Stellenbosch: Good soil, great people, gigantic ideas
Ideas, to paraphrase Robin Williams, can change the world. This is right on the money… but it’s also reductive. The real problem is not the having of ideas, but making sure that the really good ones go on to fulfill their potential.
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned in this new, exciting epoch of entrepreneurs, startups, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘agile thinking’ it’s that there are many, many decent ideas that will never see the light of day in any other way than through the grimy window of dad’s garage in which they were birthed.
If there’s another thing that we’ve learned it’s that you can significantly reduce the rate of failure and exponentially increase the amount of sustainable, stand-alone businesses that coalesce around their ideas if you surround them with like-minded, yet differently skilled individuals. Communities create connections.
One such community is Stellenbosch. The region is known for its agricultural fertility, prolific wine farms and lush farmlands. But, with companies like Mediclinic, Distell and Capitec all having their roots in the same soil, and Technopark, which is growing world-changing tech companies like Entersekt and Praelexis, it is proving to be just as proliferating for the imagination.
At the heart of all of this is Stellenbosch University (affectionately known as Maties), which, understandably, is brimming with superlative talents in the fields of engineering, technology, medical, natural and food sciences, mathematics and physics, and is thus also the genesis of some incredibly valuable ideas. In just the last decade we have seen an escalation of entrepreneurial activity coming out of our University that far outstrips most of our local counterparts and even many of the ‘first world’ ones.
Many years ago a decision was made to capitalise on the number of influential ideas that our students and faculty generate, and a new, focused entity, Innovus, was formed. As the University’s technology transfer office, it is Innovus’ responsibility to ensure that any grand concepts coming out of the University, that are feasible as businesses, are firstly able to reach their markets (either through licensing or starting new companies) and then, secondly, to make sure they reach their potential. To do so they handle specialist tasks like patenting the IP, product development support, connecting the founders to investors and providing the missing business skills to grow them to the level where they are no longer just an idea, gathering dust in an old garage, but fully-fledged, self-sustaining, profit generating entities. From startups, to standups, so to speak.
In the last 10 years, Innovus has lodged more PCT applications (international patent families) than any other local universities. Perhaps more impressively, they have also lodged more PCT applications than any other company. It is for this reason that it has the reputation as being the ‘most innovative entity in South Africa’.
But, something was still missing… To build the momentum of all of this innovation movement, to further help startups reach their commercial potential, as well as to amplify entrepreneurial activity with students, faculties and the broader Stellenbosch Community, Innovus decided to establish the Nedbank Stellenbosch University LaunchLab in 2015 with the help of Nedbank and the Department of Trade and Industry. Calling the LaunchLab a ‘another hub’ just doesn’t do it justice. It’s a community inside a community, which amplifies the effects of both. Within its walls, you’ll find some very driven people using the resources the LaunchLab provides – access to market through corporate clients (Nedbank, Santam, ATTACQ and Mercedes-Benz South Africa), access to funding, free internet, tools, skills workshops and functional space – to digitally change the face of transport or farming, put satellite components together and into space, create nutritious consumables and even consolidate debt for agricultural labourers. Most importantly, they use each other as resources to solve unsolvable problems, by tackling them from multiple angles.
“We call it facilitating valuable connections. This is the heart of what we do at LaunchLab. Entrepreneurship is a contact sport. If you don’t have connections to help you build and grow your business you are going to struggle. And Stellenbosch, the University and LaunchLab are a rich community for valuable connections” says LaunchLab CEO, Philip Marais.
The examples below are paragons of this way of working.
Stellietech is a student-founded company that has built their own custom software training system, and was recently awarded the tender from Stellenbosch University to train all of the support staff on Microsoft Office
Sxuirrel is a marketplace for space, first for storing goods for when students are required to vacate residences during holidays and, more recently, for parking and event venues. They have raised more than R3m in equity financing, have expanded nationally, and are working closely with global commercial property developer, ATTACQ.
MySmartFarm is a dashboard and automation solution for farmers, which uses new algorithms to improve yield. They have also worked with the electronic engineering department to develop sensors to read soil moisture and mineral composition.
Leap.ly is a platform for graduate recruitment that uses AI to match candidates with opportunities. They have also worked with the computer science department to improve their algorithms.
Mellowcabs manufactures electric mini-cars that operate through the Uber platform. They worked with the electrical and electronic engineering departments to improve the battery management systems for their vehicles.
Those are merely a few examples of the scale of young industry that the LaunchLab nurtures and, in fact, by the end of 2017, LaunchLab has supported over 120 businesses which, in turn, have supported 340 direct jobs. And, they have pretty darn good coffee, too.
The Western Cape and South Africa have felt the significant impact of Innovus and LaunchLab working in tandem, but the effect they have had on Stellenbosch University and the people working there has been immense. As prior successes push others to get involved and try harder and, as it stands now, 60% of the startups founded in the area are Maties-founded.
Stellenbosch University has earned its reputation as ‘the most innovative’ and the LaunchLab as the ‘top university incubator in Africa’. It’s all because of the proven fact that when good people come together, good things can happen faster. The auditorium of Stellenbosch innovation has its seats filled by investors, technologists, business modellers, University alumni, as well as the ideators themselves, and there’s a queue of corporates, mavericks, VCs and industry representatives who are just itching for their turn to be part of the spectacle.