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EF: Almost five years ago, you founded Cape Bio, the third company you have established. What business need did you identify to start the company, and how is it evolving? 

DN: The technologies used in R&D have always fascinated me, even as an upcoming scientist, and I noticed the manufacturers were never from Africa. I thought science was universal and had no borders, but why could none of our local scientists translate their knowledge to invent and create at competitive levels? African scientists do a lot of research and publish their conclusions, which are translated and read elsewhere. Eventually, the conceptualized and formulated solutions become products imported into the country. This situation dates to pre-Covid, but as our economy started to crumble, certain gaps became apparent: the limited innovation coverage and commercialization thereof. We have many health issues across the continent, and no HIV testing product comes from Africa, even though we are at the center of this permanent pandemic. Despite competing in the global knowledge and innovation arena, Africa is a net importer of various health technologies, medical devices, and pharmaceutical compounds, including active pharmaceutical ingredients. In healthcare, one of the key contributors to quality health coverage cost is testing. My rationale in founding the company is that if we contribute to the knowledge that generates the technologies, we can also create them ourselves. We first must identify the diseases; testing is important for monitoring and determining how the diseases spread in the population. Without these tools, containing or even managing diseases becomes quite costly.  

Cape Bio looks into a country, finds the challenges, and discovers and develops solutions based on the evolution of science. We innovate in response to present and future challenges, and by doing so, we look to Africa. But we can't isolate Africa from the rest of the world; we can solve European problems with our unique and relevant technology. Our response to African challenges is coupled with our response to world challenges. Our business is founded on these two premises, Africa needs solutions, and Africa's future is connected to the world's future. And our two objectives are i) Global sustainable development goals; all our innovation is generated based on moving away from carbon print, long procedures, and global warming contributors. ii) We are forward-thinking and look to the future; we leverage artificial intelligence to advance and modernize our abilities to innovate and manufacture our products.  

EF: Could you elaborate on the importance and benefits of collaborations between the public and private sectors? 

DN: Our approach to innovation cannot be similar to the public sector's, simply because the public sector organizations are much bigger and have multiple projects and huge human capital to drive them. But projects take a long time to complete, and we provide the public sector with innovative tools to fast-track the process. Our AI platform enables us to conduct research in a shorter time and contributed to the success of developing a Covid-19 PCR test within six months when it usually takes much longer. We want to share our capabilities with the public sector so that they can reduce timelines and take about six months to do a project instead of a year. We can also harness or enhance whatever they are doing and include it in our portfolio to have an impact on the continent and globally. Our partnerships with the private sector are about identifying gaps and innovating quickly on their behalf. Contracting research from an organization usually takes three years, but the problems need to be solved immediately, not in three years, and this is where we come in. We worked closely with organizations in response to Covid-19 and continue working with them on existing problems in Africa. Our key contributor is innovation, helping to speed up research and providing quick and precise solutions. We recently formed a Consortium to discover therapeutic agents, looking at African biological resources, microbial diversity, etc.; research that would usually take ten years. We will do it much faster, with their human capital resources and leveraging our technology to speed up the investigation. We provide solutions to many African countries; we have partners and collaborators in the US, Canada, India, and Europe. We have a lot of exposure in East and West Africa and, to some extent, in North Africa. We look for existing problems in territories and work with locals to innovate, providing our expertise and technologies for quick progress.  

EF: How do you overcome the challenges regarding regulatory agencies and become a partner of choice nationally and globally? What is your secret? 

DN: Our industry is highly regulated, and regulatory approvals are essential. We started interacting with regulators for the first time during Covid. We learned a lot quite quickly from the interaction when we registered our Covid test kit, which was taken to several countries in response to the pandemic. The world is moving towards consolidating the regulatory framework to similar standards. Instead of having European, American, Asian, and African standards, we are moving to standardizing all regulatory frameworks, linking up local regulations with global and WHO is involved in this process. In Africa, we will have an African medicines authority, enabling us to register a product in a country and sell across the continent, and it will be a game changer. Once it is in place, we can work with our European partners, avoiding most of the red tape, and reach all African markets. Today due to regulatory agreements, we can accede to 60% of African markets, but there is 40% that is not taken care of. Our regulator, SAPHRA, follows WHO, CE, and FDA, but to consolidate this, diseases do not change from country to country. We have been lobbying for a central authority that makes it easier for others outside the continent to trade with Africa, providing solutions the continent requires. 

EF: How are you using digitalization to disrupt the industry further?  

DN: The King and Queen of Belgium visited South Africa, and I was one of the business panellists present. I spoke of my desire to create something unique; identifying gaps is a special responsibility, and nobody can take that away from me. I have only one platform, but it is a unique one, and it is the future. We can do in six months what other company does in two years. I am delighted to do my job and to be the only platform of its sort in the world. We look at the conversions of three different fields and match them together. Each field requires teams A, B, and C, and the process goes from team A to team B to team C in a certain timeline. We aim to have the entire procedure digitalized and, with a click, get the outcome. As part of our sustainable development objectives, we never go to the lab unless we know we will be successful. The AI machine stipulates its success, something Pfizer or JJ do not have. Before we start in the lab, we already know the molecule's efficacy; we are pioneers in that regard. All innovation must be responsible, and we are not naïve; others will come, but they will find us past our current stage and a step ahead. For this reason, we have different phases of innovation; phase one has been completed and is undergoing the patent process in Europe and the US. We are currently completing phase two, so we will stay ahead of the game in phase three or four when another company begins its first phase. Our innovation is not only for existing products but for future ones. The speed and precision we develop therapeutics, diagnostics, etc., is amazing. People want to be diagnosed now, and we are bringing other innovators to the value chain, creating jobs and improving health, and democratizing health through the platform and our teams.  

EF: How are you educating the younger generation to follow in your footsteps in entrepreneurship?  

DN: The average age in our company is 28; we have many newly graduated employees with no experience, and some have never worked with machine learning or on projects. With supervision, we give projects to young people because we want them to be inventive and suggest new concepts or projects. Sustainable development goals are at our core: training and equipping future scientists, and we prioritize creative minds. Over 80% of our staff are women. In Africa, women are neglected, and even highly qualified women aren't given lucrative positions. In our organization, the sky is the limit, and we provide the environment for each worker to aspire to whatever they want. We are set up as a company to value responsible entrepreneurship that focuses on responsible innovation. 

EF: What would you like to celebrate having achieved for your country at the end of the year? 

DN: We do multiple things worth recognition, but we don't tell the media or blow trumpets because we believe that we innovate for the future and will celebrate when that has been fulfilled. My mind doesn't focus on the small milestones, but I allow my people to celebrate achievements, although I look to the big future celebration. Our biggest achievement would be to enable and share our value chains, bringing other companies into our value chains because they are innovators in their markets. We must use our influence to get others into the mainstream industry. The more we include other companies, the more we grow, creating synergies that will be good for the industry's growth. We can celebrate together in collaboration with other parties, especially many young entrepreneurs we have mentored into business. 

EF: Is there any final message you would like to share on sustainable health in South Africa?  

DN: Africa is a young continent with a lot of energy, and if we can harness that energy, we can solve African and global problems. We have the skill set and repeatedly proved –especially in South Africa- that we do cutting-edge science, and have top scientists, engineers, and a highly industrialized economy in the traditional sectors. I want the new sectors, such as healthcare, to develop in an enabling environment for innovation and large-scale manufacturing to get projects conceptualized and benefit society. We must compete not only in publications but on production and manufacturing. More collaboration is vital to learn from the experiences of other parts of the world to leapfrog Africa into an independent healthcare, innovation, and manufacturing continent.  

There is a high prevalence of universal healthcare in Europe and the US, Asia, and Latin America. I was in Brazil recently, where everybody has access to health, and one way they do it is through tech transfers to bring solutions closer to the people. The African continent looks to South Africa for some of the most critical needs, especially in healthcare; we are the reference, and tech transfer could be central. Universal coverage has succeeded in Europe and the US because they manufacture the tools critical to supporting healthcare. Without pharmaceutical, diagnostics, and monitoring systems and software manufacturers, it will be impossible to uphold universal coverage. We want to implement national health insurance, but it can't be built relying on imports in a world where geopolitics are undependable; we would be destined for failure. As we look into national healthcare, we should invest in tools, systems, innovation, and products that are key ingredients for its success. Nothing will be perfect, and we need universal coverage, but success depends on being industrialized and bringing critical tools that sustain national healthcare.  

August 2023
South Africa