The world has benefited immensely from innovations that sprang out of laboratories, backyard garages and universities not only because someone had a great idea, but also because somebody took such innovations to the marketplace for the benefit of mankind. Arguably though, not all of these great minds that we talk of today knew that what they started in their cubicles and labs could become multibillion dollar industries.
A scientist may conduct research in Ghana just to contribute to the body of knowledge, this is best known as Basic Research. Applied Research however, seeks to provide solutions to practical problems confronting mankind every day. For example, applied research may investigate ways to improve agricultural production, treat certain diseases, mitigate the damage of flooding etc.
Ghana has enviable universities ranging from arts, science and technology to technical universities, which have research as part of their mandate. Librarians are constantly struggling for space to keep thousands of voluminous theses which are research findings of student research projects.
While this goes on, industries are starving for ideas and technologies to convert natural resources into goods and services with immense commercial value. Yet some of these ideas and technologies are deep seated in the findings of the very scientific research in Ghana sitting on shelves.
I have witnessed heated debates on whether research institutions should bother themselves at all with commercializing their findings instead of concentrating on research. Whilst antagonists argue that the move would distract the attention of researchers and research institutions from their core mandate, protagonists believe that it is time research institutions stopped relying heavily on the meager government financial inflows by generating income through commercialization of their research findings.
Why commercialize research findings
Permit me to use the United States of America as a benchmark for purposes of this discussion. According to a 2015 report by the Association of University Technology Managers’, research institutions garnered over $37billion dollars in licensing of research findings in America. Startup companies from these research institutions were nearly 11,000 in number.
It is obvious but neglected, that researchers as well as their respective institutions can gain huge monetary returns if their results find suitable business partners.
Secondly, there is a teaming population of Ghanaians who are unemployed. Like the American example, startup companies could spring up and create several jobs if research findings are commercialized through technology transfer or by licensing innovation. The aggregate effect will be an immense improvement in Ghana’s economy.
Lastly, an indicator of the quality of life according to the World Health Organization includes a person’s physical environment, recreation and leisure. Commercializing innovation would lead to the local production of many of the items that we import to improve our quality of life.
Barriers to commercializing research results
Ghana can manufacture many of the items it imports which have put our economy on a very fragile footing. I will not bore you with economic indicators in which show Ghana has always been at the negative end of the exchange. After a careful observation, I find the following three barriers to commercialization of research in Ghana.
First, I sought to find out whether there was a conscious effort to commercialize research in Ghana by our research institutions. As opposed to the western institutions of higher learning where one could find Office of Technology Transfer in every tertiary institution, I found very few of such units for commercializing research findings in similar institutions in Ghana. Some of these were also shrouded in other activities making it difficult to tell whether they really mean to commercialize their results, after spending millions of Cedis and sometimes Dollars to conduct research.
Moreover, although the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research incorporated commercialization of research findings in 1996, implementation started in 2003. Clearly Ghana has not taken this concept seriously.
However I commend the University of Ghana and the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission for clearly establishing the Office of Research Innovation and Development (ORID), and Technology Transfer and Marketing Centre (TTMC) respectively. Though late, these clearly show their institutions interest in technology transfer. Another success story is the commercialization drive by the Centre for Plant Medicine Research which started in the year 2000, by partnering industry and yielding good results.
Commercial viability of research
A critical question is, how many of the volumes of research carried out in our institutions are commercially viable, and how apt are we to leverage on the few that are commercially viable? The time has come for research institutions to tailor scientific research in a manner that would lead to marketable innovations i.e. demand driven research.
Handling issues of Intellectual Property
The issue of Intellectual Property has always been a thorny one in most innovation commercialization which if not handled well could utterly kill the innovation.
From experience, the reason why many contractual agreements involving the transfer of technology die prematurely, and why the few struggle with financial royalty, is due to fundamental errors as to who owns an innovation.
With all that has been said above, it is clear that our institutions must take advantage of government’s decision to dedicate 1% of GDP to research, and generate adequate returns by commercializing some of their findings.