$3m donation to help Wits light up innovation in Africa

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Apr 2022

The University of Witwatersrand (Wits University) is positioning itself to drive the African continent into a new era of innovation, change and growth.

So says vice-chancellor and principal professor Zeblon Vilakazi, setting the higher learning institution’s direction as it celebrates its centenary this year.

Yesterday, the university hosted a science and innovation webinar that featured Dr David Fine, Boston-based innovator, entrepreneur and Wits alumnus, as guest speaker.

During the webinar, Vilakazi announced the Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation.

The Fines donated $3 million (R47 million) to an endowment fund to support innovation at Wits, which he indicated will go a long way towards creating a long-lasting legacy of upliftment, forward-thinking and relevance.

In addition, the university has taken a quantum leap with the establishment of the Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation, according to the vice-chancellor.

“With this chair, a key component of our strategy for the next 10 years − the Wits 2030 vision – is to change the face of this country and this continent.

“We need to harness and develop the transition from research excellence to impactful and relevant innovation that could advance society. The holder of this Chair will become the director of the recently-established Wits Innovation Centre, also known as WIC, which will be the centrepiece of our very ambitious Wits innovation strategy.”

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of innovation strategy at Wits University, revealed the institution has developed a Wits innovation strategy over the last couple of months.

Dwolatzky explained that innovation has been defined very broadly, including establishing tech start-ups, as well as the successful deployment of new ideas or methods to benefit society.

“The [innovation] strategy is really about creating the next 100 years for Wits. We see Wits as a hub that connects universities in the global South to those in the global North. That is the role and the destiny of our university over the next 100 years.

“Wits sees itself as the leading edge of innovation that serves society – it’s not innovation for the sake of innovation.”

At the heart of Wits’ innovation ecosystem and strategy is WIC (Wits Innovation Centre), according to Dwolatzky. The centre will coordinate innovation activities at Wits and work in partnership with others.

“It [WIC] will offer seed-funding, innovation fellowships to link post-graduate and under-graduate research into innovation. Very importantly will be various industry solutions labs, where companies and broader society will bring problems that will be co-developed through research and innovation into useful products and services for society.”

Dwolatzky noted that innovators as part of the WIC will have opportunities to participate in areas such as financial, medical, education and government tech. “These are things we will discuss and refine in the coming months.”