From making air travel safer to detecting chemicals that can cause cancer, from developing advanced technologies for finding buried landmines, the curiosity of Dr David Fine, a Wits University alumnus, has resulted in innovations that have impacted on society for over 45 years.

Now, the successful Boston-based innovator and entrepreneur is heeding the call from his alma mater to help establish an ecosystem to drive researcher-led innovation at Wits that will solve some of Africa’s greatest challenges, and advance the public good.

In celebrating its centenary this year, Wits has identified innovation as one of its major strategic thrusts and Fine’s donation of $3-million (about R50-million) will be used to establish the Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation.

“Innovators are problem solvers,” says Dr Fine, now retired. “They can think practically across multiple technical disciplines, and who use accessible and inexpensive methods and material to build products and services, that have real-life impact. South Africa needs a culture of innovation. My hope is that the Chair in Innovation will help place Wits at the leading edge of innovation in the Global South.”

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits vice-chancellor and principal, comments: “We are very grateful to Dr Fine for walking this #Wits100 journey with us. His generous donation will go a long way towards propelling our research towards innovation, enabling scholars, researchers, students and those with curious minds to seek and create new knowledge, across disciplines and sectors.

“Dr Fine is leaving a legacy for future generations, and this Chair in Innovation will undoubtedly create an enabling environment for the flourishing of great ideas that will herald this continent into a new era of innovation, change, and growth.”

Dr Fine graduated from Wits with an honours degree in chemistry in 1964. He later read for a PhD from Leeds University in the United Kingdom, before leaving for the US to run the Combustion Lab at MIT. He worked for 28 years at Thermo Electron (now Thermo Fisher) before establishing two companies of his own – CyTerra in 2000, and Vero-BioTech in 2006.

Dr Fine has spent more of his life transitioning high technology chemistry-based instruments from concept and research through to production and commercialisation.

Among his achievements is the development of the first airport sniffers that could detect traces of plastic explosive residue in passenger luggage. This was in response to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 259 people. Thousands of these devices have since been deployed around the world, making air travel safer. A similar device is also used to detect narcotics.

In the field of analytical chemistry, Dr Fine developed a method to detect traces of nitrosamines in foods, body fluids and in factories. Chronic nitrosamine intake is associated with numerous cancer sites. A third important innovation is a handheld detector for finding buried landmines, using a combination of ground penetrating radar and metal detection.

In its first 100 years, Wits has on several occasions successfully risen to meet society’s needs to turn knowledge into impactful solutions. Wits was actively involved in pioneering the development of radar, the first in the country to own a mainframe computer, to access a quantum computer, to develop a digital innovation precinct, to house a Mirage jet for use in teaching and research, to discover and describe early pre-human fossils, to host a 5G lab, and to effectively transmit data through light.

More recently, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wits’ clinicians, researchers, social scientists, engineers, data scientists, legal experts, ethicists and others have played an important role in responding to the pandemic both locally and globally.

“It is an exciting time to be at Wits,” says Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of innovation strategy at Wits, founder of the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct and director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE). “The Chair in Innovation is part of our broader innovation strategy that includes the establishment of the Wits Innovation Centre (WIC) which will support several important initiatives that are due to be announced in the coming months. The ideal candidate for Chair in Innovation will be an innovator with a strong academic interest and experience in commercialising research ideas.

“Innovation thrives in diversity, so naturally because Wits is a rich, diverse community of researchers, academics, students and staff, we are able to cultivate multidisciplinary collaboration, a key component towards finding solutions to the major challenges confronting humanity and our planet.”