South Africans are known to be innovators and inventors. A previous article mentioned several of the great ideas that have come out of this country. The Times Live website recently listed the Lodox full-body scanner as one of South Africa’s “Best flashes of genius”.
Innovation is more than simply recognising a need and then finding a potential and novel solution. That is only the first important step in the creative process, but often this is the point at which a great idea slowly dies. Innovation is about taking that idea to the next level and putting the solution into practice. This very often requires further research and refinements to the original idea. Unfortunately, research and development (R&D) come at a high price. For individuals and small companies or enterprises, diverting precious and limited resources into further R&D might not be feasible.
In 1991 the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) of the South African Government initiated a programme with the National Research Foundation (NRF) with the intention of creating “knowledge-based, internationally competitive South African industries”. This programme is known as the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP).
While small companies struggle to fund their own R&D, academics at higher educational institutions are often not interested in commercialising the outcomes of their own research. THRIP bridges this gap by providing funding that allows government – private sector partnerships that will develop the capacity of both industry and the research environment.
Private sector companies apply for the programme and commit funds towards the programme. Based on several factors, such as company size, BEE compliance, beneficiation for the community and development policies, the company receives a rating. This rating then determines the proportion of matching funding that the dti makes available to the company through the NRF. The funds are managed by an institution of higher education, such as a university or technikon. These funds – in the form of a monthly salary – are then made available to students who pursue research projects for the private sector company, culminating in a degree for the student, a research outcome for the company and usually several publications for the university.
Lodox Systems, as a small company, has gone this route. The company decided very early on that research was necessary in order to go from an X-ray scanner used in a security application on the De Beers Diamond mines to producing an X-ray scanner that could become the workhorse of busy trauma units, and later also the imaging modality of choice in mortuaries.
The UCT Lodox Programme is a THRIP collaboration between Lodox Systems and the University of Cape Town. The Lodox Programme enables students to complete a research project, which typically forms part of the requirements for a degree, on topics that are of particular interest to Lodox Systems, mainly in the field of biomedical engineering.
From 2000 to 2004, the Lodox Programme was supported by the Innovation Fund, a Department of Science and Technology (DST) initiative which was mandated to promote technological innovation through investment in late-stage research and development. The first THRIP grant was awarded to the Lodox Programme in 2005. Since 2000, a total of 23 postgraduate, one MPhil, one BSc(Hons) and eight BScEng students have graduated through the programme. In addition, several vacation students have done work at UCT or at Lodox Systems, and a DST/NRF intern has spent a year at UCT working in the Lodox Programme.
The Lodox Programme also created a post for a research radiographer and five of the graduates through the programme were employed at Lodox at one time or another. Thus, the programme has been involved in job creation while furthering the skills of the particular incumbents.
To date, 19 publications in peer-reviewed journals have come out of the THRIP-funded Lodox Programme. Several papers have also been published in peer-reviewed conference proceedings, and a chapter was published in a technical book.
In addition, three patents, which stemmed from research into particular engineering challenges, have been awarded to Lodox Systems.
The Lodox Programme is a win-win situation for Lodox Systems, the students, and the University. The company benefits from R&D at a modest investment of funds. The research is published in peer-reviewed journals, thus furthering knowledge and validating the technical claims about the Lodox product. The students receive experience solving real-life engineering problems with exposure to industry while earning a small salary, and most complete research required for their degree. The University benefits as it is supported in the provision of postgraduate education and in the production of research outputs.
Thus, a modest investment started by Lodox a bit more than a decade ago has yielded rich results in terms of scientific outputs and skills transfers. In a quiet way the Lodox Programme has been investing in skilled professionals of the future.