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Reducing white noise and silencing the whingers – South Africa has world-class innovators


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow 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.

Against international competitors, Stellenbosch company Alphawave just scored a R200-million contract to design, build and supply 60 super-sensitive detectors to the Square Kilometre Array.

So here we have it. The 10 Year Review of the National Development Plan(NDP) is doing the rounds and adding to our gloom. As someone passionate about innovation, its deployment and measurement, the review is required reading.

Problem is, it is essentially silent on innovation, mentioning it in passing but eight times. The more fanciful term R&D (research and development) receives no mention at all. Strange, very strange, as the NDP of 2012 placed innovation (109 hits) and R&D (eight hits) central to its vision.

Does this mean that the National Planning Commission has decided that innovation no longer matters? Worse still, does the silence imply that we are not an innovating nation? Not at all.

The World Intellectual Property Organization’s 2023 Global Innovation Index provides valuable insights. Against expectation, we moved up one place to rank 59th of the 132 countries assessed.

In sub-Saharan Africa we are in pole position, and among high middle-income countries are between Mexico and Indonesia, and perform above our level of socioeconomic development.

The sub-indices of our score record low values for institutions and human capital, but much higher for market sophistication, knowledge creation, innovation linkages, knowledge absorption and knowledge impacts. The remedy? Attain policy stability and fix schooling, and we can fly up the scales.

How so? Well, what underpins the sub-indices is our world-class services sector, the Naspers lot and Bidvest, our innovative banks, retailers and insurance companies (Discovery take a bow), and new medium-sized enterprises such as online gambling company Derivco, and the star of the show, Alphawave, of which more below.

Add in our time zone, and the English language, and you attract the IBM and Amazon call centres. And by the way, the Amazon Cloud was engineered in Cape Town below the table cloth. Amazon’s new headquarters on the Liesbeek River floodplain will host hundreds of system developers who will perform leading-edge research.

Now pose this question at your next party with local whingers and international sceptics. “Can you name an insurer in your home country that actively encourages you to adopt a healthy lifestyle?” The expected reply will be “no”.  Yet Discovery has done this for its members for years, and has an international patent portfolio of the underlying intellectual property. Buy wholewheat bread and receive a cash discount. Lekker.

So who is Alphawave and why do they matter? Simply this: against international competitors they just scored a R200-million contract to design, build and supply 60 super-sensitive detectors to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). A local company did this. How?

They started off in 1994 as a two-man show and now have 17 subsidiaries and 375 staff, of whom 175 are engineers and developers. They operate from the Stellenbosch municipality’s Technopark close to Stellenbosch University, where the two founders had Defence Force PhD bursaries in electromagnetism at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

The pair studied antenna design and electromagnetic radiation in a department at the heart of the telemetry system of innovation linking UCT, Cape Technikon, Armscor, Denel, and companies such as Tellumat and Reunert Radar. Telemetry was in the air they breathed. Military budget cutbacks resulted in cancelling their bursary commitments: no payback required; sorry no job.

This pressure led them to trawl their network of German peers and to use their complementary knowledge to produce a novel antenna emission measurement device. Their timing was perfect as the emergent mobile telephony industry was being forced to show that its mast radiation posed no health threat.

The pair developed a detector, and through continuous learning, R&D, literature scanning, academic publishing and conferencing, later birthed three companies – EMSS Antennas, EMSS-SA, and EMSS Consulting.  

Their next major opportunity was to design, test and supply a low-noise detector for the seven dishes of the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7). The detector proved its worth, and through a subsequent closed tender EMSS became a specialist service provider to the 64-dish MeerKAT.

That work was state-funded and did not register any patents, instead relying on non-disclosure and tacit knowledge. The gamble is an instance of what economist Mariana Mazzucato terms an “entrepreneurial state” in action, with procurement fostering open innovation. 

Some five years ago the EMSS Group restructured as Alphawave, with EMSS Antennas becoming a partially owned subsidiary. The company maintains a relationship with its alma mater, providing study bursaries, offering internships and employment opportunities, inward consultancies, and funding for a telematics start-up.

From the government side, EMSS has received grants from the Support Programme for Industrial Innovation, and benefited from the early rounds of the R&D tax incentive – from funded students to social entrepreneurs.  

The EMSS-Alphawave knowledge base combines the global invisible college of science, research entrepreneurship, insight, serendipity, spill-overs, student and staff mobility. Understanding markets, one’s limitations in penetrating those, and one’s niche skills are key. Failing to capture market share in the global automotive industry was a salutary lesson. 

Regarding niche skills, Alphawave is a player in the highly competitive projectile tracking industry, with a European Patent Office award for its golf ball trajectory monitoring system. The contract with the SKA is one of the largest gained by a local high-technology company, and this despite the gloom of the NDP Review, the chatterati and commentariat.

Lessons? Determination can overcome bureaucratic hurdles; use-oriented applied research can lead to products in the marketplace; innovation is a complex and messy process. EMSS introduced both new-to-the-world and incremental innovations.

More please. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Plaskett says:

    Absolutely agree Michael. Like our Springbok team so ably illustrated, skill and determination can overcome most obstacles. So it is also with scientific innovation, to leap over and beyond all obstacles scattered in their path by dimwit politicians

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