How Nigerian Stanford Professor took three companies from the lab to the market

In 2006, the African Union’s Executive Council agreed that countries on the continent would spend at least 1 percent of their GDP on research and experimental development. Today, only a few countries such as South Africa has shown commitment to this. However, considering how investment in research and development (R&D) has helped several countries across the world, especially how it has increased revenue and jobs — that Africa badly needs — Stanford professor Kunle Olukotun wants Africa to get serious about funding research and development.

“Africa must invest in research and innovation in information technology to ensure that we develop the African solutions to Africa’s problems,” says Olukotun, who is the pioneer of multicore processors.

“The future of a huge part of the world’s economy and an important component of the solution to many of Africa’s problems (food, education, transportation, health) will come from information technology,” he tells The Nerve Africa.

When Olukotun talks about how impactful Africa’s investment in R&D can be, he knows what he is saying. He is the Cadence Design Systems Professor in Stanford’s School of Engineering. He is also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. But that is not just why he speaks boldly about developing solutions to Africa’s problem through investment in R&D; he has founded three companies from different research works funded by the government and some large companies. He says it is typical for computer science funding in the United States and stresses that it works.

One of the most recent products of his research is Mines, which provides a Credit-as-a-Service digital platform that enables institutions in emerging markets to offer credit products to their customers. The startup recently closed a funding round of $13 million, as it takes another step closer to achieving its goal of becoming one of the leading financial platform providers in emerging markets powered by cutting edge AI technology.  “We want to enable the next billion people to have affordable access to financial services,” Olukotun says.

The award-winning professor explains that the research which brought Mines was made possible by a “combination of U.S. Federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) combined with industrial funding from a number of large companies”.

Other companies which he took from the laboratory to the market include Afara Systems and SambaNova. “Afara” means “Bridge” in Nigeria’s Yoruba Language.

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Prof. Kunle Olukotun

In 2002, America’s Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle for $7.4 billion in 2010) acquired Afara for an undisclosed sum rumoured to be about $50 million. According to reports, negotiations started in triple digit millions of dollars and was only agreed for less than $50 million because Afara had no alternate sources of funding. By 2005, Afara had helped Sun become the fastest single processor, for web serving loads, in the world.

In March 2018, SambaNova secured $56 million in Series A funding to develop a computing platform that may reimagine how we power machine learning and data analytics.

Backed by research grants from government and industry, Stanford University has always been a good institution for research. But it doesn’t end there; the university is also highly committed to commercializing research. “Examples of such companies which have become household names are Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, VMware and Google,” Olukotun says.

To further clear any doubts about how impactful investment in research can be, the professor reminds us that all five of the largest companies in the world are in information technology, and “the information technology sector is driven by research and innovation”.

“It is a sector that requires constant innovation to maintain relevance and this innovation is based on research at universities and industry laboratories.”

In Africa, collaboration between universities and the industry have been very low or non-existent. This is not helped by the lack of commitment of governments across the continent to research and general growth of the educational sector. Often times, researchers that hold their work very dearly end up leaving the continent for places where there are better facilities and funding for research. The impact of this is evident in the growing unemployment and lack of innovation in government which has limited growth to the prices of resources such as oil.

“The industrial sector has to engage with the research at institutions of higher learning by providing internship opportunities for students and research funding and problems with the faculty at these institutions,” Olukotun says. He notes that the model has worked perfectly in the United States.

“But it takes commitment from both the industrial side and the academic side to succeed.”

“The idea is to start with small projects and show tangible success in terms of students who get good jobs and practical solutions to industrial problems, while at the same time protecting the intellectual property of the companies and the academic freedom of the institutions of higher learning.”

While we continue to advocate improved funding for education, research and development across Africa, there is need for researchers to make the best of what they currently have.

Olukotun advises more collaboration and working in teams. He calls both the key to having impact.

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Humans of Mines: VP Commercial Adia Sowho; CEO and Director, Ekechi Nwokah and Chief Scientist Prof. Kunle Olukotun

“One should not be afraid to collaborate for fear that you will not be recognized for your contributions, because I always say credit multiplies rather than divides among multiple people. So, I collaborate extensively with other researchers and of course with my PhD students.”

“This is the key to developing new technology and having academic impact,” Olukotun says.

He speaks further on collaboration. “Having commercial impact also takes collaboration. You have to connect with the right people to bring a technology successfully to market.”

“Ideally, you want people, who can really understand the technology and have the business acumen to match the technology with the market. In the case of Mines, the PhD students who developed the technology became early employees in the company and Ekechi Nwokah, the CEO, provided the critical business insights to make the technology relevant and robust enough for the Nigerian financial marketplace,” Olukotun adds.

Commercialising an idea, innovation or research can prove to be a key driver of new revenue sources, jobs and industrial growth. It has been the lifeblood of increasingly knowledge-intensive economies, which have continuously recorded improvement in the livelihoods of their citizens. Although, it is not an easy process, but with the right structures and adequate funding, it could turn around an economy.

Governments across Africa can start by voting more funds for education, research and development. To encourage industries to collaborate with universities on research, the government can offer tax incentives to companies that collaborate.

Africa needs to fund good research ideas that can be applied or commercialized to provide real-word solutions for Africans and African economies, knowing that public research, if well managed, could be a new source of growth.

See how much Africa spends on R&D below:

UNESCO - Research and Development