‘Really impressive’ innovation in biomedical technology in the Cape

When we think of medical excellence in the Cape, we often first think of the world’s first heart transplant performed by Dr Chris Barnard at Groote Schuur hospital, but are you aware of the extent of what’s being developed and the vibrancy of medical technology and biomedical innovation happening in the Cape Town region today?

Allan MacLeod Cormack, a UCT graduate, shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1979 with Godfrey Hounsfield for their independent research underpinning the development of the CAT (computer assisted tomography) scanner. Allan had published algorithms to measure the attenuation of X-rays passing through the body and the CAT scan was invented by the two scientists working independently. Andrew Bailey, Senior Manager: Innovation at UCT said: ‘It is through the pioneering specialists that a culture of excellence was created at UCT which then attracts other researchers. It is also cross-faculty collaborations such as that between engineering and health sciences, where some of the ground-breaking research is taking place’.

The Cape region benefits from a collaborative ecosystem of four universities, two academic hospitals and the Medical Research Council. With the strong health sciences faculties at UCT and Stellenbosch University, the region is home to about 45% of local medical technology companies commercialising inventions. Rowan Joseph, patent lawyer at Von Seidels, Intellectual Property Attorneys, said: ‘The medical technology innovation coming out of UCT and Stellenbosch is really impressive and at the highest level. Products such as Kit Vaughan’s Cape Ray breast digital imaging system, Prof George Vicatos’ facial reconstruction system (implants designed for anatomical reconstruction of the skeleton), and Prof Peter Zilla’s Strait Access Technologies heart valve placement and repair devices, are world leading technologies.’ Prof Zilla, the Chris Barnard Chair and Director of UCT’s Cardiovascular Research Unit, has been quite prolific and registered 21 international patents for implantable cardio vascular devices.

UCT and Stellenbosch University (SU) continue to produce several medical device and biomedical start-ups as listed below. Stellenbosch’s AzarGen Biotechnologies, started by SU alumni, recently partnered with NYSE listed, iBio Inc, for the development and manufacture of an improved surfactant protein for the treatment of neonatal respiratory distress syndrome. Dr. Barry Holtz, iBio CMO’s president, said that ‘making this type of therapeutic product is a difficult challenge and we look forward to assisting South Africa’s first plant-made pharmaceutical company achieve product success’.

It is even more remarkable to think about the opportunities for this sector with the reality that 93% of medical device products are imported. In 2016, a Western Cape Medical Devices Cluster was formed with the help of Wesgro and one of the objectives is to lobby for local procurement from the healthcare sector. Wesgro is also currently completing the feasibility study for the Cape Health Technology Park which, if it progresses, will provide more collaboration in this innovative sector.

Biomedical Technology Companies at our Universities


  • Cell-Life – e-Health technology development company
  • Cape Ray Medical – low dose x-ray coupled with ultrasound or breast cancer detection
  • Strait Access Technologies – heart valve and deployment device for heart valve repair
  • Serapix CC – biosensors/diagnostic
  • Antrum Biotech – extra-pulmonary TB diagnostic test – rapid bedside testing
  • Attri Orthopedics – design of orthopaedic implants exclusively for people who have suffered loss of bone tissue due to surgery.

Stellenbosch University

  • Unistel Medical Labs – DNA profiling
  • Diacoustic Medical Devices – Automated Paediatric Cardiac Auscultation (APCA) system is a portable hand-held device providing healthcare providers with clinical decision support to distinguish between pathological and physiological heart murmurs
  • Surfactant Medical Technologies (SMT) – a synthetic surfactant formulation consisting of a combination of readily accessible phospholipids and synthetic peptides
  • Kathleho Biomedical – a platform for the R&D and commercialisation of innovative biomedical engineering concepts.


  •  Hyrax Biosciences – clinical DNA analysis and drug resistance genotyping

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