Innovus e-news 30th edition
The past year has seen Innovus attain many accolades, ranging from innovation and technology achievements, to stellar performances on the football field. There have also been record numbers of new invention disclosures, new licence agreements and the establishment of numerous spin-out companies.
"I am immensely proud of our Innovus team, LaunchLab staff and tenants, and the excellent work of our world-class researchers. Stellenbosch University remains at the forefront of innovation in South Africa and this is due to the combined efforts of all who are involved," says Anita Nel, CEO of Innovus and senior director: Innovation and Business Development at Stellenbosch University.
One of the technology transfer company's greatest achievements for 2015 was being awarded the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and SARIMA Organisational Award for Excellence in Innovation Management by DST Minister Naledi Pandor at a recent gala event in Johannesburg. "This recognition at a national level is evidence of the importance of the work that Innovus consistently delivers," says Anita.
Another highlight was the official opening of the new premises of the Nedbank Stellenbosch University LaunchLab business incubator in May 2015. The function was attended by among others, Ms Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape, Mr Conrad Sidego, the Mayor of Stellenbosch, Mr Mike Brown, the CEO of Nedbank, the majority of the Nedbank executive team, and a number of Innovus directors. "In addition, one of our current LaunchLab tenants, Custos Media Technologies, is gaining traction and achieved second place in the Google Pitch Fest in Switzerland recently," adds Anita.
On the sports front, the Maties Football youth programme qualified as a finalist for the prestigious Discovery Sport Industry Awards in the category: Best Development Programme, three junior Maties soccer players were included in the under-13 South African Soccer team, and the Maties under-15 team won both the Kappa Cup and the Kensington Cup.
The year in numbers
It was a record-breaking year on the technology transfer front. Here are a few statistics for 2015 thus far.
- New invention disclosures stand at 60 for the year to date, representing a significant increase from the total of 39 in 2014 and 33 in 2013.
- Licensing was particularly successful in 2015. Innovus concluded a total of 24 licences (compared with 9 in 2014) in the year to date, with two more in progress. Ten of the 24 licences involved the Inductex software, for which a spin-out company was also established.
- Spin-out companies grew from 10 in 2014 to a staggering 21 in 2015.
Finally, at an organisational level, the first draft of SU's first trademark policy is ready for the approval process and Innovus is currently undergoing a comprehensive self-evaluation process. "We managed to attract an external panel for this purpose, with very high profile individuals, including two well-known international experts in technology transfer, namely Tom Hockaday, the CEO of Oxford University's technology transfer company, Isis Innovation and Prof. Ashley Stevens, a previous president of AUTM (Association of University Technology Managers). The preliminary feedback was very positive with constructive recommendations," says Anita.
"In closing, I'd like to thank all our clients, sponsors, mentors and various interest groups for their continued support in 2015. However, I want to extend a special word of thanks to the SU researchers and the Innovus team. Without you, none of the above would have been possible. We look forward to breaking new ground with you in 2016," concludes Anita.
A Stellenbosch University (SU) spin-out company has claimed second place at the 2015 Google PitchFest in Zurich, Switzerland. Custos Media Technologies competed with 30 leading South African and Swiss start-up companies for top honours in the competition.
Custos, a tenant of the Nedbank SU LaunchLab, a start-up business incubator, uses Bitcoin technology to fight digital piracy by turning the downloaders of pirated content against the uploaders. Their performance in this competition is particularly advantageous for the company in light of the fact that Switzerland was named to the anti-piracy country watchlist by the US Congress in 2014.
A group of 13 South African start-ups was invited by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) to attend the one-week Swiss South African VentureLeaders acceleration programme in Switzerland, explains Custos CEO Gert-Jan van Rooyen. "The Google PitchFest was on the last night of the programme, and each founder had just two minutes to pitch their business to an audience consisting of their peers, Googlers and investors. The entire audience voted on the best pitches by allocating a virtual 'investment allowance' to each start-up," he says.
TIA covered all the costs of participating in the competition in Switzerland. "TIA is doing great work to support seed-stage technology start-ups in South Africa – their Seed Fund programme made it possible for Custos to start the business," adds Gert-Jan.
All participants were given just two minutes to present their business idea. "For this reason, the PitchFest was an incredible opportunity to hone and test our ability to communicate complex business ideas in a very short time," says Gert-Jan. "However, the PitchFest was just one event in an incredibly fast-paced week, which included longer pitches and deep, hard critique from investors and business experts, meetings with Swiss start-ups, and workshops by Swiss experts on international funding sources, marketing, multinational operation and intellectual property."
According to Gert-Jan, the South African start-ups performed particularly well at the PitchFest, with five of the six finalists hailing from South Africa. "In addition, the first and second places in the competition were claimed by South African start-ups. That being said, the competition was very stiff, and there were many excellent business ideas and high-tech concepts," he adds.
While claiming second prize is a real honour, Gert-Jan maintains that they mainly participated for fun and for exposure. "The real prize was being selected to participate. However, each participant also received a small 'swag bag' with branded goodies from Google (including a pretty cool water bottle). Each of the six finalists also received a Chromecast media player," he says.
Custos Media Technologies is set to take its anti-piracy product global within the next year.
A group of students at Stellenbosch University is, under the guidance of their professor, turning a series of master's projects – which involved building nanosatellites – into a major business venture. And their business – named CubeSpace – is right at the cutting edge of this booming industry.
CubeSat enthusiasts like to draw analogies between this fledgling breed of small cube-shaped satellites and the desktop computer. They're confident that CubeSats will make satellite technology more accessible and affordable, much as desktops did for computers. Coming in at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites – think a million or so rand, as opposed to tens to hundreds of millions of rands – CubeSats, or U-class spacecraft, are seen as ideal for tasks where the costs of bigger satellites aren't warranted.
Staying in the low Earth orbit (LEO) – i.e. orbits in the 300 to 800km range – they are increasingly being used for earth observation, space-tech testing, and even the tracking of endangered elephants. As their name suggests, they're small – and technically classified as nanosatellites – made up of one to 12 units (or U's), with each unit or cube measuring 10×10×10cm (slightly bigger than a Rubik's cube!) and weighing in at no more than 1.33kg per U.
It is this technology that a group of researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) is not only mastering, but also turning into a potentially lucrative business. The Stellenbosch story started some 24 years ago, in the satellite research group in Stellenbosch's Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL). Here, a group of academics, including Professor Herman Steyn, started a programme in 1991 to build miniaturised satellites (a little bigger than the standard CubeSat) as a training tool for graduate students.
The course proved such a triumph that in 1999 the group launched SUNSAT (or the Stellenbosch UNiversity SATellite), the very first African satellite to reach orbit. "The human capital development and in-orbit successes and experience gained definitely made the whole programme a huge success," Steyn said a few years ago.
Come the mid-2000s, Steyn had taken the lead in the project, turning his attention to developing a CubeSat attitude determination and control subsystem (ADCS). The ADCS is responsible for sensing and controlling a satellite's attitude, or orientation.
By 2012, Steyn had begun to receive orders for both the complete system and for individual components. And thus CubeSpace was born. The company is yet to become an official Innovus spin-out entity, but is in the process of finalising their company's business strategy and development plans. To make this happen, Steyn has recruited five of his current and former students: Jako Gerber, Christo Groenewald, Gerhard Janse van Vuuren, Willem Jordaan (currently completing his PhD) and Mike-Alec Kearney.
Today, the company's suite of products consists of CubeSense, an attitude sensor board; CubeComputer, an on-board computer; CubeTorquer rods for the magnetic control of attitude and angular rates; CubeWheel, a momentum or reaction wheel responsible for the angular momentum exchange that accurately controls the satellite's attitude; and CubeControl, which commands the torque rods and reaction wheels. Thanks to international standardisation, these 'plug and play' components can fit into any CubeSat with minimal customisation.
But if designing and building the components demanded science and technology know-how, turning it into a business is calling on the team to master a whole new set of skills. "We're engineering graduates, and as with engineers, we like to put the business stuff on the backburner a lot," says Janse van Vuuren. "But it teaches you discipline. You have to learn to manage your time well."
To make sure the group keeps their eye on the business of business, the CubeSpace team has turned to the Nedbank Stellenbosch University LaunchLab business incubator, which is a proud initiative of Innovus, the University's technology transfer company. LaunchLab was established with the support of SU, Nedbank, the Department of Trade and Industry, and a number of local and international universities.
At LaunchLab, CubeSpace is benefitting from a wide range of business assistance, in partnership with Innovus. They're getting assistance with everything from administration and business strategy to mentorship and legal support. They've also moved into office space at LaunchLab, complete with an international standard 'clean room' (where the components are put together), which was fully sponsored by Innovus. And they call on Innovus to crack the whip at their fortnightly business meetings.
"The idea is that LaunchLab will facilitate the process of turning an internal university project registered with Innovus into a spin-out company," says Johnathan Smit, financial manager and business developer at LaunchLab. "Part of what we are doing is crystallising their vision and formalising their business strategy. Innovus provides the necessary support for the company to develop a bankable business plan and, through the LaunchLab, they also provide directorship training to the company's would-be directors."
It may still be early days, but those business plans are going well. CubeSpace has already amassed an impressive cast of clients. It has contributed components to, among other projects, DeorbitSail, a 3U CubeSat of the UK's Surrey Space Centre to deploy a drag sail – which controls the CubeSat by using atmospheric drag – to demonstrate a rapid deorbiting mechanism for use on satellites reaching their end of life. They are also supplying the attitude control system for 15 CubeSats of the QB50 project coordinated by the Von Karman Institute of Fluid Dynamics (VKI) in Belgium. The QB50 mission will simultaneously launch a total of 50 CubeSats in an initial 380km orbit to conduct atmospheric research.
In addition, CubeSpace is contributing parts for the VKI's QARMAN project, which studies CubeSat re-entries. And then there's ZA-AeroSat, which will involve developing Stellenbosch University and CubeSpace's very own CubeSat - and Africa's sole contribution to the QB50 mission.
If the CubeSat industry is still in its infancy, the team at CubeSpace are well aware that they're going to face stiff competition, including from a growing number of international producers. The SA company has a couple of distinct advantages, however.
"We have excellent engineering capabilities and can develop satellite systems more affordably in South Africa," notes Steyn. "We also have a good track record in building successful small satellites, since the SUNSAT project started almost 25 years ago."
CubeSpace is also one of only a few companies developing ADCS for nanosatellites, and the only one outside the US and Europe. And – very importantly for an industry looking for tried-and-tested products – there are already three CubeSats with CubeSpace components in orbit around Earth.
"We have an established brand name that puts us ahead of our competitors," Janse van Vuuren says. "People know of the Stellenbosch University CubeSpace units." In short: CubeSpace is a company brimming with potential.
Janse van Vuuren, a one-time commerce student, accepts that he's probably earning less now than he would have if he had found a job in a more established company. But that's a sacrifice he's willing to make, he says. When he started his master's studies he wasn't too sure what life after university was going to look like. Now he's forging a résumé in a cutting-edge industry. "And there's the added bonus that we'll have our own company next year. I wouldn't trade that for anything."
Dr Thinus Booysen of Stellenbosch University and his team in the MTN Mobile Intelligence lab have developed GeyserSense, a device which, when attached to a geyser, promises to not only save precious energy, but also get consumers to think about how they use water.
GeyserSense doesn't look much like technology that could help save the world, but don't judge it by its cover. Described as an intelligent geyser monitoring system – intelligent as in computer jargon – by Dr Booysen, its secret is the printed circuit board encased in nondescript water-resistant housing alongside a few other electronics and some blinking lights. The device as a whole is fitted next to a geyser, with four temperature sensors, a power switching relay, a water-flow meter and a water-supply control running from the casing to strategic points around the geyser.
One of the sensors is located at the geyser's outlet pipe, monitoring its temperature. Based on that reading, the system can track when warm water is being used. The system then generates a usage profile – how much hot water is being used – that is shared on a mobile phone app, also designed by Booysen and his team. This profile is then used to determine a customised heating schedule for the geyser.
This schedule can be pre-programmed on the app, which can remotely switch the geyser on and off autonomously.
Shifting mind gear
It is in changing behaviours that GeyserSense – developed with the longstanding support of MTN – could provide the most value, believes Booysen, a senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University.
For instance, when the Stellenbosch University team ran a national survey on social media – attracting over 500 respondents – regarding whether people turn off their geysers to save energy (a point still debated by engineers) and when they do so, the team learned some very odd things. Yes, people do switch their geysers off, but often with little idea of when it's best to do so.
"We discovered that people would go to the effort of turning their geysers on and off, but with absolutely no benefit," says Booysen. (The best time, in fact, to switch on a geyser is about two hours and a half hours before a big 'event' – a bath or shower – while it's best to switch it off before the event. A geyser takes about two hours to heat up water, but will take more than 24 hours to cool down. Oh yes, and around 55oC is the optimal setting for a geyser.)
5.4 million geysers and counting
But, if done right, the savings could be enormous, calculates Booysen. There are some 5.4 million geysers in use in South Africa, consuming around R30 billion worth of energy. GeyserSense could potentially cut down that consumption by 16-20%, as they've seen in a pilot study with 10 houses in the Western Cape.
An additional benefit has been making consumers aware of how much hot water they use. (The system only tracks cold water usage if the plumbing conforms to regulation, which many don't.) As a result, one household in Booysen's pilot study has already cut their water usage by 50%. "Just because they saw what they were doing," he explains.
The next step for GeyserSense is SABS approval. A research contract with the Water Research Commission (WRC) also means that the device can get some large-scale field testing; it will deploy some 300 devices in Mpumalanga's Mkhondo and Chief Albert Luthuli municipalities.
The first step in BridgIoT
But Booysen has some bigger plans up his sleeve for GeyserSense, which has already generated two patents and is now in the third round of design. The system will serve as the launch pad for BridgIoT – or 'Bridge Internet of Things' – a company that he is starting with computer science colleague Professor Brink van der Merwe and three master's degree students: Jonathan Brown, Andrew Cloete and Philip Nel. Between them, the team boasts skills in systems design, cloud computing and machine-to-machine communications, software development, hardware design and thermodynamic modelling.
The company's raison d'être will be to produce things for the Internet of Things (IoT), Booysen explains, referring to the network of physical objects or 'things' that come armed with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity.
"There's a lot of stuff in the house and the world that can be accessed and controlled remotely from the cloud, and we want to be part of that," he says.
Among the devices BridgIoT is eager to design and produce are intelligent pool pumps, a vehicle tracking system to monitor the behaviour of drivers, an e-health tool to help patients adhere to treatments, a tool to monitor leakages in municipal water pipes, and automated water metering.
In order to build all these things, BridgIoT will rely on the intellectual property of venture partners MTN and Stellenbosch University, the latter through Innovus, the University's technology transfer company.
BridgIoT is a feather in the Innovus cap. Innovus is tasked with managing the commercialisation of the University's innovation and intellectual property portfolio, and spinning out companies like BridgIoT is therefore one of their major objectives. Other than lending expert support to the company, Innovus was also responsible for the patent applications on GeyserSense. Innovus also established the company and ensured a space for the young venture in the Nedbank Stellenbosch University LaunchLab business incubator.
In addition, the venture feeds into MTN's ambitions, says Yusuf Kaka, senior manager for ICT service delivery at the mobile telecommunications company. MTN recently invested in a Global M2M (machine-to-machine) platform, and is considering building an 'ecosystem' around it, he explains. This is where BridgeIoT comes in.
"Our partnership with Stellenbosch University is key to our strategy in that it allows us to feed into start-ups, a key component of any ecosystem," Kaka says. "This is where we see ideas going from pure theory, to hypotheses, to potential product. These potential products are then fed into BridgIoT, where the hard work of commercialisation begins."
Going into business - and big data
The blueprint for innovation and commercialisation at universities is that academics generate patents for theoretical concepts, from which universities then hope to reap royalties. With BridgIoT, Booysen hopes to break that mould. He sees the company actually producing tangible products. Hailing from industry, it's an idea he's perhaps more comfortable with than other academics, he admits.
"To make an impact, you can't leave something at the academic level," he says. "You really need to take the next step and get it out there, and there's no vessel to do that other than through industry."
There's an offshoot from IoT, Booysen points out, which may prove even more valuable than the products themselves – big data about consumer behaviour and waste. GeyserSense has already demonstrated that potential, he says.
"That's where the real benefit of the Internet of Things comes in. You can extract meta-information that you're not able to at the moment." And, if at that point, somebody wants to buy out BridgIoT, Booysen muses, well, so be it.
The term "patent troll" refers to an entity which exists for the sole purpose of enforcing or licensing patent rights which were not the result of its own innovation. Although the term "patent assertion entity" is preferred by policy makers and academics, the more colourful and emotive "patent troll" has firmly entered our lexicon and recently even appeared in a US Supreme Court decision.
Google, SAP, Uber and other leading technology companies have banded together to create a network they call the License on Transfer (LOT) Network, aimed at curbing litigation initiated by patent trolls. It works like this: by joining the LOT Network you agree that if you sell any patent you own to a non-member, that sale triggers an automatic royalty-free licence of that specific patent in favour of all other LOT Network members. And if a member is acquired outright by a patent troll or becomes a patent troll itself, all other members obtain an automatic royalty-free licence to its entire portfolio. In short, if a patent owned by a company within the LOT Network ends up in the hands of a patent troll, it cannot be enforced against any members of the LOT Network.
Since patent trolls generally do not develop their own patents, they must acquire them from those that do. While universities and individual inventors may be one source of such patents, most of these patents originate from operating companies which may sell patents as a result of projects being moth-balled or large patent portfolios being trimmed back to rid them of "non-core" patents. Since an operating company will usually sell a patent while retaining a license for itself, the risk of being sued for patent infringement is not posed to the company that developed the technology, but to other players in the marketplace. I heard one general counsel of a large company compare this practice to selling overstock weaponry in your arsenal to rebels in a far-flung country. It may not be your problem, but if others do the same thing in your part of the world, then you become decidedly unhappy about the situation.
To curb the ability of patent trolls to bring enforcement proceedings against companies that produce products or services, Google has taken the lead in setting up the LOT Network. According to its website at www.lotnet.com, enforcement actions brought by patent trolls have cost operating companies $29 billion in direct expenses a year, slowing down the pace of innovation and driving up costs to consumers.
At first blush the LOT Network may seem a lot like a patent pool, which is often set up when an industry agrees to adopt a certain standard and all participants are required to put their patents in a pool where they can be licensed by third parties on a reasonable and non-discriminatory basis. But on closer inspection the differences are clear. Unlike patent pools, LOT Network members are free to enforce their patents against each other or against any third parties. The licence is only triggered in the event of a sale of a patent to a third party, whereas normal corporate mergers and acquisitions are excluded. So nothing prevents a LOT Network member from using a patent defensively or offensively, provided it retains ownership of it. You can use your arsenal as you please, as long as it remains in your control.
The upside for members is that they become immune to patent enforcement proceedings brought by third parties using patents that were originally owned by LOT Network members. There are already over 325 000 patent assets, including more than 99 000 issued US patents in the LOT Network. The downside is that a member may be less able to monetise a portion of its patent portfolio by selling patents it no longer requires. The absence of patent trolls from the secondary patent market for LOT Network members, however, seems like a small price to pay for the advantages of not having any of those weapons being offloaded in your backyard.
The best part is: Any company can join, whether large or small, from any industry and with any business model. All you have to do is sign and upload the LOT Agreement on the website and pay a nominal annual fee to cover administrative costs. If your annual revenue is less than $10 million, the fee is $1 500 per year and it ratchets up to US$20 000 per year for those Fortune 500 companies with revenues of over $1 billion.
What is really positive about this solution is that it retains the benefits of patents, such as the ability to hold defensive positions, enforce rights against competitors or follow a licensing programme, while curbing the abuse of the system which has given patents a bad name. The LOT Network reduces abusive behaviour without unduly restricting parties' rights or requiring an overhaul of the patent system. This is welcome news for everyone except the patent trolls.
|The under-13 football stars (from left to right) Keathen Newman, Thabiet Abass and Swelilhe Ntsabo.|
Three players from the Stellenbosch University (SU) Football Club under-13 team have been selected to represent South Africa as members of the national under-13 team. Keathen Newman from Idas Valley, Swelihle Ntsabo from Kayamandi and Thabiet Abass from Mitchells Plain will all soon don the colours of the SA squad when they take on other under-13 teams from around the world.
The three local players represented Western Province in a youth provincial tournament that took place in Gauteng during the October school holidays. At the tournament, they were subsequently selected as members of the SA team. The players are all products of the SU Football Development Programme, an initiative launched by the University in 2012 and aimed at achieving excellence in football in the communities surrounding Stellenbosch.
"Keathen, Swelihle and Thabiet have benefited immensely from the SU Football Development Programme. They have been exposed to a variety of tournaments, have been challenged at a higher level and have received top-notch coaching," says coach of the SU Football Club under-13 team Carlo Krieling. "I can't begin to say how proud I am of these boys," he continues. "They are all immensely talented and actually played up one level by competing in the Maties under-15 league games this season," he says.
As part of the SU Football Club, the three players practise three times a week at the University's Lentelus Football Field and also play matches on most Saturdays. It's evident that all the hard work has paid off for these three players. "It's been an amazing journey with them," says Carlo. "When I joined the coaching team in February this year, I was very harsh on discipline from the start. And I have to hand it to these three – they responded so well and really rose to the challenge. I'm very proud of them," he concludes.
Innovus, the University's innovation company manages SU Football. "Our University's world class facilities, expertise in the field of sport science and our geographical location all mean that we are ideally positioned to build the SU Football Programme into the leading football development programme in South Africa," says Innovus CEO, Anita Nel. "We are proud of the boys and excited that our Football Programme is delivering successes on an ongoing basis."