“Building alliances” is an idea that can be a little squishy. It’s easy for there to be a lot of talk and not much action. Not so with the Massachusetts-South Africa Technology Fellowship program, as Thys Cronje and Mary Ann Picard can attest.
Mary Ann Picard and Thys Cronje were Fellows in the Massachusetts-South Africa Technology Fellowship (M-SAT) program, a partnership of South Africa Partners and Bentley University and funded by the U.S. State Department Professional Fellows program. Through travel and immersion in complementary organizations, Fellows working in information technology, biotechnology and life sciences develop active relationships that move both sides forward.
Thys is the Managing Director of Diacoustic Medical Devices, a start-up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The company has developed a medical device for heart murmur detection that now has U.S. FDA approval.
Mary Ann is an Industrial Liaison with Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) of University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her focus is on collaborative program development.
The two were paired by M-SAT, and have collaborated in ways that they say are exciting and surprising. Thys and Mary Ann spoke to South Africa Partners about their experiences.
The two of you were paired by the M-SAT program. Tell us how that has gone.
Thys Cronje: South Africa Partners did a great job to match us with M2D2. My company is a small startup and a university spin-off, and we needed to enter the U.S. market with our product and services. The market for medical devices in South Africa is relatively small: we’ve got 56,000 registered physicians in South Africa whereas in the U.S. you’ve got 700,000.
One of my goals in the beginning was to be able to understand the market here and the opportunities for our kind of product, and to get contacts.
We’ve got now an office at M2D2 and I’ve got an address in Massachusetts. If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t have known about M2D2 or had all the introductions they’ve made. We will probably need to employ people here and they are assisting us with that. So we laid the foundations and now we start building the house.
Mary Ann Picard: I very much echo Thys’ sentiments. Thys’ company was already in the U.S. market but sought to expand their base here, specifically in Massachusetts, where M2D2 is a big player.
The match was also really helpful for M2D2, because we want to expand our reach throughout the world, and Thys was able to introduce us to other startup companies in Cape Town.
Despite being a world apart I’ve learned how similar we are. Massachusetts is known to have really brilliant medical minds, and to see the same in South Africa was just awesome. I had no idea the level to which this existed. I’m afraid that some people see U.S. interest in South Africa as a way to help this “backward country” somehow go forward. But that’s not the case at all. You’re tapping into a resource. They’re very rich in technology. It’s just getting it out of there. Our relationships turns out to be mutually beneficial.
Thys, your company produces a medical device and Boston is one of the world premier medical communities. Were you particularly interested in the Fellowship because it involved collaborating specifically in Massachusetts?
Thys: Yes. We actually identified Massachusetts a year or two ago as one of our first options for opening up a U.S. office because of its vibrant medical device ecosystem and vibrant venture capitalist ecosystem. The West Coast also has vibrant communities for startups, but it’s too far for us.
Mary Ann: The Massachusetts medical device market is very concentrated in this area of the state. There are many related events where you meet the same people over and over, which is a huge positive when you are building business relationships.
Thys: In South Africa, especially in the Western Cape where I’m from, there’s a big drive to grow the medical device sector. The first heart transplant was there, and the CT scanner was also invented in Cape Town. In the weeks that Mary Ann visited, we made quite a few introductions to see how we can grow the medical device manufacturing development sector in the Western Cape — and in South Africa overall, for that matter.
In South Africa, there’s no shortage of technology, no shortage of know-how. We are relatively good with getting from the idea to the product. But you need financing, you need an incubator, you need networking — you need an infrastructure. That we might lack a little bit, such as how to set up those angel networks or financing networks. For medical devices, there is also the regulatory process and clinical validation for products. To sell a product in the U.S., you have to do clinical studies in the U.S.
The regulatory process must be quite significant. Could you talk about that?
Mary Ann: CE Mark is the European approval process, and the FDA is the U.S. approval process, which are huge if you want to sell throughout the world. You want to be able to say “we have FDA,” and to get that, the trials have to be done in the U.S. They typically don’t recognize foreign trials. To be able to set those up is a big deal, but we are part of the University of Massachusetts Lowell and we have the power of UMass Medical School behind us, which organizes large and small animal trials and can even do human trials in some cases. Navigating this is a huge piece.
Thys: I want a one-stop shop where I can say, “Okay, I need a clinical trial. I need something to develop or make my product, like a production facility or laboratory facility.” M2D2 is great for that because everything is set up there.
Mary Ann: We’re very much a gatekeeper. We do a needs assessment and then triage those needs.
With a history that included economic sanctions, did that negatively impact entrepreneurs in South Africa?
Thys: Definitely. Twenty years ago, in the 1980s, in South Africa it was very unlikely that you would start your own business and think entrepreneurially. You would either work for one of the big government-owned corporations or the big mining houses or the big offices. That was the only place to find a job. There was no capital, no foreign investment.
But that changed over the past 20 years quite a lot. And for the last few years, with the shortage of jobs, there’s a bigger spurt of people who needed to go out and work for themselves. Our universities are starting to play a bigger role, but we need guidance. We need to start looking elsewhere in the world, what’s working there, and for that Massachusetts is great.
If that entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t there this would never have worked. What it all boils down to at this moment is — and I want to emphasize this — we see that entrepreneurial spirit in all of Africa. In Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Nigeria especially, that we are beyond the point where we need more entrepreneurial spirit. We want access to markets, and that’s what M2D2 is providing us — a soft landing in the U.S. to get access to a market.
In that process, South Africa is benefiting, the U.S. is benefiting, and hopefully from here we can establish relationships all over the world.
Reflecting back on the Fellowship, are there one or two outcomes that stand out as particularly rewarding?
Thys: The friendship I built with my Fellows. I was actually invited to the wedding of one of my Fellows, which was in Port Elizabeth. That was a traditional Xhosa wedding, and I’d never been to one. It was a life-changing experience. We still regularly text each other and all the Fellows are connected. It’s actually sad that we had to come to the U.S. to build that connection, but we can nurture it further in South Africa.
Mary Ann: I can say the same. The American Fellows in the cohort are located closer in proximity to each other than the South African Fellows and while we didn’t really know each other personally, now we can do business together. For example, we now regularly exchange information with the Cambridge Innovation Center. We found synergy among ourselves.
To build off what Thys was saying, we met in Pretoria for the welcome dinner when the U.S. Fellows visited South Africa. When we walked in the room, the first thing Mtheza told us was that Thys went to his wedding and how cool it was that they made that connection in the U.S. and then carried it back home.
Thys: We learned a lot about U.S. culture, history, economy, and entrepreneurship, but we also learned about our own culture a bit more. The fact that we are people from different backgrounds forced together to spend five weeks in the same environment, the same setup, day in, day out — a bond developed between us. We came to understand each other much better and understand these other cultures. We were quite a nice mix.
During our last week when we were in Washington, D.C. with other Fellows from around the world, the South Africans really stood out, I must say. We are proud of South Africa and everywhere we go, we showed it. People could see that we come with energy. We showed up and made our presence felt.