By TAMAR KAHN
The agency receives its third unqualified audit option in an impressive operational turnaround; now it’s looking for funding
The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) has received an unqualified audit opinion for the third year in a row, suggesting it has made a clean break with its troubled past.
TIA was launched in 2009 in an attempt to improve the rate at which local research is turned into commercial products and services, and is the government’s key funding mechanism for stimulating technological innovation. It initially struggled to merge the seven institutions that fell under its mantle, and then ran into serious governance issues.
TIA’s first head, Simphiwe Duma, was fired for gross misconduct in the wake of a Deloitte forensic investigation, which found a TIA-funded project had been housed on land owned by the then board chairperson, Mamphela Ramphele.
TIA’s 2016-17 annual report, tabled in Parliament earlier this month, shows it not only received a clean bill of health from its auditors but also improved its internal systems, including its processes for assessing scheduled grant applications.
Its turnaround time for investment calls has been reduced to just more than three months, a significant improvement on its previous timeline of between 12 and 18 months. “We are now trying to improve our turnaround time for unsolicited applications,” said TIA CEO, Barlow Manilal.
TIA was only able to fund about a tenth of the applications it received due to budget constraints, and was looking to the private sector to form partnerships to augment its reach, Manilal said. In the year under review, TIA received R464m from the Department of Science and Technology, but was able to disburse R599m by drawing on its savings.
“TIA was previously accumulating cash in the bank,” said Manilal. “We would like to double our budget to R1bn, but the fiscus is strained. It is not an easy task at the moment. We are looking at how we can collaborate with the private sector [to fund more projects].”
TIA facilitated the commercialisation of 21 innovations in the year under review, compared to just nine in 2015-16. It supported promising initiatives ranging from an ozone-based plant sanitiser, developed by start-up ArcAqua; to fly farms that convert organic waste into animal feed protein, operated by AgriProtein Technologies. Other commercial ventures highlighted in the annual report include Future Fynbos, which breeds new varieties of fynbos flowers; and Rubber Nano Products, which makes co-activators for rubber manufacturing.
TIA incorporates the Department of Trade and Industry’s Innovation Fund, the Tshumisano Trust, Biopad, the Cape Biotech Trust, PlantBio, LifeLab, and its Advanced Manufacturing Strategy unit.