More than 2 400 people braved pouring rain in Gauteng to attend the 5th Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) at the CSIR International Convention Centre. The annual Department of Science and Innovation event was merged with the Innovation Bridge (IB) technology matchmaking and showcase event, which aims to attract business to invest in local innovations. Taking place under the theme "Igniting conversations about science for innovation with impact", the event has attracted participants from South Africa and abroad.


Building on the success of previous events, the joint SFSA-IB is a large, open, public platform for debating the science and society interface. The topics for discussion have been broad, including the development of a culture of innovation, funding challenges for innovators, ethical matters related to genetics and genomics, the future of work under the 4th industrial revolution, climate change and infectious diseases.


Opening the event on Wednesday, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, said the merging of the two events had enriched the science, technology and innovation discourse.


"The 2019 event has a strong focus on the commercialisation of research to benefit broader society with local technologies generated from publicly financed research and development, which is showcased to secure partners to convert these technologies into products and services that impact the lives of ordinary people."


The Minister said that, five years on, the Science Forum remains a relevant platform for debate.


"We believe our Science Forum is a powerful instrument and platform for science diplomacy and we are therefore grateful for the support we enjoy from the United Nations system, especially UNESCO.  I would like to acknowledge all its representatives, including Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, who served as one of the Secretary-General's special envoys for HIV-Aids, and in 2018 received the Forum's International Science Diplomacy Award."


The 2019 event is also a showcase of local technologies developed at publicly funded institutions. The engaging exhibition focuses on innovations with impact, from medical devices and solar technology to pharmaceutical products and cosmeceuticals.


North-West University has developed the Neu Hand, a low-cost, hand-wearable robotic device for supplementary rehabilitation therapy for stroke patients. The device provides a series of hand movement exercises that can be tailored to suit a wide range of patient needs.  The lightweight frame and portability of the device allow the patient flexibility in choosing when and where to use the device. A built-in connectivity platform can link to external devices for better monitoring of patient progress.


The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is showcasing a product that responds to the country's high incidence of rape and sexual assault.  Crime scene investigations use DNA technology on a regular basis, and in cases of rape or sexual abuse, male-specific DNA can be targeted for forensic identification or the exclusion of suspects. However, current test kits were not designed taking into account the genetic diversity of African males, and perform poorly on this continent.  UWC has designed a new male-specific DNA identification kit tailored for Africa.


The technology encompasses a Y chromosome short tandem repeat (Y-STR) forensic kit offering higher discriminatory power, which is faster and more cost-effective than leading commercial products for processing sexual assault DNA evidence.  This prototype has two main functions – the resolution of sexual offences using DNA evidence originating in various assault scenarios, and kinship analysis (paternal lineage).


Implementing a highly discriminatory and rapid Y-STR profiling system is crucial for improving conviction rates, exonerating innocent men accused of rape, and addressing the backlog of cases in South Africa and neighbouring countries.


Last year saw the successful completion of the alpha prototype of a male Y chromosome forensics detection kit (the UniQ-Typer) took place.  A database of DNA profiles collected from African populations was also generated.  During the next phase of development, the beta version of the kit will be tested in forensics facilities in African countries. All data collected during the beta phase trial will be added to the database to enhance the product's discriminatory performance. The data will also improve the ability of the product to discriminate complex samples, consisting of multiple profiles, as the improved statistical power of the database will allow the deconvolution of these profiles.


The Cape Peninsula University of Technology has developed the BamFibre, a natural dietary fibre (soluble and insoluble) that is gluten, lactose and cholesterol-free.  BamFibre acts as a stabiliser and cryoprotectant in food, assists in detoxification and waste excretion, and is suitable for high temperature applications such as baking. The recommended daily dietary fibre intake for adults is 30 to 40 g per day, with most dieticians recommending that 20 to 30% of this should be soluble dietary fibre.  Among other benefits, dietary fibre can lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels.  BamFibre is a source of additional fibre with superior functional properties for use in various food applications.


A number of Department of Science and Innovation entities also had exhibition stalls, including the Technology Innovation Agency. The institution provides funding support to start-up companies, and runs the Department's Grassroots Innovation Programme (GIP). The GIP is aimed at innovators in communities who have no formal training but have innovative ideas to address challenges in society.


Nomahlubi Nuzo, who received funding under the GIP, developed an anti-ageing cream from fish scales. The young innovator said that the cream is also used to treat wounds. Nuzo and others are hoping that the Innovation Bridge event will help them access funding to take their products to full commercialisation.


The event draws to a close today.