00:00:22 – Role of life sciences companies in South Africa
00:02:05 – Importance of sustainable innovation in South Africa
00:04:55 – Examples of sustainable innovation in South African life sciences industry
00:10:37 – Challenges for South African life sciences companies in relation to sustainable innovation
00:14:33 – Advice for South African life sciences companies


Sustainable innovation is where a business considers and looks at different organisational and technological innovations within the business that can provide benefits not only to the business itself and the operational aspects of the business, but also to the environment or to society. Life sciences companies are particularly well suited to sustainable innovation, and South Africa, like the rest of Africa, is well placed to take advantage of these kinds of technologies.

In this podcast, Joanne van Harmelen explores the obstacles and opportunities relating to sustainable innovation for South African life sciences companies. For a write-up of the podcast, see below.

00:00:22 – Role of life sciences companies in South Africa

It is an incredibly topical thing at the moment, sustainable innovation. South Africa, like the rest of Africa, is well placed to take advantage of these kinds of technologies. One of the things that we tend to see often in South Africa is there are disruptive technologies coming out that are making cheaper, more relevant and more accessible products for the local market.

Often you see a kind of leapfrogging happening on existing technologies where – because these existing technologies have arisen out of other territories and are available "new" in South Africa – South African businesses are able to look at these types of technologies and plug them into where benefits can be obtained through things like sustainable innovation.

The other big thing that one is focused on when looking at South African innovation is how one can provide support and benefits for local communities. The types of things that we tend to be seeing are:

  • job opportunities being created;
  • community education and training being provided; and
  • access to essential services and medicines.

The life sciences companies really plug into these spaces very well in sustainable innovation.

00:02:05 – Importance of sustainable innovation in South Africa

First, we need to identify or define what we consider to be "sustainable innovation". Sustainable innovation is where a business actually considers and looks at different organisational and technological innovations within the business that can provide benefits not only to the business itself and the operational aspects of the business, but also to the environment or to society. You end up with things like:

  • responsible and sustainable use of natural resources;
  • innovative recycling; and
  • upcycling of waste products.

As a result, you tend to have:

  • a reduction in the inputs that are required by the business;
  • more efficient processes;
  • better products;
  • more improved products; and
  • reduced waste products, or recycled or upcycled waste products.

Altogether, this amounts to cost savings for the business and also, potentially, the generation of additional resources.

It has been seen that companies that are either built on business models that deal with sustainable innovation or ones that are able to adapt early to a sustainable business model will often have a competitive advantage because of these things – these cost savings and the generation of revenues.

In the context of South Africa, where we have this incredible dichotomy of wealth and social development, some of the challenges that we see are that:

  • the largest proportion of the population is poor;
  • there is a very high disease burden;
  • there is a general lack of infrastructure in many places;
  • there are issues around public services and service delivery; and
  • there are issues with roads, schools and Internet connectivity, a lot of the time.

But of course, like in the rest of Africa, in South Africa, wherever there are challenges, there is also innovation and we are seeing that here. Some of the things that we are seeing in South Africa is that our businesses are quite quick to grasp and utilise some of these innovative sustainable business processes and technologies to solve some of these problems. We are also seeing new start-up companies that are establishing in South Africa that have some really innovative disruptive technologies.

These are being used to provide access to things like these essential services to healthcare and education, to provide for upliftment and support of the local communities. Overall, one hopes that it will ultimately result in a reduction in poverty and a better quality of life in South Africa.

00:04:55 – Examples of sustainable innovation in South African life sciences industry

There are some really exciting, sustainable and often disruptive technologies that are happening in South Africa. Many of these are actually start-up companies.

There is a company called them Mzansi Meat, which has developed a process for producing cell-cultured cultivated meat products. The idea is that instead of using real meat products, one can turn to the laboratory to produce cultivated meat products so that you have less intensive agriculture. It uses less land and less water, and ultimately the hope is that production costs will come down to the point where production is actually less costly, and of course, it is environmentally friendly and sustainable. It lends itself to some funky new ideas, like perhaps using game products – from meat biopsies from game – to provide zebra, kudu or gemsbok burgers and meatballs, which is something that often people would not necessarily encounter because it is not that easy to get hold of.

Another example is Cape Bio Pharms. This is a company that was established in Cape Town in South Africa and they have developed a technology to produce recombinant proteins in plants. One of the things that we have seen, particularly with the advent of covid-19, is that vaccine development, obviously in South African and other developing country contexts, has been quite challenging. It is not just a matter of access to patents, it is also a matter of getting the resources – the raw materials – in a cheap and logistically possible way.

What Cape Bio Pharms has done is looked at producing some of the reagent materials that are required in that vaccine production chain, where they are producing them in plants. Their tagline is that they are doing it in plants and that they are doing it cheaper, better and faster than the traditional animal-based type systems where these kinds of therapeutic proteins or reagent proteins are produced.

Azargen is another company, also in Cape Town, which is involved in similar plant-based protein technology. It certainly seems like, in South Africa, that kind of plant-based disruptive technology is something that is quite popular.

We also have a company called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines. They are, quite famously, the company in South Africa that has a partnership with the World Health Organization and the Medicines Patent Pool to look at the production of messenger ribonucleic acid vaccines for covid-19 through technology transfer from the Medicines Patent Pool. This is a kind of ecosystem that is being developed with Afrigen at the core and they are looking at working together with other local companies for upscaled manufacturing and that sort of thing, including Biovac, which is a South African vaccine manufacturing company in Cape Town.

Then there is Abalobi, which was spun out of the University of Cape Town. They have got some really interesting modular technologies which are online, that link fishers and buyers or restaurants who are looking for fish and provides a traceable documented link between the fish being caught and the restaurant. You have very fair and very transparent supply chains and it benefits the community because there is a link to how much fish they are catching and what income they are getting. As a result of this documented income, for the fishers, it has led to them being able to get things like a loans and open bank accounts and things like that, which before was quite difficult for them. It has been a real upliftment for those fishers in the community to provide benefits like that.

In terms of digital health platforms, we have seen in South Africa, a lot of digital platforms that have arisen around things like telemedicine, the patient and public health data storage. There are apps that deal with things like medical triage, where in rural settings it basically provides support for the nurse who does not necessarily have a doctor working with her to provide triage solutions. There are also systems for e-learning, for health workers that have been developed.

We have seen also with the high burden of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis (TB) in South Africa that a lot of systems that have been used to manage the vaccination or the treatment with drugs of HIV and TB, those systems have been put in place that are in a digital mechanism as well – that has been very beneficial.

We also seeing things like:

  • digital-health-enabled diagnostics;
  • supply chain management for medicines; and
  • diagnostic kit readers that are integrated into cloud-based smart reader systems that are being used in South Africa as well as some of the other southern African countries.

There are quite a lot of examples of some exciting sustainable innovations or disruptive technologies that we are seeing in South Africa.

00:10:37 – Challenges for South African life sciences companies in relation to sustainable innovation

One of the biggest challenges is just how to facilitate your company's growth when it comes to sustainable innovation, particularly in the context where a lot of these kinds of relationships are collaborative in nature. One of the key things that we see with sustainable innovation and is interesting is that where you have sustainable innovation, you have typically better-quality types of innovation and often the types of intellectual property that are filed in the form of patents are much higher than companies that that are not into sustainable innovation.

What is strange to see in South Africa, and in fact in the rest of the continent, is that this increase in sustainable innovative technologies that is being adopted does not seem to be relating to higher local patent filings. For example, if we take the HIV, TB and malaria patent filings, we have got a really high prevalence in Africa of those infectious diseases. Yet, despite that, less than 0.2% of the patents that relate to these infectious diseases are owned by African entities. In South Africa, only about 8% of the total patent applications that are filed in South Africa were actually filed by South Africans. The rest were all filed by foreigners.

One of the issues here is to try and encourage the protection of local intellectual property. Some of the challenges there are things like the high cost that is associated with enforcement of intellectual property. In South Africa, if you need to enforce your intellectual property, you have to do it in the High Court, which of course leads to long delays and high costs. Also, if you are looking at an international portfolio, there is also a high cost there as well. In South Africa, we do not really have a properly cohesive system to provide for support and protection of IP rights or for the development of these local products when we actually get to the point of successful commercialisation. We are particularly lacking in early-stage project funding, so we really are needing more support from local entities and local government to be able to provide for a reliance on IP protection and commercialisation of these products.

When we think about these challenges, one of the things which we seem to be seeing more and more often because of the cost associated with the registered IP rights is that a lot of these entities that are looking at sustainable innovation in South Africa are turning to non-statutory forms of IP protection. They will focus on things like protection of trade secrets and confidential information, or they will look at things like non-registered trademark rights. The problem with this, of course, is that there is an underlying risk when you are looking at these non-statutory forms of protection. For example, with trade secrets, if you do not file a patent application, there is the risk that a third party might independently develop a similar technology to you and you would not be able to stop them.

Because there is this overarching thread of collaboration being one of the core principles in driving sustainable innovation, obviously you need to consider how you are going to deal with ownership of intellectual property in that kind of collaborative environment. This sort of thing needs to be thought about and considered up front. Businesses need to be more proactive about how they are going to manage and protect their intellectual property, particularly if there are non-registered forms of intellectual property like trade secrets and non-registered trademarks.

00:14:33 – Advice for South African life sciences companies

The most important thing to do is to understand that intellectual property is an important part of the business and to, where possible, develop strategies in terms of protection of your intellectual property.

Even if it is not registered intellectual property, it is really important to consider mechanisms to protect those unregistered rights, perhaps in the form of trade secrets within the business, so that where you are collaborating with other parties, you make sure that you are able to protect those rights and keep them secret where necessary.

Because intellectual property is such a useful leverage when one is dealing with collaborators, it is an important thing to consider. This is not only to identify, when you are in a collaborative relationship, who owns what, so that you know if you can actually commercialise, but it can also be used to encourage collaboration. You can say to third parties, look, we have got intellectual property in this particular space, we are strong in this and we would really like to collaborate with you. It provides you with credibility to work with them and potentially leverage some cross-licensing of technology.

In sustainable innovation, because you have such a lot of collaboration and so many opportunities for collaboration, this becomes really important. South African companies need to consider very carefully how they are going to protect their own intellectual property and develop strategies to do that, particularly if it is unregistered intellectual property.

Two examples in terms of the types of collaborative relationships where intellectual property was able to be leveraged:

In the first case, the University of Cape Town (UCT) was involved in an HIV vaccine development programme, and they were working with a number of overseas companies and wanted to make sure that:

  • the technology that was being used by the overseas companies in terms of actual vaccine manufacturing could be made available to UCT; and
  • if there was in fact a successful HIV vaccine developed, that there would be some mechanism to leverage affordable access to medicine.

What UCT did was they protected their component of the intellectual property by patents so that when dealing with the overseas collaborators, they were able to leverage that and actually have tech transfer happen. They also put clauses into those agreements where it was set up that if there was a successful vaccine, the production would be made and the access to that particular vaccine would be done in an affordable way for South Africa. That is an important part of intellectual property and shows how important intellectual property can be.

The other example is with regards to the Mzansi Meat collaboration, where – because it is cell-culture-based technology and there are a lot of proteins that go into that, which can be very expensive (likewise, you could use the example of Cape Bio Pharms, where you are dealing with the vaccine production scenario; a lot of those raw materials are really expensive) – in order to tap into that collaborative, sustainable innovation environment, one of the things that you can do is start to produce the raw materials, those proteins that go into the later systems – for example:

  • growth hormones that go into the meat production system; or
  • antibodies that are used for diagnostic kits that are going to be used in testing in the vaccine scenario.

When you are dealing with those sorts of things, again, you have to very carefully consider what intellectual property belongs to you and what intellectual property belongs to the person you are providing your services to. By protecting your intellectual property, it provides you with a leverage and setting that sort of a collaboration up.

These are some of the advantages of intellectual property protection and that is probably the key piece of advice I would give to life sciences companies – to make sure that they look at their IP protection.

For further information on this topic please contact Joanne van Harmelen at ENSafrica by telephone (+27 21 410 2500) or email ([email protected]). The ENSafrica website can be accessed at