Office of technology transfer supports rugby wheelchair project, giving hope to unemployed youth with disabilities

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Technology transfer is becoming more important as government continues to encourage innovation.  The Department of Science and Innovation supports the process of translating ideas into products, processes and services through the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO), among other initiatives.

NIPMO supports OTTs at higher education institutions to ensure that intellectual property (IP) generated within the university is identified and finds application in society.  The OTT funding provided by NIPMO is used for salaries, human capital development and operational costs associated with the OTT. If needed NIPMO may also assist with funding for IP.

NIPMO's support for innovation is proving significant in dealing with the unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly high in South Africa. Young people, in particular, are finding it difficult to find decent jobs, even if they have qualifications. And for young people living with disabilities, job opportunities are particularly scarce.

However, local innovator Jared Mcintyre has turned adversity into opportunity. With the help of the Product Development Technology Station at the Central University of Technology (CUT), the sports enthusiast developed a rugby wheelchair that could be manufactured locally, and is giving South Africans with disabilities access to an empowering sport.

Wheelchair rugby is a fast-paced, full-contact team sport for athletes with functional impairments in their limbs. It is a Paralympic sport, with thousands of participants from more than 40 countries, combining elements of rugby, basketball and ice hockey to create a rewarding experience for players and spectators alike. Since contact between wheelchairs is an integral part of the sport, players must have specially built chairs to enable them to block and hold their opponents during play. These come at a price, which often makes it difficult for learners and youth with disabilities to compete in the sport. Until recently, this was compounded by the lack of South African manufacturers of sports equipment for parasports, which meant that rugby wheelchair prices were at the mercy of foreign exchange fluctuations.

All of this changed when Mcintyre decided to develop a cost-effective rugby wheelchair that could be manufactured locally. The idea was born out of necessity, as Mcintyre, an accomplished gymnast, had suffered a spinal injury from a diving accident while he was studying for a business management qualification at the Central University of Technology (CUT). Mcintyre approached the Product Development Technology Station at CUT and CUT Innovation Services for assistance, and the project was launched.

The CUT OTT is funded by NIPMO.  The Product Development Technology Station was able to give assistance through major project grant funding provided by the Technology Innovation Agency.

The team of engineers at the technology station were able to mimic the mechanical properties of the imported wheelchair using generally available mild steel by adapting critical dimension components. Using the readily available manufacturing processes, they were able to develop a fully functional prototype chair. The first prototype was then tested for about 12 months in a professional training setting with the Mustang Wheelchair Rugby Club.

Non-registrable intellectual property was developed, including technical documentation, specifications for product aspects and components, data sheets, manufacturing standards, user guides and manuals, all of which are protected through inherent copyright.

What sets the project apart is not just the locally designed and manufactured wheelchair, but the fact that disabled, unemployed young people were trained to manufacture the wheelchairs. This employment creation and skills development opportunity brings the youth into the mainstream of the economy through the provision of accredited training. And by enabling more young people with disabilities to participate in wheelchair rugby, the project is supporting the development of parasports in South Africa.

Mcintyre, who recruits members for his wheelchair rugby club from the Tswellang school for the disabled in Bloemfontein, says that, through the partnership with CUT, "we adapted our manufacturing process to suit children with disabilities and adults who previously had limited participation in the sport".

Technology transfer support for projects like the one Mcintyre is leading is proving to be highly beneficial to society as a whole. The DSI has prioritised support for innovation through OTTs.

The recently published South African National Survey of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at Publicly Funded Research Institutions covering the period 2014-2018, showed that 92% of higher education institutions had a dedicated technology transfer function. The survey also showed that these institutions reported spending of R50 billion plus on research and development, R4 billion on clinical trials and R265 million on IP registrations and maintenance costs.

The results show encouraging trends in a range of indicators pertaining to IP creation, technology transfer activities and the economic impact created as a result of these. For more details on the survey

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