The art of innovation


To many of us, innovation is just one of many trendy buzzwords in business given birth to in the 21st century. But the truth of the matter is: those who fail to innovate will be seriously left behind.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s appointment of 54 new research chairs under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), which aims to grow South Africa’s research and innovation competitiveness by attracting and developing excellence at the country’s universities, was overshadowed by many other happenings in the media. And that is a sad state of affairs, as the promotion of innovation, especially in business, in South Africa is probably the one thing that will help set us apart from most other developing economies.

Established in 2006 by the Department of Science and Technology, SARChI enables universities to produce high-quality postgraduate students and research and innovation outputs. The initiative is driven by internationally well-established researchers, who train and mentor postgraduates to become the next generation of research and development leaders.

According to the department, the appointment of 54 new research chairs brings the current total number of awarded research chairs to 157, representing a cumulative investment of just under R1 billion. SARChI research chairs are funded for up to 15 years at R2.5 million and R1.5 million per annum for tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs respectively, with inflation-related increases over the funding period.

“The current total of 150 research chairs makes this an investment of more than R400 million per annum, and probably South Africa’s biggest single high-end skills development investment over a 15-year period,” the department said in a statement.

“SARChI has also leveraged close to 200% of the government’s investment in the initiative from other sources,” the department noted, adding that the initiative has had “moderate but encouraging” success in attracting established researchers from developed countries to South Africa.

The investment has also translated into the creation of about a thousand new jobs within the country’s National System of Innovation, in part by providing a much-needed stepping stone for associate researchers and postdoctoral students.

When he announced the new chairs in Pretoria, Motlanthe said he was confident that they would improve South Africa’s international research and innovation competitiveness, while responding to the socio-economic challenges facing the country. “The imperative for the research chairs to derive research-driven solutions that ultimately contribute to a better life for all South Africans still remains,” Motlanthe said, adding that the initiative’s impact on the country’s higher education system was being felt “at individual, institutional and system levels”.

At that time, SARChI had already notched up successes, citing the example of work done by the initiative’s Research Chair in Drug Discovery, hosted by the University of Cape Town under the leadership of Professor Kelly Chibale. And Chibale’s team, in collaboration with the Medicines for Malaria Venture based in Switzerland, had discovered a compound that not only has the potential to become part of a single-dose cure for all strains of malaria, but may also be able to block transmission of the parasite from person to person.

According to the department, the initiative includes five research chairs relevant to South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array project: in radio astronomy techniques and technologies (Rhodes University); electromagnetic systems and electromagnetic interference mitigation (Stellenbosch University); extragalactic multi-wavelength astronomy (University of Cape Town); astronomy and astrophysics (University of the Western Cape); and radio astronomy (University of the Witwatersrand).

New ideas

South African Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SACCI) member Len Von Graevenitz (vice president: Toyota Academy & Public Affairs) told Opportunity the generation of new ideas is mandatory for future success of companies wishing to stay afloat in this competitive world.

“New ideas drive change and renewal, which morphs into a mindset of continuous improvement and into a corporate culture which strives for excellence, never accepting the status quo. In so doing every member of such organisations willingly accepts a mantra of ‘our best daily effort can be improved upon tomorrow’.”

Von Graevenitz says this builds a strong sense of belonging and team-focused mindset, which is incredibly powerful to see unfold.

He feels strongly about the fact that innovation is not just about designing a new product or service to sell, but innovation can also help focus on existing business processes and practices to improve efficiency, find new customers, cut down on waste and increase profits.

“Innovation is inextricably linked to the continuous generation of new ideas. Business success depends on the power of people at all levels in companies to contribute to such innovative efforts. This is not the sole domain of senior management. If innovation is left to the bosses, the potentially powerful innovative ideas carried by the masses may be left at home, resulting in ‘thought/idea poverty’. This is simply not an option and it is the duty of company leaders to actively encourage every team member to generate a number of breakthrough innovations every year. In fact, staff should be performance-managed and incentivised on this basis.

“The future viability of companies depends on continuous innovation. The converse is stagnation, regression and subsequent death of such organisations.

“Social media has brought a new and exciting dimension into the sphere of business globally. South Africa has been incredibly proactive in this space and does, in my opinion, not stand back in comparison to global benchmarks.

“As a tool to enhance innovation in business, it is undoubtedly a source which is only ignored at the peril of company leaders. The critical reality is that one cannot be ‘half pregnant’ on this one. Once a company has committed to participate in social media, it has to be fully committed and be on top of every item of interest. Failure to commit fully can cause massive reputational harm,” he says.

Von Graevenitz’s view on government’s role in promoting innovation to boost the SA economy: “Innovation leadership is not negotiable for both government and business SA. The responsibility to encourage thought leadership and continuous innovation should be the most urgent focus area for both government and big business.”

He believes that the multitude of ‘task teams’ and talk shops active at the moment can be channelled into innovative thought generation machinery.

“Progressive government policy guidance is a critical factor to ensure a sustainable future business environment but business SA has joint responsibility to contribute willingly and generously to innovation at every opportunity and thus inject the notion of thought leadership into the organisational psyche of SA,” according to Von Graevenitz.

Innovate or die

Pfizer SA’s CEO, Brian Daniel, believes that if we are not innovating, then we are surely dying. "Pfizer would not be as successful, if we did not seize all opportunities to take the lead in the area of health care innovation in particular. Furthermore, I believe that innovation is a mind-set. We are fortunate that at Pfizer, world-class talent and highly skilled colleagues work for the company in the various markets globally."

Increasingly more companies are including innovation as a key part of the overall business plan. But how would this approach help businesses identify new opportunities?

Daniel says innovation cannot take place in a vacuum. "To this end, Pfizer in South Africa, continues to work as collaboratively as possible with all key stakeholders in both government and organised business, in order to ensure that the ‘innovation discussion’ remains on the table as a key component to driving a successful economy.

"At a macro-economic level, strategy documents and plans like the Bio-Economy strategy document (launched by the Department of Science & Technology in January this year) and the National Development Plan (NDP), create an enabling environment for business innovation to take place. Through such collaborations, news ideas will emerge. "The bottom line is, should you want the economy to flourish then large-scale, strategic investment in innovation remains key. Finally, let us not forget why we at Pfizer remain passionate about driving health innovation - because at the heart of it, is the health of the patient. Patient health outcomes therefore remain key, as we continue to drive health innovation globally."

Stay ahead of innovation curve

German multinational engineering and electronics company, Siemens, also a SACCI member, believes that in the age of globalisation, knowledge and know-how are key factors in order to stay competitive and sustainable. Investment into new ideas and new technologies is part of the Siemens DNA.

Clifford Klaas, Siemens SA executive director, says in line with this, Siemens has more than 29 000 researchers and developers worldwide who helped the company disclose over 38 new inventions per workday in the last financial year.

“Innovation development is one of our key strong points at Siemens. Our products and solutions have an effect on many areas of day-to-day life – whether in electrification, manufacturing, transportation or healthcare. New and, very importantly, practical technologies are developed and brought to market-ready maturity in all areas of our business. Companies across the world need to stay relevant to their consumers; this is especially true in our environment where resource efficiency and flexibility are important issues facing the industries in which we operate.”

An example of this is Siemens’ Integrated Drive Portfolio, making Siemens the only company in the world that can offer the entire drivetrain from motors, converters and couplings to geared units.

“This is a unique selling proposition that has been developed to be a key differentiator in industrial and manufacturing markets the world over. However, it does not stop there; our range of innovations stretch from the world’s largest wind turbine to the world’s fastest train, from the world’s first wireless ultrasound unit to Africa’s first Science and Technology High-school (Mandela School of Science and Technology) – our passion for driving innovation has been the basis of our successes globally,” Klaas told Opportunity magazine.

He says businesses that fail to innovate run the risk of losing ground to competitors, losing key staff, or operating inefficiently.

“Siemens is a company that prides itself on innovation and staying ahead of the innovation curve or creating it! We are constantly involved in trend analyses, both from development cycles as well as people development. Without this, we will lose ground to competition globally. Globalisation is connecting our world more and more every day and companies have to stay current and relevant in order to make a mark. As a technology partner to governments and utility-sized companies across the world, we help stimulate economic development and facilitate prosperity in society.”

Lindsay King


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