By George Achia

Universities and research institutes have been under immense pressure to take on an important role in economic and social development by producing technologies and inventions that can be taken up and commercialized by the private sector to help address societal problems.

The expectations of the universities and research institutes to play a central role in the new knowledge economy emanates from the continued demand for social relevance exerted on the universities by policymakers and other stakeholders to produce “more useful research” to become more entrepreneurial and build linkages with private sector.

Furthermore, the society often looks for guidance from universities and research institutes for help in addressing all sorts of ills plaguing the society, from diseases to human conflicts.

The Kenya Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy regime is underpinned by the assumption that universities and public research institutes (PRIs) should generate knowledge and technologies for eventual uptake and commercialization by the private sector.

This assumption is informed by the cooperative technology paradigm, which in its broadest sense is seen as a set of values emphasizing on the cooperation amongst various actors notably, government, universities and the private sector. It is largely assumed that knowledge, technologies and innovations are generated at the universities and/or research institutes who then transfer them to the private sector and/or industry, which then absorbs and turns it into products and services that drive the economy

But have Kenyan universities and public research institutes lived up to this expectation?

According to research findings by Scinnovent Centre, a Nairobi-based policy and development think tank, based on patents, utility models and industrial designs applications and grants processed by the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI) over the period between 1990 – 2013, does not seem to support the assumption of “universities make, industry takes” that underpins the current Kenya’s STI policy framework.

Instead, the evidence seem to point to the contrary, with companies and individuals (private sector actors) outperforming the universities and public research institutes both in numbers of patents, utility models and industrial designs filed and granted over this period.

According to the study by Scinnovent Centre titled In Pursuit of the Third Mission: Universities and public research institutes as progenitors of technology and innovation in Kenya, the companies filed 312 patents of the 1148 national patents in Kenya, out of which 87 were granted representing 54.7% of the total national patents granted. Individual inventors filed 543 applications and got 43 patents granted, representing 27.0% of the total national patents granted during this period.

Public research institutes filed 48 applications and was granted 6 patents, which represents 3.8% of the total national patents granted. Universities and other learning institutions fi led 45 patents, and were granted 3 patents, which is 1.9% of the total national patents granted. In total, some 81.7% of all the patents have been granted to private sector actors (companies and individuals) while universities and public research institutes have only been granted 5.7% of the patents during this period

This trend is reflected on the intensity of applications/filings of the patents. Individual applicants filed 47.3% of all the patents while companies filed 27.2% giving a total of private sector applications of 74.5% as compared to the universities applications of 3.9% and public research institutes 4.2% giving 8.1% of all the applications emanating from universities and public research institutes.

The dismal performance by the universities and public research institutes could be explained by several factors, including the state of infrastructure, the institutional environment for research and innovation, the policies and reward systems, the institutional intellectual property (IP) policies amongst other.

This is a worrying trend among the universities and public research institutes if their role of producing technologies and inventions that can be taken up and commercialized by the private sector to help address societal problems through patents and IP is to hold on.

To stimulate the performance of universities and research institutes in patent application, Dr. Maurice Bolo, Scinnovent Centre’s director, suggests the need to introduce competitive ranking and performance-based research funding to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

According to him, the current funding model where every university gets block funds from the government regardless of their performance and contribution to national development goals should be replaced with a performance-based funding model informed by a competitive ranking criterion that weighs the universities achievements in all the three missions: teaching, research and commercialization/community service.

The authors further suggest that there is need for enhanced support for entrepreneurial partnerships between universities and local businesses.

“A key role for universities and research institutes should be to take responsibility for the translation of their research and accelerate its uptake and use,” says Dr. Bolo, adding that while the universities and public research institutes are seen as the fulcrum of knowledge generation, other actors in the innovation system, including the private sector, local communities and individuals also generate useful knowledge which could inform research activities at the universities.

However, building lasting partnerships as a means of harnessing the knowledge base at the universities and research institutes to support innovation that responds to social and economic needs is problematic.

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