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2020 State of Innovation Address

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Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Innovation is doing something new and different and getting it out there. Innovation is both new things and how one does new things. Innovation is what South Africa needs badly. Now.

13 February 2020

All protocols observed, Ladies, Gentlemen and Youth. It gives me great pleasure to deliver this, the first State of Innovation Address, today, the 13th of February, 2020. This is an auspicious day for other reasons. First, some know it as Kiss Day, being the prelude to Valentine’s Day that occurs tomorrow. But second, and most important to our theme, is that today is Unesco World Radio Day, and radio is one of the most profound innovations that humankind has produced. 

Radio is a phenomenon that was unknown to the Ancients. The great engineer, scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci conceived of submarines and airplanes, but radio, no. It is curious therefore that we owe so much of radio to his countrymen, Volta, and later to Marconi, who undertook his first experiments in Italy, before moving to England at the age of 21. 

Even more curious is that the US Supreme Court later ruled that Marconi’s patents were invalid, and that Serbian-born Tesla was the actual inventor of radio. Tesla, the engineering school drop-out, had emigrated to the United States aged 28, where he set himself up as a competitor to Marconi and Edison. Young people do it.

The cumulative efforts of these innovators, together with those of Bose in India, Popov in Russia, Yagi in Japan, Landell in Brazil, our own Van der Bijl, and others scattered around the globe, formed knowledge networks from which radio irrupted a century ago. Radio begat TV, radar, microwave ovens, and the internet, that in turn begat cheap and ubiquitous communication. Expectant mother plus cellphone equals ante-natal care; teen plus cellphone equals safety; millennial plus cellphone equals dinner for two. Our lives are enriched; our lives are changed. Power to the people, indeed.

This illustrates much of the process of innovation. One may read and one may see, but ideas travel best between two ears. One learns by doing, by using, by interacting. Networks are essential to innovation, and so is the movement of people. People come with various skills – some are heavyweight academic researchers, others are more technically minded. Remember Kiss? For engineers that means “keep it simple, stupid”. 

So, what can we say of the state of innovation at home? Are we an innovation nation? To answer this I will turn to radar, that like radio, is based on electromagnetism. Our radar activities have an 80-year provenance anchored in an innovation microsystem that links university electrical engineers and physicists, companies, the CSIR, Denel and our military. A major node is in Stellenbosch; another in Centurion. Most importantly, both nodes give rise to knowledge spillovers that may, in turn, lead to other innovations. 

You have all heard about the Square Kilometre Array that will be the largest radio telescope ever built. The hundreds of SKA dishes will dot the Karoo landscape near Carnarvon. In anticipation we have constructed the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, and here’s the thing. The radio detector at the focus of each dish was designed and built in Stellenbosch by EMSS Antennas, a medium-sized company that began life as a two-man show back in 1994. 

EMSS Antennas is part of the Alphawave group that today has some 230 employees. Their innovation path started as students under two Stellenbosch professors who had worked on radar and microwaves, and who were problem-oriented. The students gained their doctorates and then went out to seek new opportunities, hitting the ground, unemployed, at the right moment, since mobile telephony was booming, and users and providers needed to understand how people would be affected by the electromagnetic radiation from cell phone towers. That was the launchpad for EMSS. 

The experience and knowledge that EMSS gained arose from practical work and their participation in the global network of electrical engineers. Go to conferences; bring conferences to your doorstep. They then applied this new knowledge to antenna and receiver design. 

The MeerKAT receivers are first in class, with top sensitivity and stability. The government funded the MeerKAT project, and EMSS was contracted to provide the receivers to a specification jointly developed between the company and government scientists. The government took the risk with a solution in mind. That solution evolved and sharpened, leading to a product that surpassed expectation. I believe that our actions earn us the label “an entrepreneurial state”. So yes, we do innovate.

We are happy with this, and we are proud of the achievement. I can’t promise that the SKA telescope will create tens of thousands of jobs, but I can promise that there will be knowledge spillovers. That much we have learnt. 

But this Address carries additional learnings. Networks matter. Movement matters. Markets matter. Remember Tesla? He was a Serb who left Austro-Hungaria for the United States, where he was best known for his work on alternating current. But he was a difficult chap and earned a bad press. 

Perhaps this is why one of our most famous emigrants, Elon Musk, named his company in honour of Nikola Tesla. Musk is a serial innovator who has chosen to innovate in the largest market available to his genius. He does reusable rockets, spacecraft, batteries, and electric cars. Innovations need markets. Innovations can also create markets, on which point refer to the late Steve Jobs. 

We wish you well, Elon Musk. Let’s talk about a battery factory. Please call me (that’s another one of our innovations).

In closing, a message. Innovation is doing something new and different and getting it out there. Innovation is both new things and how one does new things. Designing a new law and putting it into practice is an innovation. We rely on you, our customers, critics, collaborators and competitors to tell us how to get it right.

I thank you. DM

Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

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