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Commercialising scientific research findings: A tool for economic transformation

BY: Michael Bremfi
The writer
The writer

The recent announcement by the President to dedicate one per cent  of our gross domestic product (GDP) to research is a welcoming one. My expectation was met when he clarified that the “research fund was for the sole purpose of funding relevant and certain specific research works in tertiary institutions”.

However, research results do not do much good if they stay on the shelves. Someone has to take such findings to the marketplace before it becomes beneficial to mankind.

While some of these findings have become fundamental to human survival, others have become multi-billion-dollar industries, making their host countries the economic and financial powerhouse in the world.

Basic research simply seeks to add to the body of knowledge, but a scientist may also offer practical solutions to problems by engaging in applied/demand-driven research. For instance, applied research may seek to develop new medicines and vaccines, etc.

The missing link

Although Ghana has science and technology universities with thousands of research projects conducted each year, most of the results remain on the shelves whilst these could have been translated into meaningful goods and services.

 This article, therefore, highlights the need for research institutions to make commercialisation of scientific research findings a top priority to achieve immense financial and economic benefits capable of transforming our economy.

Pathways to commercialisation of scientific research findings

There are several forms of converting scientific research findings from ‘letters’ into ‘liquid’, but technology transfer and licensing have been the widely used routes.

In technology transfer, researchers may develop a novel technology for developing a product or rendering a service but sell it to a different firm, for the latter to utilise this technology for product development, improvement or service delivery. For Ghana’s universities to effectively execute technology transfer and make very good financial gains, they must have excellent network with industrial and investment partners.

A research institution may also obtain licence for commercialising an innovation by setting up a start-up company and utilising this innovation to develop commercially viable goods and services by itself.
 
The debate

There have been arguments as to whether research institutions should bother themselves at all with commercialising their findings instead of focusing on research.

While some argue that researchers should concentrate on knowledge generation, proponents argue that the time has come for research institutions to stop depending on the government’s scanty financial support and generate income internally through research commercialisation.

Reasons for commercialising research findings

Elsewhere in the world, academic research commercialisation is transforming economies. In a 2015 report of the Association of University Technology Managers’ in the United States of America (USA), research institutions earned over a whopping US$37 billion dollars in licensing of findings while nearly 11,000 start-up companies were created around these findings.
 
Obviously, Ghanaian researchers and their respective institutions stand to earn huge monetary returns if they are able to channel their results to suitable business partners.

Second, the teeming population of unemployed Ghanaians will be gainfully employed when start-up companies spring up from the commercialisation of research results. The aggregate effect will be an improvement in Ghana’s GDP.

Again, according to the World Health Organisation, one’s physical environment, recreation and leisure are indicators of a person’s quality of life. Commercialising innovation will stimulate the production of such items to improve our quality of life.

Challenges to research commercialisation

After a critical observation, I consider the underlisted as barriers which need to be dealt with.
 
Poor commitment

I sought to find out to what extent research institutions in Ghana were committed to this concept of commercialising research findings. Unfortunately, there were very few universities which had technology transfer offices, unlike in all the western universities where one could find “Office of Technology Transfer”.

Moreover, it was not until 2003 that the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) implemented the commercialisation of research findings, having incorporated the concept in 1996. It is obvious that the research community has not taken this concept seriously.    

There are, however, some success stories. Notable among them is the continuous commercialisation drive by the Centre for Plant Medicine Research at Mampong Akwapim. It has since the year 2000 researched and developed products for top businesses especially in the health and beverages industries, which continue to yield tremendous results.

A product for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) prepared by the centre


 Commercial viability of research

The question is, how many of the studies undertaken in our universities can attract commercial interest from potential investors? And how smart can we take advantage of the few that promise to be commercially viable?

I believe the time has come for a paradigm shift towards marketable scientific research that will also transform our economy rather than for promotions.

Intellectual property in Ghana

Although the Bayh-Dhole Act of 1980 is widely accepted as a guide to issues of intellectual property, many researchers and businesses are still sceptical about intellectual property in technology transfer and licensing.

While some researchers fundamentally get it all wrong from the initial stages of licensing innovation, others just want to avoid the lengthy legal battles in determining who actually owns an innovation.

This has led to the ‘premature death’ of many contractual agreements involving technology transfer, whilst the very few surviving ones are fraught with issues of royalty.

It is, therefore, imperative to take advantage of the government’s commitment and generate adequate returns by commercialising research findings to help transform our economy.
                    
The writer is the Commercial Manager, Centre for Plant Medicine Research, Mampong Akwapim

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