Stellenbosch – The Ecosystem Focused on Deep Tech.

Deep Tech – the word doesn’t refer to innovation itself, but to a category of startup companies that develop new products based on scientific discovery or meaningful engineering innovation – to quote Wikipedia. Initially, I just wanted to focus on Technopark, the commercial building campus that houses the likes of Capitec, Entersekt & many more. I then went deeper into how Technopark came about which put me in a rabbit hole uncovering the history of Stellenbosch & why Stellenbosch is one of — if not the best tech hub in South AfricaI mostly ignored the politics of it & focused solely on business & technology, which was hard to do but I came to the conclusion that 3 things make Stellenbosch the tech hub it is. 1. the environment, 2. time & 3. the dedication to innovationThe environment & time can be joined by the hip, You see Stellenbosch has been allowed to thrive over the last 340 years or so, purposefully that is & over the years gigantic companies that have come from the town have gone on to be global phenomenons, the likes of Naspers, the Rembrandt Group now split between Remgro & Reinet. The last finding & conclusion is the dedication to innovation — this can be traced back to Stellenbosch University (SU), the 102-year-old university that has played an enormous role in crafting the town to what it is today — even so, the Technopark campus — it was a Dean at the university that came up with the idea of having a science park in the town. SU has incubated the likes of Mxit, FireID; the creators SnapScan & most importantly InnovUs an innovation centre within the university that has birthed the LaunchLab incubator & countless others.

The Environment & Time

I want to start by saying I have erased this first sentence about 10 times. If you look into the history of Stellenbosch, & the role the town has played in South Africa it will bring up mixed feelings, especially for black South Africans but we cannot ignore that there is something different in the way they do business in Stellenbosch, after all, it is the birthplace of no less than 6 Top 40 JSE listed businesses.

The 4th richest ‘city’ in South Africa with a collective wealth of $54 billion ~ R972 billion, according to BusinessTech off a significantly lower population base than the top 3 cities; on a per capita basis, the richest ‘city’ in South Africa. Individuals from the town have shaped South Africa in the worst & the best ways possible.

The town’s richest people are some of the most polarizing in the Country. The Ruperts, who are not necessarily from there & don’t really live there but get lumped in because of the HQ of most of their businesses. The Hertzogs’, The Wieses’, The First Rand founders & their various lieutenants, old Whitey Basson, The Moutans, Michiel le Roux, & who can forget Markus Jooste (he’s a Pretoria lad & lives in Hermanus, but we can’t leave him out), you get the point, they live very comfortable lives there. Much of their families are deeply entrenched in South African businesses & will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The environment has allowed them to prosper & endure regardless of the macro situation of the country, time has been kind to them — just read the story of how Mediclinic came about in Pieter du Toit’s book The Stellenbosch Mafia.

Dedication to Innovation

Technopark

In 1985 Prof. Christo Viljoen, Dean of Engineering at SU approached the municipality with the idea of the town having a science park. The project was approved in 1986 with a subsequent R10 million loan from the Cape of Good Hope to the municipality. Zoning was approved in June 1987, construction began soon after & the project was completed by the end of the year. Fast forward to today, Technopark is a hub for innovative companies.

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Just to list a few:

  • 4i Mobile – software development
  • Capitec – banking
  • EeziPay – payments software
  • Entersekt – encryption software
  • iKubu – computer vision
  • Medclinic – hospitals
  • Skynamo – software as a service (SaaS)

Except for Medclinic, these companies are less than 20 years old & serve as an example of technological excellence within the confines of Stellenbosch & form the benchmark of success for companies within the ecosystem.

InnovUs

Most university *attempt to commercialize their research but none do it at the scale of Stellenbosch University. InnovUs, led by Anita Nel, is SU’s commercialization platform for innovative research done by staff & students alike. They help fast track patent & licensing filing as well as help in commercializing the research through the LaunchLab.

InnovUs focuses on companies building B2B Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), just like plumbing; where the pipes are essential, these companies build for white-labelling licensing or spin out to become B2B Software as a Service (Saas) players.

The process starts with an initial screening of the idea, then sprint development, concurrently with a patent application after that, the new startup with a working prototype becomes either an IaaS or a SaaS player & begins commercial incubation at the LanchLab incubator.

I suppose this method is used by most universities but most universities miss the key point of commercialization — commercialization. That is because most universities don’t have a LaunchLab & the role it plays in the ecosystem.

LaunchLab is SU’s startup incubator which focuses on helping startups commercialize their prototypes through coaching, mentorship and access to capital from the likes of Nedbank.

In conjunction with mentorship, they provide co-working space, a lab, shared equipment, stuff I presume someone building a deep tech company would need.

Some notable startups currently part of The LaunchLab are:

  • Adagin Technologies – precision farming
  • AzarGen Biotechnologies – biotech
  • BridgIoT – Internet of Things
  • Revolute Systems – agriculture data analytics
  • Cloudline – Drones
  • AxioVR – Virtual Reality
  • SUN Magnetics – Quantum electronics
  • Hypernova – Nano satellites

In concluding, it is quite evident Stellenbosch has committed itself to innovation & the commercialization of deep tech initiatives. The startups’ aren’t what they are without The LaunchLab > LaunchLab doesn’t exist without InnovUs > InnovUs doesn’t exist without SU > & SU is not what it is without Stellenbosch … You get it right?

By Ububele Kopo

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