THE UNFOLDING INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM OF THE NUL

The National University of Lesotho (NUL) is laying down a self-sustaining innovation and job-creation ecosystem that is meant to last. Thus NUL Research and Innovations seeks to answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) about this ecosystem. 

In summary, the proposed NUL School of Engineering and the proposed NUL Product Development and Testing Labs will add fuel to innovation through idea generation and product development. The NUL Innovation Hub will incubate the ideas and products, thereby testing the markets. The NUL-LNDC Industrial Park will pick the incubated businesses and turn them into large companies for mass production. 

The NUL owned Tloutle Holdings will be a shareholder in these companies to ensure NUL gets its share of the profits. The NUL Intellectual Property Policy will ensure that the money brought by Tloutle is, at least, partially invested into the NUL Innovation Fund. The NUL Innovation Fund will channel the money directly into new ideas and products at the NUL Product Development and Testing Labs and we are back to where we started.

And the NUL Research and Innovations will live to tell you about all these things. And the NUL International Science, Technology and Innovation Conference and Expo (NULISTICE) will live to show you all these things and what they mean. 

1. Where does it all start?

NUL understands that great products are conceived and perfected in the labs. Even when we sell you a soap, we should understand it at a molecular level. 

This is why, besides its existing labs, NUL is laying the foundation for Lesotho's first accredited NUL Product Development and Testing Labs. The "testing" part of it will ensure that even products from outside the NUL will be tested according to local and international standards. 

When the products have been developed, they don't automatically move into established markets. They go through incubation at the NUL Innovation Hub. 

2. What is the NUL Innovation Hub? 

It is a facility, presently under construction, that will primarily house incubation activities of the NUL. But It is not an incubation hub, incubation is just a primary part of it. It is an innovation hub. That is because its incubation activities are not happening in an island. They are linked, and enhanced by what is happening at a laboratory level. And the incubation activities will, in turn, affect what will happen at mass production level.

3. Who do you incubate? 

First, it's important to know who we don't incubate.

We don't incubate "entrepreneurs!" We incubate businesses!

We view individual businesses as legal persons that must adopt the life of their own, independent of the NUL itself and independent of the people who initiated them, be they students, teachers, graduates, youth and entrepreneurs. 

The day we begin to view building businesses through that lense will be a really good day. It will be the day we recognize the importance of building structures that will outlive us. The structures that will live on despite the differing personalities of those who will inhabit them from time to time. 

4. Why do you incubate?

The primary aim of the incubation stage is to test the performance of a product, to test its market reception, and, where necessary, to go back to the labs and fix the flaws even as incubation proceeeds. It is not to teach business skills, there are a plenty of business skills already. 

The idea of incubation is to insulate the businesses as much as possible from the outside world's harsh realities. This is done by providing free rent, free electricity, free internet and many other free or low cost services.

That is the heart of incubation, and no body who clearly understands the essence of this stage should be asking for profits at this time. 

Once the businesses pass the incubation stage, we are ready for mass production.

5. What is mass production? 

This is where we produce the same products we perfected during incubation at a large scale, for large scale local and international consumption. "Large scale" is the missing phrase in Lesotho's production efforts. 

Until we master the art of mass production and until we leverage the economics of scale, large businesss in Lesotho will always be the territory of the foreigners. 

That is why, as we speak, NUL and LNDC are doing feasibility studies for Lesotho's first knowledge-based industrial park. The proposed NUL-LNDC Industrial Park will be situated at the Roma Valley and it will change and be changed by the university.

The big businesses in the park will, in return, fund more research back at the NUL which will lead to new products. 

6. How will the big businesses invest back? 

We won't leave that to chance. For starters, NUL will ensure it becomes a shareholder in each of the companies it has helped create through the recently registered NUL owned company, Tloutle Holdings. The company will invest the money back to the university. 

7. How do you ensure that the money does in fact, move to innovation rather than, say, to sports (not that it can't go to sports)? 

NUL is working on intellectual property policy which will ensure that part of the proceeds from its companies goes to the innovators and to the recently launched NUL Innovation Fund (www.nulif.org.ls). The exclusive aim of the fund is to invest in innovation, starting where we started, at the laboratory. 

8. Will you have the right skills to do all these? 

We often hear people saying we produce students whose skills don't match the industry. Which is "right," our skills don't match the industry because, except for the textile and infant mining industry, there is no industry to match. That is why we are saying, let's first create industry, then we will match it with our skills. 

9. But you are creating the School of Engineering

Yes, that is the major part of the innovation ecosystem. If you listened carefully to the unfolding arguments above, you will notice a missing link. Engineering. We need that as soon as yesterday, not so much because we need engineers who will work in those industries but engineers who will help create more and better, of those industries. 

10. Did you forget your media outreach as part of the ecosystem? 

Not at all. Our thinking goes like this. If you are doing your best as an institution, and you are keeping quiet about it, people don't know that your good work exists, therefore your good work does not exist. It does not exist, not because it does not exist but because we don't know that it exists. 

Perception is reality.

That is why we will continue to use platforms like Facebook to tell you about these exciting developments. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Newpapers and Websites (www.nulresearchandinnovations.co.ls). Plans are underway to move to radio and TV and, if possible, to have own radio station that will focus on NUL Research and Innovations 24/7. 

11. Do you showcase this work? 

Yes, we have the National University of Lesotho International Science Technology and Innovation Conference and Expo (NULISTICE) which periodically showcases all these works and helps us reflect on the meaning of it all (www.nulistice.org.ls). 

12. Your university will surely move up the rankings because of this. 

The rankings are the least of our worries, after all, you can be the Number One in Africa and yet live beside a shanty town. We don't worry much about rankings as much as we worry about job creation and changing the lives of the same people who invest in us. Rankings or no rankings, we strive to become an Entrepreneurial University.