Research to Commercialization- How research institutions and universities can cultivate an environment that spurs innovation
Link to the full episode: https://www.tcc-africa.org/news-room | Listen on Anchor FM
‘You need to fall in love with and maximize the problem if you are looking to be able to come up with a brilliant solution”, asserts our guest, Ms. Agnes Tsuma as she narrates her journey coming into research innovation and commercialization. This episode features an engaging conversation that highlights the existing opportunities for early career innovators in Kenya, the current state of industry-academia linkage, and the strategic steps by KENIA to propel research outputs and technology from our institutions to the marketplace.
Agnes Tsuma is a research, innovation, and grants management professional with 10+ years of multifaceted experience with well-established international institutions. She is currently the Manager of Innovation Commercialization at the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KeNIA), and was a TCC Africa trainee in 2021.
Welcome to Mazungumzo – African Scholarly Conversations, a podcast that highlights the perspectives of various stakeholders in academia and research fields across Africa through open dialogue or ‘Mazungumzo’ on scholarly communication in Africa. We are joined by an expansive list of African policymakers, science communication specialists, innovators, and tertiary education leads who contribute to this realm of science communication.
Joy Owango: This week’s guest, Agnes Tsuma is a research, innovation, and grants management professional with 10+ years’ multifaceted experience with well-established international institutions. She is currently the Manager on Innovation Commercialization at the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KeNIA), and she was a TCC Africa trainee for 2021. Welcome to the programme Agnes!
Agnes Tsuma: Thank you very much, Joy. I’m happy to be here today.
Joy Owango: Thank you so much for being with us. It is exciting to see your journey coming in as a researcher, then getting involved in policy, especially when it comes to the innovation and commercialization of innovations coming out of the country. So tell us about your background, your current role, and how you got into this current position.
Agnes Tsuma: Nice. Thank you, Joy. To be honest, I would say it’s been a very interesting transition. I would say for the past twelve years, since 2010, I have worked in the university, which is the academia sector. I’ve been working at the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM), and while at the Technical University of Mombasa (TUM), I was exposed to a vast array of engagement activities. I worked in the Finance Department and while in the Finance department, at some point I managed grants, external grants. Basically, these are research grants and that is how I took interest in research and how I transitioned from the Finance Department to the Research department. So after working in Finance Department for about close to seven, six to seven years, I moved to the Research department and started managing grants. I managed the partnerships for the university and also used to coordinate innovation activities within the university. This opened me up to a whole new world, I must say. I got to engage with researchers, faculty, and even student innovators, and I got to see some of the challenges these scholars were experiencing. I used to see how they would actually struggle with proposal writing. For us to come together, on the opportunity to come in as TCC Africa trainees, it was after we had experienced a lot of challenges when it came to grant proposal writing, being able to come up with a very solid proposal understanding and out there to be able to attract funding as a researcher. It took us time to engage other external partners to be able to support our researchers. And through the training at TCC, it also opened up doors for more of our researchers to be able to write better. If you would recall, we were coming in with quite a number of our researchers for that training. That was very good. And so, as I was working in TUM (Technical University of Mombasa), I got an opportunity to work closely with external partners. These are now local innovation hubs and some international innovation hubs. And through this exposure, working with innovators, I felt like there’s a need to address more around the innovations and how could it take place across the country. So when an opening came up at KENIA for an innovation commercialization manager, I ran for it and I tried, I gave it a shot and I got lucky, should I say? Or probably I really impressed the panel and I got this opportunity to land myself as a manager, of innovation commercialization. And I must say the journey has been very interesting. It’s so much fun. I’m enjoying what I’m doing because I get to see myself achieve that goal. I’ve always been wishing to see researchers’ output get to the market and I’m seeing myself being able to achieve that with some of the programs we are putting in place in KENIA (Kenya Innovation Agency). So that is basically my background from 13 years back when I started in Technical University and how I found myself in KENIA. And the whole process that I had to go through with engaging with scholars, actually going through that rigorous process of writing proposals, sending them out there, getting funding, and implementing projects, it was interesting. And right now I’m at the helm of it now, working on policies, and guidelines for commercialization, for supporting innovators and startups. There you go.
Joy Owango: Fantastic. It feels like you’re going a bit full circle because the research life cycle starts with the research idea and actually ends with commercialization. And when you worked in the research office and the finance office at the Technical University of Mombasa, this is where you started seeing the challenges of how research ideas would reach a halt because innovations were not coming out of them. Or were you seeing that researchers were just producing research without thinking about the end goal of commercialization, with the potential of generating revenue?
Agnes Tsuma: You are absolutely correct. Actually, you would see researchers come up with research outputs that they publish. Then beyond publication, how is their output actually being disseminated to the community? How is it improving the lives of the community, of the society? I wasn’t seeing that. I have a classic example of a lecturer who was having a solution around some medicine for malaria from black seed and up to the point where when I was leaving, I was really hoping to see that solution out there in the market as medicine that is actually a final product that is in the market. But in my heart I was like, I feel bad, my heart is bleeding. Because these are noble, very good innovations and the most initiative. I have five publications, I’m moving, and I’m even researching. But how do we get this out there? I feel like we are addressing it right now in KENIA. And we are going to universities to reach out to them, to tell them, how are we going to engage industry to ensure that you’re not just doing research on your own? Are you speaking to the industry to see that you’re actually solving problems in the community as you continue conducting research? So it’s a whole circle.
Joy Owango: And it leads to my next question. How has KENIA been supporting universities in looking at various revenue generation opportunities that they can raise from commercialization? What kind of capacity building have you been doing in regard to that?
Agnes Tsuma: Very good question and very relevant based on the programs you’re running right now. So KENIA literally took an aerial view and basically took an initial survey. And at that point, when they did the survey, I had not left TUM, so I was able to participate in that survey. And they really tried to find out from the universities, how much research do you do, how much funding do you attract? And out of the research, how many patents do you register? And after registering these patents, how many research outputs are actually commercialized? Are you engaging in the industry? How many collaborations have you been able to set up as an institution to facilitate commercialization? After collecting all that data, it then now informed some of the steps that they took. And so one was capacity building. One thing that we realized as an institution. Now, when I moved to KENIA, I took time to just understand and get a grip of everything. And they realized one thing. Institutions do not have what they’re calling intellectual property policy documents. These are supposed to facilitate some of these activities. I’m talking about the commercialization process. With the IP policy, you’re able to guide the researcher to know that even as you take up research, there is the opportunity for you to commercialize some of your research output. And these are some of the commercialization pathways you can actually be able to take to be able to get your research output into the market. That is one. And so through the KENIA Academy, we are offering training to universities, to institutions. Specifically, we target the directors of research, probably Registrars of Research and heads of innovations and all that. Then another aspect is setting up what you’re calling technology transfer offices.
Joy Owango: Very important.
Agnes Tsuma: Basically the Technology Transfer office are supposed to be the ones that will actually support this whole process. Once a researcher has been able to come up with an idea, they’ve done their work and they are ready to actually transition it now into a product or a service or even a social good, they will now be able to help. They actually build the pipeline, they facilitate the negotiation, all that process of getting that product to be commercialized. The Technology Transfer office would then be able to do that. So we also have a program where we say, yes, we are helping them set up technology transfer offices and also guide them on commercialization processes. Okay, then another aspect that we realize that we need to now consider is how then that is an intervention at an institutional level, but then to a researcher, an individual researcher, what do we do? So we thought about then now let’s look at these researchers in the institution, how do we support them? So we came up with what you’re calling research to commercialization. Once a researcher has come up with research, they worked through their project and they have now the final output. They feel like, for example, it’s a breed of beans, a different breed of beans or potatoes, whatever it is, and they want to get it to the market. We then now take them through a three to a four-month program where they get to get all the training, the relevant training. They will be taken out to the market. You get to meet customers, you get to meet your clients and they actually get to test your product. And they’ll tell you if this product is actually viable. You know, we met some researchers in the University of Egerton and we were asking them so these beans that you’ve come up with, how sure are you the clients will actually be able to utilize them? Probably the manufacturers or the distributors will pick up and sell because it’s a little bit cheaper. Okay, or probably the farmer will take it up because it’s easier and it would take a shorter period to mature. But then the end user will tell you this bean will take me 6 hours to be well cooked, while this other breed will take me probably 2 hours. So being able to test your product in the market and ensure that it’s that product market fit, ensuring that you’re actually able to understand what kind of commercialization pathway you will take as a researcher. So there’s that whole business canva process that we take with this researcher a very rigorous program and by the end of it, a researcher is able to decide do they want to proceed and set up a business for this or do they want to look at an option of offering rights to a company to produce for them. And probably they just earn their royalties and go back to do research. After all, they have been researchers all the time. But for as long as they’re able to earn an income, which technically would also benefit the university, they have actually commercialized. So that is another program we saw would best fit researchers and it’s an intervention that KENIA has come up and the last one I’d like to mention is the Innovation Bridge. The Innovation Bridge is a platform where we’re bringing together now innovators, let me call it the demand side and the supply side. The demand side for me are the innovators and researchers with very novel ideas and products and services that they do not know how to reach Industry players, investors and all that and they’d like to scale up or they’d like to just get their product to the market. So through the platform, we’re able to facilitate that connection. So that is another platform that is supposed to support innovators and researchers.
Joy Owango: Fantastic. I’d like to take you a few steps back. When you’re going through the research lifecycle, one of the things that aggrieved scientists or any researcher is the high cost of conducting research, whether it is infrastructure or data or human capacity involvement. Now, Open Science has become an important aspect in the contribution to innovation, especially when it comes to research. So how do you think Open Science fits in this entire process of the research lifecycle, particularly when you’re looking at innovation, of outputs that come out of research being done within the country or within our institutes?
Agnes Tsuma: Honestly, I just like to appreciate this open science concept, movement, all of it, because, for me, I feel like it’s a game changer. It has come up as a very huge opportunity, especially for innovators. Now. Let me speak for Innovators because when you look at this approach. It is a scientific approach. But it’s giving an opportunity for people to be able to access data. To access information. This means that then you do not have to incur a lot of costs. Going back to probably do a survey or do research when you could actually be able to access data that can be able to influence and actually be able to help you. When you’re working on your innovation, when you’re working on a product, you are trying to improve a process. Okay, so what do you do? You do not have to go through the whole process of doing that research when there’s somebody else who’s already done this research and you’re able to get data that can be able to inform your decision and some of the steps you take to improve the process. So for me, Open Science is really helping. It’s really important. If anything, I think it came in at the right time because now Innovators get an opportunity to access data that is open source, and they are able to access very relevant information that could actually inform some of the decisions they make in their research work. And for me, it is actually bridging that gap when it comes to some of the costly activities you’d have to go through to be able to access data that you’d really not be able to if you are not for the Open science platform.
Joy Owango: Fantastic. As you say, it is a game changer for researchers, especially researchers in the Global South, because Open science has provided a leveling plane whereby you’re able to have access to either open data or open source that is code or infrastructure, where an early career innovator can take advantage of and build on that to come up with innovations or maybe conduct his research. So I’m glad that this has also been embraced actively by KENIA as well now. And with the fact that we have open science, we have open science supporting the innovation life cycle and the research lifecycle, there are still issues and concerns that still come with the process of the commercialization of research. What are some of these issues that you have noted when you’re interacting with universities and what are these concerns that they’ve raised when it comes to the process of commercializing research?
Agnes Tsuma: Right, a very good question and one I’ll probably just speak from the past few months we’ve been visiting about ten institutions, both research institutions and universities and meeting researchers. And one major problem I’ve been noticing is researchers have products, they say they have very good products that they want to get to the market but they don’t know how, they don’t market. And so the first question we always ask are you sure you have a market for this product? And they say yes. Have you verified? Yes. Have you gone with it to the market and check that it’s actually something you can sell and then realize that no probably not? And then probably you ask them another question so what is the problem you’re trying to solve with this product or service or idea that you have? And they’re not really able to come out clearly and say this is it. But they say but this is maize. This is a different breed of maize and it is good and it can be able to help the farmers. And you’re like, is the farmer going to produce the maize and take it, consume it on their own? No. So did you think about the end user? No. You slowly start to realize that there is something called problem-based learning. Something that they need to start incorporating absolutely user-centered design thinking. These are some of the, I would say some of the programs that I feel like our universities should now start thinking about and consider incorporating in their training not just as part of their pedagogical skills, but also even for the faculty.
Joy Owango: Absolutely.
Agnes Tsuma: As they train and even as they learn. When you’re coming up with a solution, it has to be user-centered. It has to be from a point of a problem. I love a certain statement. My CEO always says you need to fall in love with your problem if you’re actually going to be able to come up with a brilliant solution. Do not think about the solution, think about the problem. Maximize on that problem. And by the time you have actually internalized the problem and understood the root cause and I think you now know where I’m going, Joy. When you talk about the root-cause analysis you actually internalized and understood and you actually get a brilliant solution and you can be sure there is something. Whatever solution you come up with, you will always be able to get a market for yourself. Absolutely. That is a problem we realize with most researchers out here and we are slowly now trying to see how best we can introduce some of these programs like user-centered design thinking and all that.
Joy Owango: You’re absolutely right because even with TCC, whenever we are training, our approach is actually problem-based learning-centered and root-cause analytical centered. And the thing is if a participant goes through that process of learning, they become a bit more critical thinkers and they start thinking with and they also start looking at a solution-based perspective on the actual problem that they are working on other than before, just coming up with results without thinking about what will the market think about this particular issue or what will your audience think about it? For lack of better words is actually the audience. Have you talked to your audience? Have you done a market analysis of your audience? So we are very critical about that and it’s good to see that you’ve noted that as a challenge most of the institutions are facing because they’re coming up with amazing innovations but it might not be relevant to the market. And this leads to actually the next question because that means that there is a slight disconnect between researchers and markets and researchers and industry. So what you’re trying to say is that there’s a need for researchers and innovators to work closely with their targeted audiences so that they can produce output relevant to them. And how are you addressing this?
Agnes Tsuma: Right, that actually followed by due course without even struggling. So I think the first thing we did after we’ve realized that so there is something we’re trying to do right now. So we are looking at entrepreneurial mindsets of universities but linked to it, we are saying as we are visiting institutions and trying to do a critical analysis around them, we want to understand how Pedagogy is very key for us. How then do we introduce these programs to institutions? Okay. And if at all you’re going to do problem-based learning, you’re not going to do it in the university. You will go out to industry. So how close are you working with industry relevant to the various departments and faculties within your institution? If it’s engineering, how close are you working with some of these companies that will then be able to realize some of the problems and challenges they’re facing? Then you go back and come up with solutions in a very creative manner to be able to solve. So at the end of the day, whatever solution you’re coming up with, it has a ready market for it. So we are going out there and we are really trying to establish first. Do you have any industry-academia linkage? And if it’s there, what exactly are you doing? Is it just for purpose of getting students’ attachment? Because you see most of the time you hear the university says yes, we do have linkages, but in most cases, it’s for purposes of linking the students for attachment and probably internship. But for us, we are saying it’s much more than just internship and attachment. We want to see you go out there, talk to the industry, understand what are some of the challenges they’re facing in their normal processes, and see how best can you then use your researchers to be able to solve some of those challenges. And so at the end of the day, you’re creating that linkage and you automatically have finished products in some places that already have a ready market because of that industry-academia linkage,
Joy Owango: This looks like common sense, but it hasn’t been the case. That’s our reality. And my question to that is how receptive have research institutions and universities been to this approach to the industry? Academia Linkage
Agnes Tsuma: well, I wouldn’t say it’s been good, beautiful, but it is now dawning on institutions at the moment they start looking from a problem-based perspective. They actually see and they realize I’ve been creating my own problem and creating a solution for it and I have a very good paper and it’s out there. But then they are not really thinking that. No, probably if I had talked to this doctor in this government hospital, they’d have told me based on our records, these are the most, the highest number of ailments we are treating on every other day and we feel we need a solution around this area. It’s not really malaria, probably it’s more of pneumonia, and it’s probably more of non-communicable diseases than communicable diseases. So they are slowly now seeing that, yes, it’s true, cancer is there and it’s a problem probably it’s not really cancer, probably it’s a nutrition-based problem. All these they are slowly now warming up to it. But I would say it is a lot more about mindset and also having at a leadership point of view, getting to accept this notion and then it not trickles down to the faculty and even to students. So I would say that institutions are warming up to it and we are trying to address it from all levels at the leadership of the institution and then again at the individual that is the researcher level and innovator level. So I would say it’s one day at a time, but we are really seeing things coming up, people are coming up and seeing the importance of all that.
Joy Owango: So in terms of quotients, so there’s a lot of change quotients taking place because you’re looking at adaptive and innovative ways on how different organizational cultures can work together. Because if you’re looking at a typical academic organizational culture, vis-a-vis an industry organizational culture, one is more research-based, one is more profit-making based, correct? Okay. So even when you’re looking at the targets from the industry partner. They are much more aggressive in ways and they’ll use much more aggressive ways in how they can achieve those targets as compared to what you see in academia. That could be one of the reasons why the process of a different perspective of industry-academic linkage has been a bit slow. Other than the traditional or conservative aspect of internships or attachments, which have been pretty easy. With these different types of organizational change. Where do you think the middle ground is and where do you think the two of them can see eye to eye in order to look at the big picture of coming up with innovations that can be commercialized and also at the same time lead to revenue generation?
Agnes Tsuma: Wow. Pretty hard. Well, I must say a middle ground would be I always believe one thing and I always see this in the private sector and in industry. You really need to show them what’s in need for them, how it’s benefiting. Okay. So for both partners, they need to see what the benefit is. For me, engaging in this collaboration, how is the university going to be able to benefit? And for me, I feel like, and this is something we are also working on, the entrepreneurial mindset of universities. If universities are going to be able to take that up, it then becomes very easy for them to see the perspective of the private sector, of an industry player, and how they would actually think about revenue. At the end of it all, the university will have actually been able to internalize and understand that at the end of the day, they need to make money and for us, at the end of the day, we need to be able to generate our income. So at the end of the day, we all have the same target, only that our approach is a little bit different as a university, but slowly inculcating the entrepreneurial mindset within the institution should be able to have them, you know, meet at some point. That is how I look at it.
Joy Owango: So the middle ground is we need to make money. We just need to look at the different ways in which we approach the different opportunities that we have in making money.
Agnes Tsuma: Correct.
Joy Owango: All right, so with that, what are the future plans for KENIA, and what does the future hold for Kenyan innovators?
Agnes Tsuma: All right, well, very good. And to be honest, we’ve been running around, I think you know very well, we are a very young agency and I would say we really call ourselves a startup and at that stage where we are growing and trying to get hold of everything. But one thing we came to realize, if we are going to be able to actually show direction when it comes to innovation within the country, we really need to think very clearly what would be our strategic goal, what is our move, what is our strategic move? And so we are coming up with a ten-year Innovation Master plan. And the ten-year Innovation Master plan is supposed to guide us and to put us on a roadmap and show us a direction where are we going as a country. And this is with regards to what? Now we’ll talk about funding. Most people cry a lot about funding. There is no funding to be able to address some of these challenges we’re facing around research, work and all that, even for innovators and scaling. Okay, so we’d like to figure out how best then do we set up a very good structured way of generating funding for the national innovation system? That is one. Another aspect is then how, because you see when you have innovators, the major output that comes out of it would basically be a startup or a spin off or an industry taking up a product and scaling it out. So we are looking at the startup ecosystem then how do we build the start-up ecosystem? What are some of the enabling activities and the platforms that we need to create to be able to build and grow this start-up ecosystem? And so we look at the start of ecosystem. Then another aspect I want to think about is the innovation strategy of the country. There is a study that is about to start where East Africa is supposed there is an innovation strategy for the whole of East Africa. But then as we talk about East Africa, what about Kenya and what about the relevant government agencies, even private sector. You’d actually be shocked to go to private sector and realize that they are actually having their own innovation strategies. But now as a government we need to have a very clear strategy where now other people can be able to plug in and say whatever initiatives I’m doing, they are going to feed into this Innovation Master plan and they’re going to also ultimately feed into the innovation strategy of the country. So these are two main documents I would say, that would actually be able to inform a lot of activities and the next moves that we would take as a country. And ultimately all this would have a major impact on the socioeconomic development of the country. So for me I feel like these are very key and these are the main future for us right now. We have the innovation strategy we have the Innovation Master plan. National innovation Master plan. It’s a ten year master plan which could give a lot of direction when it comes to even innovators and also being able to identify some of the key sectors within the country that we can now be able to focus on and direct more attention to be able to have some vital impact when it comes to socioeconomic aspect of it.
Joy Owango: So it does look positive for potential early career innovators and research institutes and universities that would be involved in innovation of their research.
Agnes Tsuma: Most definitely. And of course, a lot more on the coordination aspect. We are saying that we are now at the helm of it all. We want to see how best then do we organize and coordinate even the incubation hub accelerator programs within the country to ensure that our innovators are accessing the relevant programs to be able to support them. Okay. And then at the coordination aspect, again, we are saying how then do we mobilize funding and support from development partners and channel it in the right programs? I know a place in Kisumu. There is a hub. It is supporting innovators probably in renewable energy. Any development partner who comes in and tell them and they need to direct their funding somewhere will tell them, you go to this hub, you’ll be able to access innovators, you’ll be able to support that. So a lot more of mapping and understanding the actual innovation system and putting up structures to be able to support them.
Joy Owango: Yes. Fantastic. So it looks like there is for lack of better words, hope and there’s a positive vibe when it comes to the future of innovation in Africa and particularly in Kenya. And I think mostly it’s also with the active involvement of industry partners and their deliberate interest in working with academia. So it means that also academia has to make the effort and open up and start working with them and produce research outputs that are relevant to their needs as well.
Thank you so much, Agnes. This has been an amazing interview. It has been very enlightening and it’s good to see how far you’ve come from when you took part in the TC Africa training and the work you’ve been doing at the university and then becoming a policymaker when it comes to the commercialization of Kenyan research output. I look forward to interacting with you again and thank you so much for being part of our show. Thank you, Agnes.
Agnes Tsuma: Thank you, Joy. And it was great engaging and looking forward to collaborating even with TCC. Thank you. Thank you. Bye.
Thank you for joining us in today’s episode of the Mazungumzo podcast. See you in our next episode.
Listen to the full episode and explore more episodes from the #Mazungumzo podcast on the following platforms:
Spotify(Available Globally): https://open.spotify.com/episode/6WfoQbgYBGC18Vi6ghE7S1?si=7070cd7d8d654801
Anchor (Available Globally): https://anchor.fm/mazungumzo—african-scholarly-conversations/episodes/Ep3–Research-to-Commercialization-How-research-institutions-and-universities-can-cultivate-an-environment-that-spurs-innovation-e1qphud
Afripods (Available in Africa): https://lnkd.in/dVre-fGd
Pandora (Available in Europe & United States): https://lnkd.in/dpWaXHa5
TCC Africa-Training Centre in Communication News Room (Available Globally): https://lnkd.in/d2y7ZBMD