Bringing innovation to South Africa
17th February 2015


A NASA strategy for finding and developing new ideas and technology could soon be implemented in South Africa. Anja Fourie, Director of Scifest Africa, South Africa’s National Science Festival, has recently returned from the United States where she learnt how the strategy works at a NASA LAUNCH Challenge on Green Chemistry. 

She explains that, “The whole idea of my visit to NASA was to see if this is a model that can be brought to South Africa and for Africa to launch its own LAUNCH forum – to identify innovators in Africa and in South Africa”.

Fourie was an observer at LAUNCH Forum on Green Chemistry where innovators were called on to present ideas, technologies or business models capable of delivering high performing materials and treatments while at the same time enabling greener chemistry principles. 

The LAUNCH organisation is a joint initiative of NASA, Nike sports goods, the United States Department of State and the US Agency for International Development aimed at helping innovators to bring their ideas and products to market.

LAUNCH sets a challenge on a specific theme inviting scientists and technologists from around the world to submit ideas or products that require development to make them market ready. It then selects the ten best ideas for presentation at a two-day LAUNCH Forum hosted at a NASA facility. This year the event was held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the United States.

In the two days before the Forum a small committee of about four people will work very intensely with the ten innovators to ensure that their ideas are ready for formal presentation to a council of thirty to forty leading scientists and decision makers in the two days of the Forum. Fourie says the committee helps the innovators to refine their presentation skills and to “crystalize what it is exactly that they want – because if you’re given half an hour with some of these Council members, you need to know what you want”.

In the two days of the LAUNCH Forum, Council members interrogate the presentations and give advice and leads to help the innovators transform ideas and prototypes into reality.  Ultimately, the purpose of the LAUNCH Forum is to identify new technologies that can be useful to NASA and to the United States.

Fourie’s visit to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida came about as a result of an agreement between the United States and the South African government to encourage and support researchers and young South Africans who wish to pursue careers in the sciences. NASA wants to set up asteroid hunting telescopes in South Africa and in return it will support the development of capacity in the sciences.

She explains that the LAUNCH challenges are not necessarily linked to astronomy and space exploration as a “lot of technology developed for NASA ends up having a lot of practical applications for everyday life – for example material that was developed for the roofs of footballs stadiums was actually developed for space.” 

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