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Prof Vilakazi looks to build high-tech start-up ecosystem around Wits

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Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, newly-appointed vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand. 
Photo credit: Wits University
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, newly-appointed vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand. Photo credit: Wits University

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, newly-appointed vice-chancellor and principal of SA’s higher learning institution, University of Witwatersrand (Wits), is looking to build a high-tech start-up ecosystem around the varsity.

Vilakazi, who has a keen interest in technology, made the assertion in a presentation after being appointed to the top job at the university.

The Council of the University of the Witwatersrand last month announced the appointment of Vilakazi – the current vice-principal and deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Postgraduate Studies – as vice-chancellor and principal of the university from 1 January 2021.

He takes the reins from professor Adam Habib, who leaves Wits at the end of the year to lead the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

According to the university, under Vilakazi’s leadership, research output has more than doubled, with the institution increasingly producing more research with impact. He is widely published (325 papers) and highly cited with an h-index of 70.

It is Vilakazi’s dream to create a local version of the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Wits.

In his presentation, he said he is looking to create a “high-tech, high-growth start-up ecosystem around Wits, with synergistic research collaboration and funding opportunities”.

Vilakazi’s announcement comes as Wits is at the centre of driving technology innovations around Johannesburg.

From 2016, the university started transforming Braamfontein into a young, vibrant precinct for its tech-savvy and innovative community.

Wits and its partners in government, business and industry launched the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, in 2016.

Setswana for “new beginnings”, Tshimologong is Johannesburg’s high-tech address in the vibrant inner-city district of Braamfontein, where the incubation of start-ups, the commercialisation of research and the development of high-level digital skills for students, working professionals and unemployed youths takes place.

Vilakazi played a key role in the establishment of the Tshimologong Precinct and in Wits becoming the first African partner on the IBM Q Network last year.

Last year, IBM announced the expansion of its quantum computing efforts to Africa in a new collaboration with Wits in SA.

“This is the latest outcome of the joint partnership between IBM Research and Wits, which started in 2016 when IBM opened its second lab in Africa in Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Johannesburg,” said Vilakazi at the time, during a press conference.

No stranger to technology and the digital world, Vilakazi chairs South Africa’s National Quantum Computing Working Committee, which seeks to develop a framework for quantum computing and quantum technology-driven research and innovation in South Africa.

According to the university, he is also instrumental in ensuring Wits and other African universities have access to quantum computing networks.

“It is an honour for me to have been appointed to this prestigious position,” says Vilakazi. “I am committed to working with my esteemed colleagues, fellow academics and smart, savvy students to create new knowledge, and to develop the high-level skills required to move South Africa, and our economy forward.

“We also need to continue to develop the originators, innovators and critical thinkers who can help us solve the problems of the 21st Century.”

Vilakazi is globally recognised for his expert knowledge in physics and nuclear research.

He was also instrumental in establishing South Africa's first experimental high-energy physics research group at CERN, focusing on the development of the High-level Trigger for the CERN-ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

He also served as a visiting scientist at the Atomic Energy Commission and Alternative Energy in Saclay, France.

“Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is the epitome of a world-class researcher who is globally recognised for his scientific work, and for his contribution towards developing higher education in Africa. He is a truly talented individual who is an inspiring exemplar for all Africans,” says Isaac Shongwe, chairperson of the Wits Council, the highest decision-making body of the university.

“We are confident that Professor Vilakazi will ably lead Wits to its centenary in 2022 and beyond, steward a new vision for the academy, and reinvigorate the academic project in a higher education context that is rapidly changing.”

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