Unicorns, gazelles or leapfrogs?

By Allyson Towle
Johannesburg, 11 Aug 2017

ITWeb Digital Economy Summit 2017

Harness the potential of digital disruption to drive real business benefit by registering to attend the ITWeb Digital Economy Summit now. Click here to register. Jason Levin, Elevation, plus many other 'giants' and 'start-ups' will present at this event on 7 and 8 November at the Focus Rooms in Sunninghill. Click here for the agenda.

ITWeb Events spoke to Jason Levin about the reason for and outcome of his recent report: Unicorns, gazelles or leapfrogs - a view on accelerating the SA start-up ecosystem to world class; as well how he sees himself, his company and passions fitting into a disruptive workplace.

ITWeb: Can you tell the readers a little more about the report you produced - Unicorns, gazelles and leapfrogs - a view on accelerating the SA start-up ecosystem to world class*. What was the aim of the report and what was your most interesting and unexpected outcome?

Levin: The report raises the questions: Whether or not SA's start-up sector can move beyond catch-up mode towards a world-class ecosystem with outputs of exportable quality? Will we be dead average lagging behind those who are hungrier and quicker? Will we create something viable that assists local innovation, economic growth (and maybe employment) or can/should we become a stellar disruptor and unicorn producer?

This journey, however, dispelled my initial obsession with the elusive unicorn. The local ecosystem hasn't produced a start-up north of US$1 billion in valuation and the trail scent suggests we're not likely to any time soon. In fact, while we are making progress, we aren't creating (and retaining) many new businesses valued at a quarter of that.

One thing that came up again and again in this study is the trust gap between government and business and vice versa. The only other theme mentioned more than the trust dilemma was the quality of mainstream South African education and the need to fix it. But that is at least a 10-year task, and it could hold everything back if we don't find a work-around in parallel.

ITWeb: What in your opinion is a disruptor?

Levin: Someone whose thinking revolutionises the way a product type or category operates.

ITWeb: What/who are the 'leapfrogs' and what is the major benefit of being one?

Levin: They are lateral thinking 'work-arounds' that try to get the start-up space to a better place more quickly than a linear path of steady improvement. Victory is a burning platform, and in many ways this South African innovation and tech start-up system needs disruption itself.

ITWeb Events: Your bio says you are a chief explorer, intrapreneur, and entrepreneur. What exactly does this mean?

Levin: I own and run Elevation: a seed investing and advisory firm. We have a few investments in South African and other start-ups, and are looking for more. Before that I founded, re-founded and co-founded three other businesses.

ITWeb: Why are disruptors considered to be a threat to incumbent business? What in your opinion should they be doing to stay in the game?

Levin: Barriers to entry (mostly around cost and knowledge) have dropped dramatically in recent years, and "whipper-snappers" are now a real threat to "lumbering Goliaths".

Technology is a great leveller. All companies large and small have to innovate to grow, and in some cases survive. Most giants can do this more easily through acquisition than trying to innovate in-house.

ITWeb: What do you see as the biggest drivers/motivators of change in the next five years?

Levin: The obvious ones are virtual reality for business application and of course artificial intelligence, but also flexibility - businesses that can deal with an accelerated pace of change will win.

ITWeb: Why did you say yes to presenting at the upcoming Digital Economy Summit? What is it that you bring to the table and what do you want attendees to take away with them after your presentation?

Levin: Because I think South Africa has started to lag in the innovation and tech space, and I would like to see a very able start-up ecosystem help remedy that.

'Outcome: Leapfrog down a new path, the status quo is a dead end'.

*For more information on this report - click here