Innovation and entrepreneurship in South Africa

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2 November 2016

Teams work together on the ideation exercise.

Customized apps that connect patients and doctors to drug information. Transport and storage service for genetic samples. Improving plant systems to optimize growth and make more clothing fabric. Creating better accounting software for schools. These are just a few of the ideas that were explored by more than 30 participants of “Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Scientists and Engineers,” a short course co-sponsored by AIP held September 27–28 at the IBM research facility in Johannesburg, South Africa. Working together with the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), the short course was timed to coincide with the inauguration of the new IBM Research Center in Africa.

IBM Research – Africa is developing breakthrough technologies by bringing together experts in genomics, astronomy, robotics, machine learning, and computer science. They apply big data analytics to improve scalability and effectiveness of health care, networks, urban ecosystems, and other problems facing Africa. The new lab in Johannesburg is directed by Solomon Assefa, a former participant in international Industrial Physics Forums organized by AIP with international partners. Logistics for the course were organized by JCSE, a center created to promote skills development and innovation in the South African IT sector. Through this co-sponsorship, AIP was also able to begin evaluating how the Corporate Associates program can further the academic–corporate connection in physical sciences in Africa.

JCSE director Barry Dwolatzky gives a tour of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, co-located with the IBM Research – Africa Lab. The precinct was created by JCSE and University of the Witwatersrand.

The AIP Corporate Associates program invited Carthage College physics professor Doug Arion to lead the short course. The first day centered on skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur with a focus on product lifecycle, creativity, and ideation. The participants worked in teams to generate product ideas and used several techniques to evaluate them. The second day featured local experts as guest speakers. Clive Butkow, CEO of Grotech Venture Capital, described his 10 lessons for attracting venture capital, and Ela Romanowska, WITS University Technology Transfer Office, gave a thorough lesson on how to protect intellectual property. 

Both sessions included lively discussions with participants on how businesses are launched in South Africa. Feedback from the participants indicated success. Most graded the sessions as very good or excellent, and many indicated that what they learned would help them in the launch of their new ventures. AIP plans to follow up with participants in one year to further evaluate the impact of the course and to see how these young entrepreneurs are faring in the evolving economy of South Africa.

Participants in the short course gather for a photo in the new IBM research facility.