By Tanya Sylvia Mugwagwa
Rhodes University’s Masters of Biotechnology candidate, Ntobeko Songcata, recently won the Eastern Cape Innovation Challenge Award for his MSc project pitch.
The East London Industrial Development Zone Science and Technology Park (ELIDZ STP), in collaboration with the Regional Innovation Networking Platform (RINP) recently hosted the Eastern Cape Innovation Challenge Programme (ECIC). The programme aims to encourage entrepreneurs from the Eastern Cape to present innovative solutions that have the potential to alleviate societal issues or challenges in relation to local service delivery faced by the region. Songcata presented his idea alongside five other innovators and was awarded first prize for his low-cost real-time plate monitoring system and imaging and analysis project.
Songcata said he has always envisioned himself as an “entrepreneur with a scientific mind” as he had always been interested in the business side of scientific development and research. Songcata said the impact and effects of COVID-19 and the shortfall in public sector healthcare resources are what motivated him to embark on the project.
“The idea was first sparked when I was an intern at the Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre (RUBIC) and was exposed to their work in 3D printing. When COVID-19 hit, exposing the lack of resources in the Eastern Cape public sector, it drove me towards the development of a solution that would be low-cost,” he explained.
Songcata explained how the programme is geared towards the food, agricultural, and healthcare sectors, which are sectors that constantly take samples and do quality checks and analysis on their products.
“In the healthcare sector, for example, the system allows for the collection of small bacterial samples, which will allow healthcare specialists to monitor the types of bacteria, the rate at which they are growing, and how they can prevent the bacteria from growing. In the agricultural sector, one of the main targets is poultry farming in which the system can be used to track outbreaks on solid samples and prevent them from affecting production early on,” he explained.
Songcata said he was elated to have won the prize. Initially, when he heard the call for the challenge, he didn’t believe he would be able to apply. “The system I was developing was my Masters research project, and the competition was geared towards registered businesses. However, we decided to apply anyway, and a day after, I heard from the examiners that my Masters thesis had passed – and then I found out I had won the competition,” he happily said.
Songcata walked away with R80 000 worth of prizes, including opportunities for mentorship, pre-incubation support, intellectual property support, and market exposure. His supervisor, Professor Earl Prinsloo, said: “Ntobeko's research shows the power of democratised technology, as seen in the use of 3D printing and open-source electronics to develop a functional prototype that responds to a very real issue faced in research and healthcare in Africa –that of high equipment cost. With further development, this work can find application in monitoring microbial growth in human and animal pathology laboratories and quality control testing facilities."