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Be(IE) innovators of the future

- Wits University

The first Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Course sparks a new era for #WitsInnovation.

The new Wits Innovation Centre recently presented its first official innovation and entrepreneurship-related course, the 2023 Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BIE) Training Course.

Wits Innovation Centre (WIC)

The BIE Program Director Professor Michael Wallach from the University of Technology Sydney and CEO of the Centre for Innovative Medical Research (CIMR), was joined by local and international lecturers from academia and industry, among others, Dr Isabella Hajduk from the CIMR, Michael Wilter from Bowmans, Professor Lee Fairlie from Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), Allon Raiz, CEO of Raizcorp, and Solwazi Majola, innovation specialist at the WIC.

Open to participants from all disciplines who have an interest in health innovation – including health and engineering, science, arts, commerce, law, and others – the course was aimed at providing an understanding of how biotechnology projects, (including drugs, medical devices, and general medical science) and companies are created, established, managed, and funded, so as to develop students’ creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial skills.

Some 32 postdoctoral, Master’s, PhD and MBA students from Wits and other institutions participated in the two-week course that consisted of lectures, group work and presentations. The students were divided into nine that set out to develop a new project or product that could potentially lead to the formation of real start-up companies.

On the last day of the course, the groups pitched their ideas to the panel of course instructors and experts.

Leveraging the local for global solutions

Group 6 with their project ProbiPep went about addressing the rapid emergence of antibiotic resistance pathogens that threatens the future efficacy of antibiotics crucial to human and animal medicine.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Taryn Adams explained that the prophylactic and excessive use of antibiotics in livestock and animal production is haphazardly addressing the diseases that impact the quality of animal health and life as well as the generating significant economic losses (especially for small scale farmers in South Africa).

“We as a team are passionate about leveraging local flora, fauna and microbial diversity to generate the next generation of highly efficient antimicrobials and reduce the impact of bacterial pathogens (especially antibiotic-resistant ones) in a sustainable and targeted manner while localising production as far as possible,” said Adams.

“The course has encouraged me to think of the commercial and social value of our research and technical expertise. There is significant need for researchers to ensure their work and subsequent innovations are addressing the right problems in the most appropriate manner.”

Taking on the big AD

Puseletso Manyaka, spokesperson for Group 2 named Fola Pharmaceuticals, said the team set out to work on a solution to treat the cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s Disease as the number of people who will suffer from this yet uncurable, rapid neurodegeneration disease is predicted rise to 80 million in the next seven years.

“The course has been amazing. Experts and mentors in biomedical engineering and innovation shared their knowledge and experience with us and we were introduced to the different aspects of innovation, business, presenting and pitching these ideas to sponsors  and investors. We have been given the necessary knowledge we need regarding innovation, its protection and it helps that institutions such as the Wits Innovation Centre are here to support and train innovators locally who can come up with great solutions for the world’s problems. What sets us apart is that there is so much support, opportunity and investment in our midst for innovation, so great inventions and ideas are definitely to come.”

Think, think, think

Group 8 with their project called Glucoview, tackled the problem of low affordability of Continuous Glucose Monitors and found a way to redesign them to make it far more affordable for diabetics.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Jacques Snyman said the biggest takeaway from the course is the process of design thinking and how this differs from the conventional scientific method.

“Where the scientific method is primarily focused on finding answers to questions, the design approach is primarily focused on finding solutions to people’s problems. The part of this that really stuck with me was the importance placed on focusing on the problem for an uncomfortably long time,” he said, explaining, ‘Once we identified a problem we wanted to solve, we spent an entire afternoon focusing on getting to the root of the problem. This made generating a solution much simpler and easier, as we were actually solving the cause of the problem, and not just a symptom of a deeper problem.”

This is only the start (up)

Dr Adam Pantanowitz, the Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation and first Director of the Wits Innovation Centre (WIC), said while the BIE course is the first one offered by the Centre, many teams associated with the WIC have been offering innovation courses.

“The WIC is also developing a PGDip in Innovation. We are also running a course for young entrepreneurs and innovators from across our community called the Prospector’s Course – it is also planned for this year and we will make those announcements soon,” he said.

The WIC aims to cultivate innovation on campus and working with innovators within the University is of utmost importance in its mission to develop this innovation mindset.

“It serves as a hub in the University’s innovation ecosystem that will enable a space to create, collaborate, and engage in impactful innovation, across disciplines and boundaries,” Pantanowitz said.

It offers Intellectual Property (IP) support (for patenting, agreements, and advice on commercialisation and partnerships), the establishment of industry partnerships, engagement with the Wits community, and various other activities to foster innovation.

“We're are reaching out for partnerships with various people, labs, and centres within the University, and have some exciting events coming up. We are also working on establishing and streamlining processes so that innovators at Wits can find the right path to achieve their visions,” he said.