I love reading books about cosmology and evolution. Authors such as Neil de Grasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox and Richard Feynman are among my favorites. I pretend to understand some of the mathematics and struggle to understand some of the broader concepts. My unfortunate mind is not tuned to the philosophical and cosmological gymnastics required. But I enjoy it nonetheless.

This brings me to the term “reverse technology transfer” (RTT). Einsteinian theory speaks about relativity, general and special. When using the term RTT, and to understand it better, it must be agreed that relativity applies here. Who is transferring to whom? When is it reverse and when is it forward? Traditionally, in the world in which I work, forward technology transfer (FTT) relates to the university (or ATS) transferring skills and knowledge to someone else e.g. a small company. When ATS in turn transfers technology into the university curriculum to benefit students, this is defined as RTT. With ATS as the fixed reference point, this is easy to understand.

But one cannot use these terms indiscriminately and, if we do, we may lose the other forms of transfer happening or available to us. Some of these include transfer from firms to academia (including ATS), from students to ATS and between SMMEs with the involvement of ATS. I suppose one could go on with more permutations such as these. The key point here is that the traditional version in my field is from university to industry. And this is what we have been trying to do most of the time with mixed successes. What we have not fully addressed is transfer from industry to academia.

What stops or inhibits this from happening? A recent chat with Shawn Cunningham brought this out i.e. why do we not establish working projects where industry comes into academia in a bigger way? Why not place industry staff in academia more often for two way exchanges? Usually, when industry does come in, it is for a short period e.g. 1 hour to 1 day, but seldom more. At ATS we always profess to not being experts at everything (or maybe anything at all) but we have not fully exploited the idea of more concerted transfer into academia from industry.

There have been two successes of this nature to date:

  1. The Blue Karoo project involving catfish product development. The aquacultured fish was transported from Graaff Reinet to be processed and trialed at Food Science & Technology. This was part of a project funded by the DTI via their Technology and Human Resource for Industry (THRIP) programme. As part of the project, equipment was installed temporarily at CPUT to expedite project work.
  2. The CMD Industries project regarding kelp beneficiation from a number of different research angles. After the completion of a Technology Innovation Agency seed fund project, this has now grown to include a quadripartite arrangement involving the company, CPUT, University of Stellenbosch (Process Engineering) and the DTI (THRIP). Technology transfer in all directions!

In both cases, ATS assisted with babying the projects into the academic fold. Both fourth year and Masters’ students have become, or are being, involved in the research process. A perfect example of multiple transfer directions.

This type of arrangement perfectly fits one of definitions of the way ATS interacts with academia and industry i.e. ATS shoots first and aims later while academia aims properly and then shoots. ATS takes a high risk approach to research i.e. to make quick wins. This is then used to guide a much more risk averse academic approach i.e. well-planned research.

Putting this together with moving industry staff into the ATS/academic programme can only facilitate this in a mutually beneficial relationship. We will be putting more emphasis on this in the near future to generate more such collaboration. Call us if you see the potential for this in your present situation.

Larry Dolley