Lighting the Innovation Hub fuse

ITWeb's 2013 joint-Personality of the Year winner hopes to create the kind of space that will foster innovation in software development.

By Johann Barnard, ITWeb contributor
Johannesburg, 20 Feb 2014
Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Tshimologong Precinct, says that although there are no guarantees the hub will meet all expectations, he believes they have the right ingredients to make it work.
Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Tshimologong Precinct, says that although there are no guarantees the hub will meet all expectations, he believes they have the right ingredients to make it work.

If Professor Barry Dwolatzky had his way, his new technology hub in Braamfontein would retain the night club dance floor as a centrepiece on which, perish the thought, geeks could party like it was 1999.

The affable, teddy bear-like director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University is pursuing a life-long ambition of owning a night club, albeit a club restyled as the focal point of one of Joburg's newest technology hubs.

The tech hub concept has been around for decades, sparked by the collaboration between US companies and research institutions to produce innovations that laid the foundations for technology we now take for granted. Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area is credited as the birthplace of such collaboration, led in the main by Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre from which companies such as 3Com, Adobe, Cisco, Apple and Microsoft drew inspiration.


The hubs of today play a multi-faceted role: part incubation, part collaboration, with the big draw card being pre-existing infrastructure. This extends beyond the physical space for work areas, meeting and training rooms, to non-negotiables such as an inexhaustible supply of coffee and fast internet connections.

Tshimologong Precinct falls squarely into this mould with its grand mission to attract like-minded developers, content producers and businesses to a space that will support home-grown innovation.

The five buildings that cover half a city block on Juta Street between Henry and Station Streets will house distinct spaces to support startups and house existing tech companies. This will include dedicated and co-working spaces while future plans include a maker space, training and meeting rooms, as well as computer labs.

"Three things are driving digital technology: software, content and devices," says Prof. Dwolatzky. "Tablets and smartphones are just the tip of an enormous iceberg in terms of innovative digital devices.

"Enormous innovation is going to happen in that sector, and it's not going to come from large corporates or someone working alone on a great idea. It's coming from these types of spaces around the world under the broad name of technology hubs."

...there needs to be some kind of goal, one around which you can build a community.

Kariuiki Gathitu, M-Pesa

He says one criterion needed for success is the involvement of one or more research-intensive universities, in this case Wits and the University of Johannesburg.

Brimming with promise

Africa is seen by many as the next technology frontier. It's no surprise then that tech and incubation hubs are springing up left, right and centre.
With new ventures like the Tshimologong Precinct emerging at a rapid pace, this is far from a comprehensive listing, but the following are some of sub-Saharan Africa's active tech centres.
88mph: an incubator with co-working spaces in Cape Town and Nairobi that operates an accelerator programme, including funding for startups.
ActivSpaces: an open collaboration space, innovation hub and startup incubator based in Buea, Cameroon.
BongoHive: Lusaka, Zambia's BongoHive, aims to develop innovation in economics, business, entrepreneurship, health, and education.
Co-creation Hub: an open lab and pre-incubation space in Lagos, Nigeria, that promotes and supports creative social tech ventures.
iceAddis: a university-based innovation hub, incubator and co-working space for communities based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
iHub: Nairobi's Innovation Hub is seen as the pace-setter on the continent and provides an open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers.
iLab Liberia: a non-profit computer laboratory providing access to cutting-edge technology, expert IT assistance and a community leveraging technology.
iSpace: iSpace, based in Accra, Ghana, is an environment created for tech startups and comprises co-working, collaboration, meeting and training rooms.
Jokkolabs: a network of co-working spaces located in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast.
JoziHub: a Johannesburg-based incubator created to kickstart and accelerate innovation in the tech and social spheres.
Kinu: an open space for Tanzania's tech community to foster a culture of co-creation, spark innovation and augment capacity building based in Dar es Salaam.
Outbox: a technology incubation, collaboration space and innovation hub in Kampala, Uganda, that supports mobile and web startups and developers.

The timing of this new venture couldn't be better. Johannesburg has been playing second fiddle to Cape Town by virtue of the hype and energy behind the Silicon Cape initiative, although that seems to be changing. Gustav Praekelt's JoziHub has emerged as a lively meeting place for developers and ideas, and the University of Johannesburg's Intellilab is forging its own niche in a broader technology field.

Inspired by the success of similar hubs he's encountered around the globe, Prof. Dwolatzky believes there's a strong case to be made to centralise digital technology development in his Tshimologong Precinct.

"The project aims to create a hub that is unique because it's housed in space owned by Wits University. It will obviously have strong links to Wits but won't be for the exclusive use of the university," he says.

The other differentiator is that the initiative will be but one part of a broader Braamfontein technology cluster, dubbed Tech in Braam. The goal is to mimic the success of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has grown to rival Silicon Valley as a destination for technology startups.

The similarity with Braamfontein is the integration with a renowned university ? MIT, in Kendal Square's case ? and the participation of leading technology brands in varied, but similar pursuits.


The project is equally riding on the rejuvenation of Braamfontein, which has been slowly lifting itself out of a state of degradation. Investments in inner-city regeneration projects and infrastructure by government and private business have transformed this part of the city into a far more welcoming location.

The Tshimologong Precinct has already attracted the participation of Microsoft, which has relocated its Windows App Factory there, while NGO GlobalGirlMedia, which empowers young women to pursue a career in digital media, has set up office in the first completed building.

"You create the space and...light the fuse and see what happens."

Prof. Barry Dwolatzky, JCSE

Prof. Dwolatzky acknowledges that simply replicating successful models from elsewhere is no predictor of success.

"The truth is you can't transplant these concepts. Silicon Valley, for example, is a unique combination of things that have made it what it is," he says. "All of these hubs are amazing places that have taken on a unique character.

"The principle is that you create the space and there a few criteria it should have to light the fuse and see what happens. I believe ours will take a course of its own, and I know it will be successful in its own way."

Silicon Cape switches up a startup gear

An old industrial complex in Woodstock, Cape Town, has been transformed to house ambitious local technology startups seeking fame and fortune.
Initially started as a Google initiative dubbed 'Umbono', the technology incubation centre in the Woodstock Exchange building has been managed since late 2012 by 88mph, a seed fund that has its roots in Nairobi, Kenya, and that's headed up by European internet entrepreneur Kresten Buch.

Xhead = A proven case

The 88mph programme seeks to find the best startup teams in Cape Town and provide them with resources to help drive their ideas to market.
Startups are provided with mentorship, internet access and seed capital at the facility. Businesses that have had a kickstart at 88mph include taxi booking mobile application service Zapacab and African online television streaming service Wabona.
88mph is also preparing for its next three-month Cape Town accelerator programme scheduled for February 2014.
Meanwhile, this technology hub is located in a city that has positioned itself as South Africa's 'startup capital'.
According to research from job search engine, Cape Town has edged Africa's economic powerhouse Johannesburg to be the top startup hiring city in South Africa, with over `50 percent' of the nation's startup jobs'.
Research from the website says startups across South Africa are recruiting for over 451 open positions, according to data analysed on its website for 65 000 job positions in November 2013.
Adzuna attributes Cape Town's seeming lead over Johannesburg to initiatives such as Silicon Cape, which is a non-profit initiative that aims to create more and better startups as well as increase access to capital in the Western Cape.
Started in 2009, Silicon Cape today has over 7 500 members, according to its website.

He receives the endorsement of Kariuki Gathitu in this respect. The founder of mobile payments provider M-Pesa, which revolutionised the way millions of Africans transact, started out in Nairobi's highly celebrated iHub.

"I've seen a number of other hubs around the continent; some have a more formal setup while others are less structured," Gathitu says. "The main role they play is to connect users to infrastructure and grow a community."

Gathitu suggests that the geographic and social differences are secondary to being visionary. "After a certain period, it should have something for people to work towards ? there needs to be some kind of goal, one around which you can build a community."

The last prerequisite for such an initiative to be successful, he says, is funding. Attracting talented youngsters emerging from university, or who are still busy with their studies requires that they nurture that talent in a space free from financial burdens or constraints.

This is something Prof. Dwolatzky has made priority number one. Understandably so given that he needs to come up with R10 million to redevelop and refurbish the core of the precinct.

No guarantees

Applying his not insignificant influence, and displaying the passion of a 20-something night club hopeful, Prof. Dwolatzky secured pledges of more than a third of this capital within days of the official launch.

It's envisioned that the first buildings will be ready for use by the end of the first quarter of this year, with the entire precinct completed by the end of 2014.

Prof. Dwolatsky acknowledges that there are no guarantees the project will meet all his expectations. "We can't predict how it will turn out," he says. "But we have the right ingredients and I think we'll be blown away by what will happen."

This dose of realism, delivered in his measured tones, is far removed from the hype typically associated with tech visionaries sprouting forth on their big idea that's going to change the world.

South Africa, and Johannesburg itself, is sorely in need of infrastructure and support of the type that Tshimologong Precinct hopes to provide.

First published in the February 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.