First TIA seed funding for Unisa inventions

For the first time in Unisa’s history, the national Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) has awarded seed funding for the development of Unisa inventions with commercialisation potential. In all, TIA is providing R1,36 million in seed funding for four innovations.

“This is great news for Unisa as it means we are making progress with our strategy to promote innovation and prove the potential of Unisa technologies,” says Ayanda Noma, director of Innovation and Technology Transfer. His directorate, DITT, worked closely with the inventors concerned.

The four inventions are the waste beer recovery project of PhD student Craig Groeneveld, the floatation device of the “I-SET Angels” and their mentor, Computer Science lecturer Patricia Gouws, the high-performance lithium batteries of Dr Xinying Liu, and a waste water treatment solution that uses magnetic nanoparticles, invented by professors Wei Ho and Vijaya Vallabhapurapu.

The inventors say the TIA money will help them take their innovations to the next stage in the commercialisation process—meaning it will assist them turn their ideas or concepts into commercial reality.

Six young girls float a bright idea

Of the R1,36 million in grant funding, the biggest slice, R500 000, is earmarked for the floatation device of the I-SET Angels. The ISET Angels is a group of six young girls from Pretoria and Tembisa who are part of I-SET, the flagship community engagement project of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. (I-SET, led by lecturer Patricia Gouws, stands for “Inspired towards Science, Engineering and Technology”).

Gouws says the I-SET Angels developed the floatation device concept as part of their research in the 2013 FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) competition, when they had to consider solutions to problems linked to natural disasters. Their device, called the “Mkhukhu Float”, is constructed from plastic bottles and similar lightweight materials, and is designed to keep structures and other objects above the water during flooding.

Reducing waste in the brewing of beer

The next largest TIA grant, for R360 000, will enable Craig Groeneveld, a PhD student at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, to develop his waste beer recovery invention, which is already protected by a South African provisional patent.

“The TIA award allows me to build a prototype and prove the concept that beer recovery, ultraviolet C photosterilisation and re-fermentation will yield great-tasting beer,” says Groeneveld, a master brewer whose invention could potentially result in significant savings for breweries and stop vast amounts of water being wasted during the brewing process.

The attractions of magnetic nanoparticles

R300 000 in TIA funding will go towards developing the waste water treatment process—also protected by a provisional patent—of Professor Wei Ho and Professor Vijaya Vallabhapurapu of the Department of Physics in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. It uses magnetic nanoparticles to remove impurities from water, and potentially other fluids.

“Fluid treatment using magnetic nanoparticles has been developed for quite a while now and has proven to be useful; however, there hasn’t been any established system for its utilisation. Our prototype utilises the magnetic nature of the nanoparticles to agitate and move them around, thus removing the harmful impurities,” Ho says. “The prototype does not have any moving parts and has so far been proven to be comparable or even better than other conventional lab-sized systems.”

Vallabhapurapu says the seed funding from TIA will bring this invention closer to commercialisation by enabling the duo to build a more advanced prototype and to explore other applications, such as in biochemistry.

Better batteries

The last recipient, Dr Xinying Liu of MaPS, the Materials and Process Synthesis unit at the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, is receiving R200 000 from TIA to develop his invention, high-performance lithium batteries. He was not available for comment when news broke of the TIA grant funding as he was travelling abroad at the time.

Says Noma: “The TIA funding, which is not repayable, will give the university the opportunity to explore the commercial potential of our technologies.”

*Submitted by Virginia McManus