Global Health Biotech: bridging the gap between science and business
By Catherine Jewell, Information and Digital Outreach Division, WIPO
Professor Keolebogile Shirley Motaung is a biomedical scientist and Director of Technology Transfer and Innovation at the Durban University of Technology in South Africa. In 2015, based on her own scientific exploration into the use of medicinal plants in tissue engineering of bone and cartilage, Professor Motaung founded Global Health Biotech (PTY) Ltd.
Professor Motaung's passion for biomedical research and its commercialization has won her many top awards in South Africa for bridging the gap between science and entrepreneurship. In 2020, for example, she was awarded the Shining Light Award for Science and Technology from the Motsepe Foundation. And in 2018, she won the Research for Innovation Award of the National Science and Technology Forum and also was voted Most Innovative Woman of the Year at the Gauteng Women of Excellence Awards. Professor Motaung discusses why it is so important to help ensure that university research translates into products and services that build new businesses and create employment.
What prompted you to start researching plant-based remedies to treat musculoskeletal injuries?
I have always had an interest in science and the musculoskeletal system and was curious to see how the medicinal plants that make up South Africa's rich floral heritage could be used to heal musculoskeletal inflammation and injuries. In 2010, my mother was diagnosed with osteoarthritis (OA), also known as degenerative arthritis. It's a common condition that affects millions of people around the world and occurs most commonly in the knees, hips, lower back, the neck, small joints of the fingers and the base of the thumb. In my mother’s case, it was in her knees. Joint replacement (arthroplasty) is the recommended treatment for late-stage OA, but because the waiting lists for such operations in South African government hospitals are long, patients often have to live with chronic pain for years. My mother had to wait for four years before getting an appointment for knee surgery. By then, her condition had deteriorated so much that surgery was no longer an option. So, I wanted to find a way to alleviate the suffering that patients with OA have to endure.
And what prompted you to set up Global Health Biotech?
I had always dreamed of translating my research into a commercial asset. Setting up Global Health Biotech was an opportunity to do that. My own scientific research convinced me that medicinal plants could be used to engineer and regenerate bone tissue and cartilage. During my research I worked very closely with Dr. Johannah Mpilu, a traditional healer, and two doctoral students, who have since qualified, Dr. Makwese Maepa and Dr. Mapula Razwinani, and together we set up the company and developed our natural anti-inflammatory ointment, La-Africa Soother .
Two key factors drove me to set up the company. First, I wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to turn scientific ideas into commercial assets by setting up a spin-off from the University. And second, while I want to teach my students how to do research and become scientists, I also want to teach them how to become entrepreneurs. And by setting up Global Health Biotech, I was able to bring Dr. Makwese Maepa and Dr. Mapula Razwinani into the company, so they too could learn how to become entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your products.
Our top-selling product is a plant-based anti-inflammatory topical ointment called La-Africa Soother (LAS), which relieves muscle aches and joint pain. It is widely used by athletes, fitness enthusiasts and other physically active people. It is applied both before and after physical activity to prevent any anticipated muscle aches and pains. Unlike other similar products, it focuses on prevention rather than cure.
These days, universities depend on government subsidies. That needs to change. Governments need to encourage universities to commercialize the IP that flows from their research.
We are also developing a plant-based morphogenetic factor (PBMF) implant to heal damaged bone and cartilage tissue. It offers an alternative treatment to repair bone fractures, OA and other damaged bone and cartilage tissue. The medicinal plants we use are freeze-dried (lyophilized) and converted into an injectable biomaterial, which medics can use to treat bone and cartilage defects at precise locations. PBMF is currently undergoing animal studies. It augments new bone formation and heals bones quickly and painlessly without the need for painful operations. And it is affordable. We anticipate that its use will help lower the number of patients requiring surgery and reduce hospital waiting lists.
At what stage did you realize that intellectual property was important?
From the outset, it was clear that intellectual property (IP) would be central to Global Health Biotech's future. IP was the basis of the agreement with the University to spin-off the company. Since then, we have also licensed a technology from Stellenbosch University to develop a vegan-friendly protein shake, which reduces inflammation – it promises to be a more effective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and with fewer side effects. The fact that the University covered the patent fees and I have been able to license it at a much lower cost has really assisted our business. Of course, IP is also central to the company's marketing strategy; our registered trademark enables us to build brand recognition and expand our customer base.
Why is it important for universities and researchers to have a focus on the market?
These days, universities depend on government subsidies. That needs to change. Governments need to encourage universities to commercialize the IP that flows from their research. The IP portfolios of most major research universities are bursting with wonderful products, yet the majority of these inventions go nowhere because there are no qualified professionals to take them to market. That's why I am working to change the way we write research proposals. Of course, it's great that researchers publish their work, but it's also important that they think about how their work can benefit the community and create jobs both for themselves and others. In the past, we have given precedence to academic excellence, only for our best students to join the ranks of the unemployed. Now, we need to motivate them to create marketable products and services from their research, so they generate benefits for themselves and the community.
How exactly are you working to change the mindset within the university and among students?
I am happy to say that Durban University of Technology is fully on board with my approach. It's in line with the University's commitment and ENVISION 2030 to make knowledge work. As for the students, I have developed a more business-oriented framework for research proposals, for example, by substituting "background" and "justification" for "business concept". And in place of defining the research problem, I suggest they define their "value proposition". This encourages the students to think about the problem they want to solve, how well their proposed solution meets customer needs and how it is unique or better than existing offerings. I have also included market analysis (so they start thinking about target market, partners and competitors, etc.) as well as financial projections and IP to get them thinking about how they are going to make money out of their work. And in place of progress reports, I expect my students to focus on the evolution of their business concept and issues like the structure of their business, branding, networking, marketing and sales, as well as operational questions. But of course, we also need to create room for them to fail and help them develop a plan B when things don't work out.
I am a strong advocate of training research students to be entrepreneurs.
The traditional way of doing university research lacks this entrepreneurial focus. I am a strong advocate of training research students to be entrepreneurs.
What more can universities do to boost commercialization of research?
Universities need to cultivate a different mindset among faculty staff. They need to start building entrepreneurship into the curriculum, so as undergraduates, students learn how to approach their postgraduate research. Universities also need to enable students to commercialize their ideas, through flexible and preferential licensing programs, for example. Other important steps include establishing a business incubator to help students commercialize their ideas and actively encouraging researchers to partner with industry and small businesses. Of course, if research funders were to prioritize research with potential for commercialization, that would really drive the change we need to see.
When developing their IP policies, universities need a clear view of what is going to happen to the technology resulting from research. It's not enough to simply acquire patents. They need to actively license those patented technologies and create opportunities for research students to access them and take them to the market. That will enable them to make a business out of their research, scale-up production and even developit further. This is extremely important given the current economic situation and high levels of unemployment.
It's great that researchers publish their work, but it's also important that they think about how their work can benefit the community and create jobs both for themselves and others.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating the company?
Securing funding was by far the biggest challenge. Thankfully, the company is now a Level 1 Broadbased Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE)-certified enterprise, which means it is 100 percent black owned. The process of registering our products with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) was also tedious. It took a long time to get final approval. While plant-based, our products are the result of intensive research and development and rigorous safety and efficacy tests, which, of course, are an extremely important part of the process.
How are you marketing your products?
Our LAS ointment is available online via our website and Instagram. It is also available from selected gyms. It's been very well received and orders are coming in. That's why we recently appointed a sales manager to expand our marketing activities.
What are the main lessons you have learned on your business journey?
First, it can take a long time to take a product to market. I also learned that there is a huge difference between presenting research data and pitching a business proposal to investors. I have learned many business skills, from how to raise funds and negotiate to sales. And of course, the importance of pure determination and perseverance cannot be overstated.
Second, universities need to change the way they train postgraduate students to ensure that research translates into products and services that benefit society and contribute to the national economy.
When developing their IP policies, universities need a clear view of what is going to happen to the technology resulting from research. It's not enough to simply acquire patents. They need to actively license those patented technologies and create opportunities for research students to access them and take them to the market.
And third, the templates for writing research proposals need to become more business oriented and to include considerations like value proposition and market segment.
What advice do you have for other SMEs when it comes to IP?
SMEs can license IP from universities, and those that do can perform better when they adopt a "scientific" approach to making key decisions. This enables them to create hypotheses, test them, and then decide whether to proceed, change or abandon an idea on the basis of probability estimates that flag the commercial potential of their idea. Most of all, take criticism with a pinch of salt and follow your dream.
What are your plans for the future?
My goal is for our products to be available globally and, in particular, to lower- and middle-income communities. I want Global Health Biotech to be a leading global provider of clinically proven and affordable plant-based products to treat musculoskeletal injuries.
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