Wits innovation changing the world for good

Date:1 August 2022 Author: Rienk De Beer

Wits University is home to a wellspring of talent from multiple disciplines where life-changing innovation is incubated. This article features some of the solutions from students and academics as they respond to real issues facing people, communities and economies. 

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the Director of Innovation Strategy at Wits describes innovation as the successful deployment of new ideas, inventions, or methods, that benefit society, with a strong emphasis on collaboration and multi-disciplinarity, across sectors. “By breaking down silos, we can work across disciplines to find solutions to the major challenges that confront humanity,” he says.

One of the standout solutions is Pelebox, an invention to cut down the time that patients spend waiting for medication in hospitals. Wits innovator, Neo Hutiri, invented digital lockers to reduce the time that patients spend waiting for repeat chronic medication from three hours to less than two minutes. His work fixes a problem that he experienced, as a patient himself, who was needing regular TB medication in South Africa.  

“In complex countries like South Africa, riddled with limitations and constraints, disruption alone is not enough, says Hutiri. “Designing technology without paying attention to our local context will result in failure. The Pelebox induces creativity and shapes our frugal, relevant and context driven innovations in a highly local approach that our team calls the “Think Inside” principle.”

Also in the medical field, a solution known as SmartSpot consistently improves the accuracy of TB testing. Used on all 289 GeneXpert testing instruments in the national TB programme since 2011, over the duration of a year, it showed that 2.6% of the TB tests were inaccurate, and that test modules needed replacing. Their inventions are approved by the World Health Organization and are used in many countries around the world.

The SmartSpot innovation was developed by a team of scientists from Wits, led by Professor Wendy Stevens and Professor Lesley Scott in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Haematology, in collaboration with Professor Bavesh Kana from the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research.  

PeCo Power is a third example of innovation sparked at Wits that is positively changing the lives of people daily. This homegrown electrical off-grid solar solution for local communities enables the easy integration of renewable energy sources, along with batteries and appliances, for the electrification of households in Africa. 

Originated and developed in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, this innovation is finding its way into rural and un-serviced communities, with the promise of deep social impact. PeCo Power is also a prime example of the commercial viability and realisation of innovation – in the form of operational enterprises – being unearthed at the University. 

“These are all multidisciplinary projects with research impact which span multiple sectors, involve elements of entrepreneurship and commercialisation and advance the public good,” adds Dwolatzky. He adds that collaboration is key to finding such solutions. 

He points out that the climate crisis is a case in point. “We need the scientists and climatologists to help us better understand how our natural environment is changing and to model future scenarios, we need the social scientists to explain the effect of climate change on people and how behaviour can be changed. We need the ethicists, governors, policy- and lawmakers to guide communities and to keep climate offenders in check. By working together, we can develop innovative solutions that benefit both people and our planet.”

Another example is the University’s holistic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which to date has included medical researchers, social scientists, engineers, data scientists, legal experts, ethicists, teaching and learning specialists and community leaders. All these contributors played an important role in leading society’s response to the pandemic both locally and globally, he says.

“To develop a culture of innovation, we need to develop a problem-solving mindset and run activities such as challenges and hackathons that allow people to find solutions to specific problems. We need to form communities of practice and create opportunities for people to discuss complex social and other problems, with the objective of finding innovative solutions,” concludes Dwolatzky. 

Find out more about the Wits Innovation Centre (WIC) and the brilliant solutions being generated at Wits University – http://www.wits.ac.za/innovation 

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