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Anita Nel

Anita Nel

CEO: Innovation and Business Development, InnovUS, Stellenbosch University

As one of the most prestigious universities in South Africa, Stellenbosch stakes claim to producing some of South Africa's top entrepreneurs and innovators. Numerous characteristics lend to the provision of this platform: heritage available in the infrastructure, a university-centric town set in the beautiful wine-making region of Stellenbosch, the associated wealth of the owners of these wine farms and surrounding business regions looking to give back to the community, and the ability of the university to attract the brightest minds in the form of students and researchers. The university has the image of exclusivity and prestige and resembles that of Ivy League universities in America.

Over the years, Stellenbosch University has distinguished itself as an academic institution of stature and a leader in the field of research. Byproducts of such distinctions can include an increase in innovative discoveries and the conception of entrepreneurial activity. To promote and harness this development of entrepreneurship and innovation, InnovUS—the wholly owned technology transfer company of the university—was formed.

Anita Nel and a colleague provided SABLE with their points of view on what initiatives InnovUS is driving to help enable entrepreneurship and commercialization opportunities.

Sable (S): What makes InnovUS different from other technology transfer offices at South African universities?

InnovUS (I): InnovUS is promoting a number of initiatives.

InnovUS Instant Access™ Licensing: InnovUS, the wholly owned technology transfer company of Stellenbosch University, is proud to announce that we are now offering InnovUS Instant Access™ Licensing, granting easy access to selected cutting-edge technologies in our intellectual property portfolio.

Innovation Associates is our program where we involve post-graduate students, under the supervision of our project managers, to work in multidisciplinary teams on disclosures we receive from researchers. The project is intended to expand the knowledge and knowledge of our students, and increase the speed at which we can evaluate disclosures. This is our way of addressing the capacity shortage.

We host a number of events each year to inspire our students and researchers. We invite speakers to explore the boundaries and think outside the box. Our last guest speaker was Dr. Van Zyl, a Stellenbosch Alum and Co-director of Project Formulation and Strategy at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who was closely involved in the successful landing of the Curiosity space probe.

The Stellenbosch Idea Competition was started a year ago and focuses on promoting entrepreneurship amongst our staff and students at the University. The competition aims to stimulate entrepreneurship and create student/staff businesses.

To support our entrepreneurs even better, the InnovUS incubator project is in progress. We are currently in the process of raising funds for this initiative. The University has contributed a 1000 sq m building, situated perfectly on the edge of campus, as well as R2m towards the project. Once we have successfully secured funding of R14m, we will launch the incubator that will host both University and non-university startup companies.

We offer our researchers the opportunity to rapidly prototype their inventions with our recently acquired in-house 3D printer.

Our office has an entrepreneurship loft, where students from various faculties can work together to ensure the entrepreneurial culture on campus is heading in the right direction.

Mentoring is offered to our Innovation Associates and young entrepreneurs. We tap into the vibrant business community of Stellenbosch and secure the best mentors to guide our team members.

InnovUS offers Intellectual Property (IP) workshops at locations across Stellenbosch University campus. The IP workshops are aimed at giving the staff and students at the university a basic understanding of intellectual property law as it applies to their work. The discussions cover issues around university IP, patents, copyright, software licenses, design, IP law as well as trademarks and their value.

S: How is InnovUS helping to commercialize innovation and further entrepreneurship in South Africa?

I: InnovUS manages the commercialization of the university's innovation and intellectual property portfolio through patenting, licensing and the formation of spin-out companies. The core focus of InnovUS is to protect the university's intellectual property and commercialize innovation to ensure that our researchers have the best opportunity to display their work throughout the industry.

Stellenbosch University places a great deal of emphasis on research and our inventors. These researchers continue to set new standards and stretch the boundaries of what is considered possible in the innovation space. We believe that Stellenbosch University attracts the right people to drive and further innovation in Africa, and InnovUS is facilitating that process.

Entrepreneurship has received much attention in the past three years at our office. We have partnered with all the faculties and institutions within the university to set up an entrepreneurship forum. This forum focuses on working together and maintaining the same vision for entrepreneurship on campus. We have opened two positions in our team to focus on grassroots entrepreneurship development within our student body. Some of the projects are mentioned above, but it is important to note that collaboration within the forum has led to creating a tangible and online market where students can trade and have a practical approach to entrepreneurship.

S: What areas of InnovUS research and IP development are showing the most promise and potential?

I: Examples of Stellenbosch University research that were developed and spun-off in new exciting companies:

  • Stellenbosch Nanofiber Company (SNC): SNC developed several high throughput nanofiber production platform technologies as well as an application for nanofibers that it is currently preparing for commercial exploitation.
  • Stellenbosch Wind Energy Technologies (SWET): SWET is a small wind turbine manufacturer located in the beautiful Stellenbosch that specializes in micro to small wind turbine manufacturing and installation.
  • GeoSUN: GeoSUN Africa was launched in 2012 and is a spin-off company of the Center for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at the Stellenbosch University. GeoSUN Africa offers a variety of services relating to the solar energy industry. Supporting services to solar developers of large solar (PV, CPV and CSP) plants constitute a large part of GeoSUN Africa operations. Other services relate to rooftop or stand-alone PV installations.
  • Unistel Medical Laboratories (UML): UML is jointly owned by Stellenbosch University and Pathcare, and a private investor conducts between 15,000 and 20,000 genetic diagnostic tests per year. UML's next focus is micro-array technology, through which up to 9,600 genetic abnormalities can be presented on one slide. This will help doctors process huge volumes of information and reach a more precise diagnosis.

S: What are your plans to provide facilities and support for further incubation of new student and third-party ventures?

I: We are in the final planning phase of the incubator on our campus. We have a 1,000 m2 industrial building that we will use for the incubator, but we need to retrofit the building to make it a workable space. This space will be open to third-party ventures to set up their offices. We will also ensure that there is space for outside start-ups to be incubated because we firmly believe in the networking opportunities that it creates.

The InnovUS Entrepreneurship loft has been created as a collaborative space for entrepreneurs and Innovation Associates. This is a space where student entrepreneurs can work together and learn from each other.

We will provide space for the Bandwidth Barn, which is a Cape Town-based start-up incubator, and they will set up a satellite office with us. They intend to expand their reach of potential entrepreneurs, and we want to learn from their approach to tech start-ups and work with them to encourage and create more.

Currently, we are in a negotiation process to assist one of our alumni students (who is starting a business now) to use our office space in return for mentorship and contact time with younger students in the office.

About Anita Nel

Anita Nel is the CEO of InnovUS Technology Transfer (Pty) Ltd., the wholly owned technology and short courses commercialization company of Stellenbosch University. She started her career as a math and science teacher at Paul Roos Gymnasium and went on to work at Thawte, one of the most successful and well-known South African IT companies, which was sold to VeriSign in 2000. Upon leaving Thawte, Nel was one of the founding members of HBD Venture Capital, where she worked as Investment Manager. At HBD, Anita gained very valuable experience in investing in technology start-ups and serving on the boards of these companies post-investment. During this time, she also managed a socially responsible investment fund and a small research company.

With vast experience in human resources, marketing, negotiations, strategy and general management, Nel is well equipped to understand entrepreneurship and the many challenges facing start-up companies. She holds a BSc (physics) degree and an MSc (psychology) degree, as well as an HED.

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