential technology partners and potential strategic funders who were all extremely excited about the technology," says Lutz.

Custos has since hired its first employee, a digital watermarking expert, and the team continues to work tirelessly to further develop and refine their product. They hope to report on their successes at the Anti-Piracy summit in the US again in 2015. With support from Innovus, they have also submitted patent applications in South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom and to the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

Abstrahere Academic goes live in April 2015!

Abstrahere Academic is almost ready for launch on Stellenbosch University's website! This unique software is designed to help postgraduate students develop the skills they need to evaluate academic texts with maximum efficiency. All master's and doctoral students registered with the university will be eligible to sign up for and use the web application as part of the pilot study and prototype development for the new technology.

The project is the brain child of Dr Handré Brand, recently retired Director of Academic Counselling and Career Development at the Stellenbosch University (SU) Centre for Student Counselling and Development, and is being developed commercially in association with SU and Innovus, together with funding from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Seed Fund. It currently comprises two distinct text mastering tools, Abstrahere Corporate and Abstrahere Academic, that focus on developing human potential and skills in different ways:.

Abstrahere Academic

Abstrahere Academic is an electronic reading support app that adds value for students by guiding them in their reading to find ways into and around an academic text. It supports features such as:

  • Analysing the title and authority of a book or journal article,
  • Scanning and extracting central ideas from the text,
  • Summarising the text,
  • Content analysis, analysis of the nature of the publication, integration, analysis of graphs, tables, diagrams and references, and
  • The compilation of output in the form of a confidential Critical Reading Box (CRB) that can be shared with other students as basis for further discussion, or with an academic supervisor for review and feedback.

Benefits of the Abstrahere Academic web application include:

  • Improved critical reading skills,
  • Enhanced ability to penetrate the core ideas of a book or article,
  • Greater skill in writing about and applying the key ideas and concepts of scholarly text,
  • Better understanding of how to structure the selection of influential sources for or from a text,
  • Heightened confidence when learning to approach and create a logical structuring of a wide range of publications on a research topic,
  • Additional means of communication between student and supervisors through the app's secure and confidential electronic channels,
  • Refinement of critical textual aspects of one's own thesis or dissertation, such as the literature review, theoretical foundation, discussion of results and conclusions, and
  • Guidance in methods for assessing the merits of other scholarly publications.

The TIA Seed Fund sponsored the Abstrahere project in early 2014 and, since then, much progress has been achieved with regard to preliminary components, including:

  • Initial proof of both the Abstrahere Academic and Abstrahere Corporate concepts,
  • Intellectual property, trademark and domain name registrations,
  • Market study and feasibility reports,
  • Development of prototypes and demonstration models, and
  • Approval for conducting pilot studies.

Abstrahere Corporate

Dr Brand is currently in discussion with well-known Stellenbosch-based companies with the view to implement pilot studies of the Abstrahere Corporate interface with employees as part of their in-house staff development and leadership training programmes. Abstrahere Corporate is a dynamic reading development tool that can be tailored for use by both presenters and delegates to maximise value from training workshops.

Prior to contact sessions with trainees, a trainer or administrator uploads prescribed reading materials onto the company's intranet. Authorised readers then gain individual access to the material and are supported by the Abstrahere software to undertake and complete their reading in an effective and structured way. In the process, every reader compiles her or his personal CRB summary that can be shared for use, for example, as the basis of leadership development discussions at the subsequent contact session. The technology accommodates the complexities of cognitive factors and variations in individual employee aptitudes, abilities and experience when used as a tool to improve the content reading skills of trainees.

Abstrahere Corporate can add value for participants in corporate leadership development programmes and as an assistive tool in human resource and training departments of large corporations in a number of ways. These include the software being used:

  • As a pre-reading tool for corporate training texts and discussion materials so trainees are better prepared when they start the training session,
  • To promote the cost effectiveness of learning and development strategies and contribute to the development of more positive perceptions of employees to training procedures,
  • As means of promoting greater involvement and more effective communication, between facilitators, corporate trainees, line managers and human resource personnel,
  • As a tool in staff performance, selection and promotion appraisals,
  • With its focus on the development of human potential and skills, to contribute to Black Economic Empowerment programmes, and
  • To enhance the overall reading culture in the corporate environment.

Fundamentally, the innovative Abstrahere software applications link the principle of critical reading with an electronic application, providing guidelines to promote reading comprehension, reading interest and reading skills in a time-effective way. With minor adjustments to existing models, Abstrahere could also be made available to South African learners at school level – significantly widening the scope of possible applications.

More information is available on the Abstrahere website at

Eco-powered by the RFPM machine

A permanent magnet machine developed at Stellenbosch University has paved the way for manufacturers to make motors from light, non-ferrous materials such as aluminium or carbon fibre. The radial flux permanent magnet machine (RFPMM) uses magnet arrangements invented by Dr Peter Jan Randewijk and M.Eng student, Gert Oosthuizen. The non-ferrous nature of these machines means that they also have a very high efficiency rate, as iron losses are eliminated.

With guidance and assistance from Innovus, a provisional patent application for the technology has been filed, and the inventors have already demonstrated proof of concept with the creation of a working prototype with an aluminium motor to illustrate the increased efficiency of the technology. The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) has enabled further design refinement and prototype development of the project.

With financial assistance from the TIA Seed Fund, a carbon fibre rotor structure is now being tested to further reduce weight and to maximise torque-to-power ratio. The working prototype, employing permanent magnets to complete a flux path, is a world-first ironless radial flux design. Its custom-designed in-wheel hub motor eliminates mechanical losses from transmission components, such as belts or gears, because the active components of the machine are fixed directly to the rim and shaft of the wheel structure.

Plans are in place for this battery-driven, three-wheel prototype to be Stellenbosch University's Matie Shell Eco-Marathon (SEM)/Team SUN entry to compete in the May 2015 SEM in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The SEM is an annual challenge to students around the world to produce new vehicles that are both energy efficient and eco-friendly.

The Matie SEM/Team SUN team largely comprises faculty and students from Stellenbosch University's Department of Electric and Electronic Engineering. Peter Jan Randewijk supervises the electrical and electronic aspects of the project while Gert Oosthuizen is responsible for design of the energy-efficient, light hub motor that powers the vehicle. During 2014, the two were enthusiastically supported by:

  • Dr Danie Els (supervision of mechanical aspects),
  • Christian Peters (aerodynamics),
  • Tian van Tonder (design of the track simulator),
  • Felix Cranz (chassis and steering system),
  • Izandre Ras (specification assessment, system integration and a driver information system to recommend ideal driving strategy),
  • Tanweer Mahomed (driver of the vehicle) ,
  • Candice Murray (liaison and fundraising), and
  • Martin Visser (website).

Three more students joined the team in 2015:

  • Andreas Joss (who has considered the use of Soft Composite Materials (SMCs) for the stator coils to further increase the torque density of the machine),
  • Anton Treurnicht (power electronic control of the machine), and
  • Bartho Horn (to ensure that the lithium-ion cells are kept in check).

The RFPMM's road to Rotterdam is being tracked via Twitter and the team's website, with pictures, videos and team members' blog posts, is used to report on their exciting progress.

  • With the visual and dimensional test completed, the model design can start!
  • The model was designed in Inventor 2013 and completed with fairing (overall cover for wheels, driver, motor and all other equipment) in a shape similar to that of a drop of water.
  • 3D printing? Oh Yes! Three of the designed models will be 3D printed for testing in a wind tunnel. The accuracy and surface finish are amazing. 
  • The three 3D models are tested in the wind tunnel with an air speed of 360 km/h!!
  • Drag tests were compared to find the optimal shape of the vehicle. With the help of the wind tunnel tests, a Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) analysis can now be validated and the shape even more improved!
  • The motor is a carbon fibre reinforced plastic frame with coils wound around synthetic blocks and cast in resin in sets of three. The outer rim motor is designed to support a standard 20" bicycle tire and the entire motor without its tire is expected to weigh less than 6 kg.
  • A driver interface will be used to display the speed, time, current, power- and energy usage to the driver. Currently only the speed can be displayed, therefore the next step will be to send and display multiple messages.
  • The vehicle will be perfectly comfortable for our two drivers – visual and dimensional tests ensured that they fit into our designed vehicle. The day was filled with a little construction work, a few measuring activities and lots of good jokes. See our picture library for more pictures! (

Innovus also selected the RFPMM project for exhibition at the 2015 inaugural Innovation Bridge event hosted by Department of Science and Technology (DST) and partners in February 2015. Innovation Bridge promotes the development and commercialisation of publicly funded technologies by providing a technology showcasing and matchmaking platform for innovators to engage and network with industry and potential investor and financing partners. RFPMM was one of 75 technology exhibitions and demonstrations on display, hailing from more than 30 publicly funded research and development organisations.

SU joins forces with DST to boost local aquaculture industry in southern Africa

  The SU/DST team are hard at work at the Marine Finfish Sea Cage Farming Project site in Port Elizabeth.
(Photo credit: Gert le Roux)

Stellenbosch University (SU), the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and industry role players have teamed up to develop, implement and commercialise five pilot projects that will contribute significantly to the development of a sustainable aquaculture industry in southern Africa.

Internationally, aquaculture has emerged as a solution to food security and the sustainable utilisation of resources. In countries implementing national strategies, aquaculture has outstripped growth projections, and presents a viable alternative to stagnating capture fisheries.
With a focus on both abalone and marine finfish sea cage initiatives, the SU/DST projects support areas where commercialisation can have the greatest impact for quality food production, environmental awareness and technical innovation.

The projects also contribute to poverty reduction and the empowerment of disadvantaged coastal communities through the creation of employment opportunities, skills training and business participation, thus boosting Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). An example hereof is Diamond Coast Abalone (Pty), a joint venture company established to undertake abalone ranching in the Northern Cape Province, which is 50.2 % black-owned.

In recognition of these benefits, and the need for support and development of the commercialisation of South African technologies, the project was awarded initial funds by The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Seed Fund, a division of the DST. The support has allowed for the creation of a sustainable, long-term investment strategy that unlocks the potential and market value of the projects.

Following its commercialisation, the current aquaculture sea cage project portfolio is expected to more than double South Africa's current aquaculture output. For example, commercialisation of the project's marine finfish pilot initiatives, will kick-start up to three new, large-scale businesses. This will allow for the farming of at least two indigenous marine finfish species, with 300 permanent new job opportunities.

The establishment of a vertically integrated abalone ranching operation in Hondeklip Bay in the Northern Cape Province will create 60 permanent new jobs in an area with 70% unemployment and an average current monthly household income of about R 1 200 per month.

In South Africa, the potential of these projects is recognised at a national level. Four of the five pilots are part of the government's Operation Phakisa initiative. A development plan designed to answer fundamental implementation questions and find solutions was launched in 2014 with a focus on the ocean economy. According to Government, the ocean has the potential to contribute up to R177 billion to South Africa's gross domestic product (GDP), with a sustainable aquaculture industry being an important contributor. The fifth pilot is an initiative between SU, DST and the Mozambican government to also contribute towards the development of marine finfish sea cage aquaculture in Mozambique.

While aquaculture in South Africa is still in its infancy, the SU/DST projects are important drivers of the industry's development and success. South Africa has the technical, financial and environmental awareness to match international achievements, with scope for cooperation and collaboration, particularly elsewhere in Africa.