African entrepreneurs showed off their products, scientists boasted novel solutions to the continent’s great problems, and venture capitalists prowled the venue looking for their next multi-million rand investment. NEPAD SANBio’s recent Annual Event bore the fruits of the Finnish-Southern African Partnership Programme BioFISA II, which is helping NEPAD SANBio in building a network for innovation in life sciences throughout southern Africa.
SANBio Network Manager, Dr Ereck Chakauya, set the theme and focus of the gathering to commercialise knowledge by focusing on research and development in the biosciences. He said that more work needs to be done for scientists to turn their knowledge into revenue.
“We generate a lot of knowledge; now we need to make money from that knowledge,” he said. He also talked about the importance of collaboration in innovation, the sharing of skills in different disciplines and working with partners in business to bring products from the lab to commercial markets.
“The Southern Africa Network of Biosciences is there to link scientists in academia with business in the public and private sector,” he said.
His Excellency Ambassador Kari Alanko of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland gave a keynote address in which he highlighted the role that Finland plays as a trendsetter in health innovation and as a global hub for innovation in the sector, and touched on the various ways that Finland is investing in African innovation.
“The key driver for this investment is to support commercialisation of market-related innovations which address priorities in health and nutrition in sub-Saharan countries,” Alanko said. “We aim to foster multilateral regional cooperation and bridge the gap between research and commercialisation.”
The first day of the event saw sessions looking at the biosciences ecosystem and challenges and opportunities faced by entrepreneurs in the sector, including a panel discussion on intricacies of running a biosciences startup. Dr Dougbeh Nyan spoke passionately about his journey at Shufflex Biomed, taking his diagnostic product from the lab to market and revolutionising African healthcare at the same time.
“Entrepreneurship is not unique, things happen as they do to all of us, good and bad days,” he said of his journey, which he started as a political prisoner in Liberia. He explained how he has gone through hurdles including failure and bureaucracy to commercialise his product to quickly detect illnesses such as Ebola, HIV, and hepatitis that have ravaged the African continent.
It is a point worth noting that only a small fraction of patents belong to the continent, and fewer still belong to locals; this is according to Dr Margo Bagley of Emory University in the United States of America. She also said that globally, big pharma companies are increasingly reluctant to spend money on clinical trials, meaning that small start-ups have to conduct their own trials in the drug development process.
Ms Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl of the African Innovation Foundation in Geneva encouraged Africa to invest more within itself through structures such as the African Union and NEPAD. She also encouraged researchers and entrepreneurs to “look around, identify problems and find solutions, and not just go for sexy innovation.”
Several venture capital firms also discussed private funding opportunities and new models of funding, and gave advice to entrepreneurs looking to get funded. A panel discussion on the future of food in the African context also took place in the afternoon.
The second day of the event focused even more on commercialisation and entrepreneurship in the biosciences context.
Dr Aunkh Chabalala, Director of Indigenous Knowledge Based Technologies from the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa, also gave a presentation on how to handle Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) scientifically. He gave important insights into what needs to happen before the commercialisation step when it comes to innovating with indigenous knowledge.
Young researchers and startups had a chance to pitch their innovations to experts and investors; these sessions resulted in follow-up investment talks between companies and investors, and were also used to sharpen the business skills of the enterprising young businesspeople.
The event also affirmed the role women play in the economy, and their potential in innovation and the commercialisation of knowledge in southern Africa. A presentation from last year’s FemBioBiz winner Professor Keolebogile Motaung was an example of how women can succeed in biotech innovation, and demonstrated what seasoned scientists can learn from the world of business. SANBio also launched FemBioBiz Season 2, which aims to support and develop skills of female entrepreneurs in the life sciences.
Furthermore, NEPAD SANBio took the two-day meeting as an opportunity to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Seeding Labs to help with enhancing capacity in the network with skills and much-needed infrastructure.
The summary report and full proceedings of the event will be made available soon.
The image gallery for the event can be found here.