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. Last year we had a very short timeframe for responses, yet we received 33 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 36 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 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.
There are two major opportunities for ambitious, business-minded folk, and they both have to do with smart, connected systems innovators, BridgIot. BridgIoT is 'bridging the internet of things' in both name and deed with intelligent management products for home and business utilities, reducing costs for consumers and increasing the longevity of our country's resources. As one of the newest spin-out companies in the LaunchLab BridgIoT is already been making waves with it's flag-ship product, Geasy. While most of us are either unwilling (it's a hassle) or unable (manual technological device installation?) to actively monitor our utility consumption, this small unit, combined with a intuitive, sexy app gives you full control over monitoring both the water and electricity that your geyser consumes, and full control over when it consumes it, drastically reducing the associated cost - all for the price of a big night out. Geasy not only puts the control of your utility usage in (quite literally) your hands, but the system will even convert the nebulous units (Mwh's? Watts per day? 13.5 litres?) into understandable Rand amount, and then make recommendations based on typical consumption patterns, which it analyses continually. How much does your morning bath cost you? Geasy will tell you, and then adjust to your schedule.
In some cases, they've been able to reduce the water usage within restaurants by up to 67%! And this could not be more relevant in the Cape than right now.
The speed of invention, and the dedication with which it was happening, attracted the attention of the TIA Seed Fund. The substantial funding received allowed the team to focus on their strengths and BridgIoT was developed in a remarkably short space of time.
With this funding, BridgIoT built onto their IoT platform, originally created for Geasy, in order to gush out innovation after innovation. Next on the list was 'Weasy' which focuses only on your overall water consumption, and then an electricity management system for specific devices (like your pool pump). A slight deviation from the established fold, they also developed Stokkiesdraai, which is a card reader for schools or universities to monitor learner attendance. It seems there's little that the team at BridgIoT cannot do.
But, while founder Professor Thinus Booysen and his 11 masters students are developing new innovations, the company is now at the point of it's journey where it needs someone to take the helm of the business itself. The are currently looking for a tech-centric CEO with an established track record (at least one previous success of significance), with the connections, acumen and foresight to not only realise what BridgIoT will be, but with the fortitude to make it a reality.
This is also the right time for the right investors and funders. BridgIoT is vigorously pursuing new manufacturing partners in China to drastically reduce the cost of the Geasy system, making it more affordable than it already is, lowing the barrier to purchase and rolling out Geasy across the country. As Prof Booysen himself confidently states, "If we can get Geasy into 10 000 homes, we can prevent load shedding, as well as making sure everyone has warm water."
If you think you've got what it takes – with finances or with skills – to sail these exciting seas with the team at BridgIoT, please contact the CEO of Innovus, Anita Nel, at email@example.com
If you had a grand idea that you believed could change the world for the better, but needed serious funding to realise it, what would you do? Generally speaking, it would be far too early for all but the most risk-hungry investors to even consider, which may mean that the change you wish to make may never be anything more than an idea.
Thankfully, with grants of up to R500 000 available to those who can prove their merit, idea and eligibility, we have the TIA Seed Fund. TIA, the Technology Innovation Agency, provides this to make sure that early stage businesses coming out of South African universities, who meet certain important criteria, can get the step up they need to transition their ideas from start-up to profitable sustainability. The smaller the business, the larger and more daunting early-stage barriers can be – barriers like staff, prototyping, market research and testing. By removing these barriers we can quick-step new businesses out of the playpen, so they can play with the big kids, and into the annals of success.
Some recent examples of TIA Seed Fund grants (with more found later in this newsletter) would be projects like the X-Ray Phantom Device, Quad-mode antenna, TB biomarkers and a backwash water recovery system (which could not be more relevant with our current drought) all of which received their funding in just the last month. In fact, the TIA Seed Fund has funded 36 unique projects over the last 3 years, with a total of almost R13m being doled out to the worthy.
With many solid innovations clamouring for early-stage funding, the TIA Seed Fund's criteria for grant approval are both strict and necessary.
Firstly, the project in question must be at technology readiness level 3, which means that the idea is sound, the basic principals have been observed and reported, the technology concept is formulated, and the proof of concept has been (or is being) established. Secondly, it has to have commercial applications, so a solid customer-need and defined market in which to operate are both critical. Lastly, the project has to be able to generate competitive intellectual property. (For a more detailed check-list of requirements, please follow the link here).
If your project meets the above criteria, then you could well be in line for a half a million Rand's worth of capital, delivered over 12 months, and supervised by Stellenbosch University on your behalf. This can be used to further develop your proof of concept, develop prototypes, source independent IP options, conduct market testing and field studies, bring in external consultants, purchase specialised equipment and even hire on additional man-power in the form of students and technicians.
The application itself is multi-staged, comprising of a series of both written and presented proposals to the TIA Seed Fund Committee (more on them later). With so many new applicants every quarter, they have their own tips for a successful funding application.
Firstly, keep it short, and stick to the point – it can be hard to see the value of your idea when it is drowned by less-relevant information. Secondly, focus on the commercial application of your project – how potentially valuable is it? This also requires accurate (not rounded or 'roughly') numbers and budgets, and honesty regarding the funding needed and the activities the funding will be used for. Lastly, make sure your deliverables and your timelines are accurate – you will be measured on your ability to fulfil the promises you make.
If you are successful in your application (and we wish you the best of luck!), not only will you be eligible for the seed funding, but a whole new world of funding will open up for you. TIA have both a second stage Development Fund and a Commercialisation Fund, both of which are designed to further advance your project rapidly along its trajectory to success. And often the fact that you received funding from the TIA Seed Fund is all the credibility that external investors require to get involved in your project themselves.
A great example (albeit a brief one, as there is more on them later) is CUSTOS, who used the TIA Seed Fund grant to acquire resources, prototype their revolutionary bit-coin based anti-piracy software and get in front of an international market. They were then eligible for a second round of funding, which they are using to develop their MVP, build the team who will develop it, and test their hypotheses in the market, among other things. They are now well on their way to clearing the digital waters of pirates, and making a tidy sum while doing so.
Vehicles like the TIA Seed Fund are not just advantageous, they are necessary. Thanks to them many powerful ideas have transcended the realm of dreams and entered into our reality – for the betterment of their creators, the many people now employed by them, and the society for which they were originally designed.
When you're responsible for the allocation of vast sums of money, with the duty to make sure that those funds are apportioned with the betterment of our country and the lives of her populace in mind, one single viewpoint won't cut the muster, and one back cannot bear the weight. And it is this task, and the associated pressure, that rests on the 12 shoulders of our TIA Seed Fund Committee.
The different viewpoints represented are crucial to accurate decision making. As such, the core committee is made up of representatives of Innovus (CEO Anita Nel and Nolene Singh), as well as different faculty members from all disciplines of learning (Medicine and Health, Engineering, Science), a Senior Director of Research and Innovation (Dr Therina Theron) and even an external advisor (Prof Wynand Coetzer) all of which is capped by the Head of the TIA Seed Fund, Mr Saberi Marais.
A supplemental committee of both external advisors and Innovus members and project managers then supports this core group.
The prevalence of Innovus team members is important to note, as it is them who are the voice of the applying innovator within the walls of the committee. It is also them who shepherd the applicants through the different phases of the process and then along the momentous journey of building and commercialising their projects.
'Committees' may be a four-letter word in some industries. But, when you have the depth of skills and breadth of outlooks that the TIA Seed Fund Committee demonstrate, the only real word you can use is 'fantastic'.
As you should already be aware, the TIA Seed Fund is a vehicle by which early stage technological innovations can be granted up to R500 000 to bridge the funding gap, building them from ideas into sustainable businesses.
But what does the path to the grant look like?
Innovus will put out a call for new submissions roughly once a quarter. Keep a beady eye out.
Download your submission form here, and complete it, paying particular attention to accuracy of numbers, timelines and budgets – you will be measured on your ability to fulfil these promises later.
An Innovus representative will contact you and confirm that your submission has been received. If there are any aspects they need to clarify with you, that will take place here. You will also be required to complete a standard disclosure form.
The TIA Seed Fund sub-committee will meet to shortlist all applications, narrowing them down to those with the highest chance commercial potential. You will be notified on your success within 2 working days.
Shortlisted candidates will now present their proposals live before the entire TIA Seed Fund committee.
You will have 3 days to make any suggested tweaks to your presentation before final submission to Innovus.
Innovus will submit your complete proposal on your behalf to the TIA Seed Fund, where the final selections will take place.
It's fairly simple and straightforward, but the value of completing each stage correctly is substantial – about half a million Rand's worth substantial. From all of us, good luck!
If you'd like a more detailed overview of the fund and the application procedures, please download our reference mat here.
You'd be hard-pressed to find someone these days who hasn't used the internet to get something they wanted for 'free'. That song he wanted to hear, that movie they were dying to see, that image she needed for your presentation, or even that software you require to perform certain tasks – lifted lightly off a web page. "Borrowed off the internet," as a colleague put it.
It seems fairly victimless: the studios and publication houses make enough money, surely, and it's not like we're going into someone's house and pinching their silverware, is it? It's not real theft.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what it is. Taking something that doesn't belong to you, that you have neither rented nor bought outright, is pretty much the definition of theft. Or, 'piracy'.
Piracy is such a big problem because it's just too easy. Last year alone the American movie industry was robbed of $22 billion of its revenue due to it. 19% of movies in 2016 were leaked before their official release, which means many of us saw the non-final cut, and ruined the experience the director was trying to achieve (and possibly lost them some well deserved accolades). In South Africa, almost a quarter of all Internet traffic is estimated to be infringing. And it's not victimless, I'm afraid. We create victims in ourselves the more we 'borrow', as we inevitably lose out on the next big songwriter, the indie movie that would have changed the world or the next great novel because publishers of such content have to continually tighten their belts and get pickier when considering which pieces of art will see the light of day, and which will not. The more we steal, the less is created.
So, essentially, the more we take the more we lose. Isn't irony a funny old thing?
At the forefront of digital copyright is Custos Media Technologies who provide a way for media owners to discourage recipients of their material from redistributing it. Using blockchain technology (think: Bitcoin) they've created a tracker of sorts that can track the original source of the piracy. Freelancers in the file-sharing communities, or Bounty Hunters, are then used to find and anonymously report pirated material, and incentivised by Bitcoins to do so. This adds a level of accountability, and the next knock at a pirate's front door could be the FBI. Or an angry Woody Allen. I'm not sure which is worse.
Initially, Custos struggled to find local venture capital firms with a risk appetite big enough for seed stage investment, but found their reinforcements in the form of a R500, 000 cash injection from the TIA Seed Fund, who saw the commercial applicability as well as the market need for smart ways to combat smart pirates. This allowed them to hire the resources, prototype their idea and get face time with Hollywood studios to talk about it. It also gave them the credibility they needed to interest investors enough to want to come on board - and Innovus, the New York based Digital Currency Group and a South Africa angel investor have all done so.
Currently they are able to 'watermark' movies (or any video file), ebooks and documents. Pretty much every piece of content, if digitised, can be protected by the shield of Custos.
They have since filed for patents in South Africa, Western Europe, America, the UK and even Nigeria, and are now filing additional patents in Japan, Hong Kong and Italy. Some would say they are spreading even faster than a pirated copy of the new Kevin Smith movie…
The success of the initial prototype then put them in line for a second round of funding from TIA. This substantial amount of R5.9m allowed them to increase the size of their development team, test Custos technology in the market and do more R&D. "It really ramped up everything," comments Custos COO, Fred Lutz.
What they have done this far is impressive, and will become the bane of every 'internet borrower' in the world. But they're already looking into new types of applications. "New media types, like VR and AR, are extremely costly to produce, and have no DRM," Says Lutz, "We believe light-touch protection like the ones we offer could safeguard these valuable assets, without the limitations of of proposed 'hard DRM'." Something as advanced as genetic editing, which is becoming part of the IP agricultural companies rely on to stay ahead of the game, means that DNA markers of specific strains of plants can be uploaded, and thus traded illegally online. Custos's patents even cover protecting these.
The relevance of what Custos does should now be apparent. It's scary to think that an idea of this magnitude could have been stopped by the funding gap that blocks so many good ideas. Thanks to TIA and its Seed Fund, this will be happening far less frequently. As will the sharing of stolen property.
You may not be aware of the importance of accurate (vertical and horizontal) terrain information, but it is this data upon which many industries rely – mining, agriculture, manufacturing, utilities, disaster management, city planning, air traffic, construction, etc. – in order to plan and execute a variety of land-based projects.
As it stands, the existing available models are built from data pulled from one of many existing topographical survey sources, in order to create DEMs (Digital Elevation Models), where the hope is that the one you happen to be using is the closest to reality – and much of this data was collected years ago. This means that the reliability of the plans we make, buildings we erect, power lines we place and fields we design rest on potentially incorrect models, and an error in an area as small as 20 m2 can be disastrous. Existing South African DEMs are either too generalized to be useful or incomplete (i.e. they only cover small areas). They only have a piece of the puzzle.
In addition to the existing DEM's inaccuracies and incompleteness, they can also be prohibitively expensive.
SUDEM: Using many lenses for an accurate picture
In the early 2000, Professor Adriaan van Niekerk of the Centre for Geographical Analysis at Stellenbosch University decided that the problem was solvable through combining. SUDEM uses the 'wisdom of crowds' by aggregating a variety of sources – contours, spot heights, satellite data, photogrammetric DSMs (Digital Surface Models). The resulting picture is significantly more accurate and at higher resolutions (5m postings) than the freely available DEMs, who cannot provide elevation data more detailed than at a 30 m resolution. That's 6 times better quality, or like moving from a tube TV to a flatscreen.
Essentially, SUDEM overlays 6 different sources of terrain data over one another, and then processes the information through a purpose-built algorithm, which irons out the inconsistencies. The only human involvement is a small team who check and adjust anything the system may have missed, making SUDEM remarkably scalable.
The TAI Seed Fund and an era of twice the resolution
This product, aptly titled SUDEM 5, wasn't enough for Prof. van Niekerk, and he decided to improve on his creation with the next iteration - SUDEM 2 – which would have a far more accurate 2m resolution (double that of its predecessor). And it is at this stage that the TIA Seed Fund become involved.
The 2 years of programming that the system required, as well as the substantial man-hours to take SUDEM up a few levels, was not a inexpensive exercise... With a R420m grant from the TIA Seed Fund, Prof. van Niekerk was also able to source IP, refine his initial design, conduct detailed market research, develop a prototype, test it, and develop a new business plan – everything a growing business needs!
SUDEM 2 now aggregates aerial photography, generously provided by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform and the Chief Directorate of National Geospatial Information, with the SUDEM 5. With the additional data now factored in SUDEM 2 provides up to 6 times higher resolution imagery than the nearest commercial competition providing regional DEMs, at a fraction of the price of the most accurate exiting solution, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).
While SUDEM 5 accurately models our entire back-yard (and parts of the rest of Southern Africa, too), SUDEM 2 has already been developed for more than 30% of our country, and will soon cover the entire country.
The flexibility of the system means that it can autonomously collect data for anywhere in South Africa, as well as across the globe. Because of the high demand for accurate, detailed elevation data and the vast assortment of industries who are the ones demanding it, the business will only grow to new heights – and do so accurately.
When BSc. Comp. Sci. major James van der Walt returned home from his travels overseas it was with the intention of making our country a better place to live for many who are, quite literally, on the outskirts of society – our rural communities.
For most of these, power is a pipe-dream. It's incredibly costly to run power lines over large distances from the major stations, and the prospect of electricity is often blocked by mountain ranges, fields, false promises and bureaucracy.
The trick really is to create stand-alone power solutions – that operate in isolation of the grid – essentially negating these barriers and providing electricity in abundance.
The journey to where the product is now is as interesting as the end result. It started when James had the idea of micro-utilities, which could be self-contained and self-sustaining. He contacted the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University (because, as James says, "They were the most viable choice"). The team at CRSES was convinced of his initial ideas, and he was convinced to work on the project while doing his masters.
After considering a number of different natural options, like wind and wave power, James settled on solar panels (which have no moving parts and are low maintenance) and used his talents with technology to create mobile, portable power plants, which he housed inside shipping containers, thus removing entirely the need for our favourite utility company. This also allows for initiatives such as the supply of internet-enabled tablets to communities, as ICT devices can be easily recharged from stations built directly into Solar Turtle.
It is a powerful idea, but, because we live in a country which has considerable demand but limited supply, the problem could not be solved by green tech alone. There had been previous attempts to install solar-panel generated electricity within rural communities, but the solar panels - both expensive and desirable – kept 'finding new homes', with the help of crime syndicates running their game across a large part of our country.
So, the idea was all for naught, unless there was a way to ensure the safety of the containers and their panels, which is a costly bit of engineering, and exactly the task James tackled next. First, James approached the TIA Seed Fund. The R500 000 he was awarded was used to hire people, design the solution and develop the technical aspects of a 'power station that could protect itself'. With the help of Innovus' business knowledge and technical skills from Maties, he created a power plant with solar panels that fold in on themselves at night, securing the panels behind 5 centimetres of steel, only to unfurl again with the rising sun.
The result was an ultra-secure solar solution in a box. And now the name Solar Turtle should make a lot more sense.
With the help of a community leader Lungelwa Tyali (the first 'turtlepreneur' and now business partner) the first Solar Turtle installation took place at Ngangolwandle High School, to roars of approval. Kids can now charge their phones while they learn and teachers can power laptops and tablets. The community can also buy bottles of electricity (I kid you not) in the same way you buy milk – recycled bottles are retrofitted with a battery and a 12V socket which can be charged at the container and then taken home again to power lights and cooking equipment.
It wasn't long before the container became a full-service kiosk, which sells everything from airtime to iced lollies and cooldrinks, makes copies of IDs and documents, and even has a functional internet café, all run by women in the community.
While this was at first a humanitarian initiative, the commercial value of a portable, powered store front should be as evident to you, the reader, as it was to James. The next logical phase of the project was to create a business model which could be sold to corporate entities who want to do good and build their businesses at the same time. Power Turtle, as this version is called, can be filled with anything a sponsor would need to run a satellite office and is the future of mobile sign-ups and 'banking the unbanked' in remote areas where the citizens have as much need as they do distance between themselves and the companies trying to be a part of their lives. Businesses now have access to markets they literally could not reach before, and communities have electricity and access.
There are currently deals in the pipeline, which should see Power Turtles going up everywhere from KZN to Mozambique, Botswana and Nigeria.
So far, Solar Turtle has been the recipient of highly regarded awards (WWF Climate Solver, Siemens Empowering People) and is taking their involvement a few steps further by training up members of the community to do maintenance and power installation in the homes of those living in Solar Turtle communities. Thanks to a great idea and the gap-bridging funding from the TIA Seed Fund, the dark nights are substantially brighter for people in previously neglected communities, allowing them to be responsible for their own futures.
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