Kenya is one of the leading entrepreneurship ecosystems in Africa and, indeed, the world. When people talk about startup funding (angel investing and venture capital), impact investing, incubators, and accelerators, especially when referencing the continent, Kenya must feature in one way or the other. From a startup funding perspective, Kenya has always ranked in the top four in terms of total funds attracted, and the other metrics are not any different.
While the above is all true, the progress made by startups in various sectors and categories has been different. The definition of a startup has the following key elements; an entity in its early stage (judged by the number of years in operation) running an innovative business model with potential for scale, which usually would need external financing. Looking at the sector is not one of the defining criteria for the startup. There exist several categories of startups that would meet the above definition, but which do not receive as much attention as tech startups.
In the Kenyan context, and indeed in the continent one of the categories of startups that has not received as much attention but that needs to, is research-based innovations. Kenya boasts of over 50 Universities which churn out 15,000 – 20,000 graduates annually. These centres of excellence carry out a lot of research at the undergraduate, master's and PhD levels. While not all this published research can be commercialized or spun out as startups, it is worrying that the buzz and, indeed, impact in the startup ecosystem is not shared between tech and research-based innovations. In addition to the Universities, we also have several research institutions which should be at the forefront of giving birth to startups to solve the key challenges faced by the country.
There are several reasons why the success of these types of startups has been rather muted. These include insufficient policies and frameworks to support commercialization, knowledge gaps with the innovators and institutions of higher learning and those focused on research, inadequate funding and so forth.
The Kenya National Innovations Agency (KeNIA) has as one of its strategic priorities the commercialization of research outputs into startups, joint ventures, spin-offs etc, through capacity development, linkages, access to market and investment. This focus area looks at all startups, be they tech-based or non-tech. To achieve its objectives, KeNIA works with partners keen on providing funding or, indeed, execution support. Towards this, KeNIA and Viktoria Ventures, a venture development firm focused on supporting startups be investment ready and walking with them through their fundraising journey, through the funding from the UK Government through one of its programs, the Research and Innovation Systems for Africa (RISA) Fund has launched the Utafiti Kwa Biashara: The Research to Commercialization (R2C) Accelerator.
The Program, which will run over 12 months, has several elements geared towards supporting the startup ecosystem to commercialize more research-based innovations. The Program will work with 20 different innovators selected from Kenyan Universities and Research Institutions taking them through training, coaching and supporting them with direct linkages with potential partners and funders to aid in commercialization and funding opportunities. The 20 will be split into two cohorts, each running over a 5-month period.
To ensure that the impact of the Program is not just felt by the 20 innovators, the Program will work with 60 trainers of trainers (ToTs) taking them through an intensive one-week capacity building program focused on R2C, specifically the content and how to run successful R2C programs in their institutions. The ToTs will also receive coaching as they look to establish R2C programs.
In addition to the 60 ToTs, the Program will host 12 webinars on key topics around R2C. These webinars will be carried on a monthly basis and some of the topics to be covered will include paths to commercialization for universities and research institutions, intellectual property (IP), what to look out for when seeding strategic partnerships and understanding the funding landscape and how to deal with investors. The blogs will be open to the public, and if you are keen on attending them, do follow the Program on social media.
A key challenge identified in the R2C space has been the gender imbalance in terms of the number of researchers and innovators. The Program has partnered with the Mawazo Institute to ensure that the Program is gender conscious and balanced. The Program aims to work with a cohort from the Mawazo Institute who will receive the ToT training and to further rely on the support of Mawazo in the reach out and selection of some of the R2C participants.
The Program was officially launched at the CIEL Summit in December 2022 with the first cohort of R2C innovators making their pitches to showcase their innovations.