The Innovation Hub CEO McLean Sibanda enlightens
Innovation is the new buzzword as business tries to keep up with the latest technological developments in an ever more competitive marketplace, with India, China and the United States vying for technological bragging rights.
The Gauteng Provincial Government saw the writing on the wall back in 2001, and established a specialised unit for technological development. The Innovation Hub was developed to create a unique space in which hi-tech entrepreneurs, world-class businesspeople, academics, researchers and venture capitalists could meet, network and prosper.
The Gauteng Department of Economic Development implements the initiatives identified in the Gauteng Growth and Development Strategy, Gauteng Green Economy Strategy as well as the Gauteng Innovation Strategy, to advance the economic development and growth of the province through innovation. Located in Tshwane, The Innovation Hub facilitates engagement between hi-tech entrepreneurs, small and medium enterprises, academic and research organisations, etc. Among its local partners and tenants are the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality and the University of Pretoria. Likable chief executive officer McLean Sibanda is a qualified patent attorney and former group executive responsible for commercialisation at the Technology Innovation Agency; former acting executive director of the Innovation Fund; and current board member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
He held consultations for the African Union on the establishment of the Pan-African Intellectual Property Management Office, leading to the development of the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act, 2008, and the establishment of the National Intellectual Property Management Office, while on secondment to the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Blue Chip sat down with the brains behind the innovation, and one of South Africa’s rising intellectual CEOs.
What have been some of the success stories at the Hub?
The incubation programme has been running now for a while, and there have been about 84 companies that have come out of this programme since its inception. It was run originally from a pilot plant in 2000.
The Coachlab has about 26 students per year, and these are postgraduate students who are fully funded by industry. We’re getting quite a high employment rate for these particular students as they finish. Most are getting involved in the City of Tshwane, in mounting the Smart City concept. In the last year, we have been quite instrumental in establishing mLab, the mobile application development lab in conjunction with the Finnish government, the World Bank and the CSIR. This is a smart combination for mobile developers to be able to develop their applications, test them on Nokia and other platforms, and be incubated and supported to get them into the market.
We’re working to establish a climate innovation centre. So these are our focus areas: information and communications technology (ICT), “green” technology and business intelligence technologies.
How have the innovations been accepted in the marketplace?
Our focus in the green economy is currently on job creation, so we have a programme that we’re running here in Tshwane, focusing on planting the Moringa “miracle tree”. As you may be aware, the Moringa tree is one of those trees that grow in arid areas, but it has significant worth in terms of its value chain because every part of the tree can be used for a whole range of activities. We’re planting these trees in an area where, in essence, there’s nothing growing; and we’re going to be creating about 20 jobs per hectare plantation.
The other project that we are looking at doing with the City of Tshwane is a rural electrification solar (off-grid) project. We’re looking at an integrated intelligent village: it’s not only off-grid power, but also looks at providing connectivity to the community for electricity – but they will be able to access services as well.
That’s really in our focus area, currently around green issues; we continue to look for more projects to support.
Is solar or wind power the most efficient way of producing electricity?
I feel that solar power is a better prospect, largely because of problematic conditions. If one looks at Gauteng in particular, we probably have better prospects and good climatic conditions compared to most parts of South Africa. The technologies there, in terms of solar, hold significant potential for new and emerging materials that can provide enhancement in terms of solar power.
My sense around wind power is that it is very much dependent on location. The Eastern Cape has high prospects for wind – better prospects than inland.
The Gauteng Department of Economic Development is now initiating a solar farm, and we’ll see how that emerges in terms of the contribution to providing upgrades.
However, we need to have sufficient incentives for people, particularly the middle class, to migrate to alternative sources of energy; and we need to give sufficient incentives for them to celebrate any efforts into the grid.
Has the government been facilitating that process?
I feel that they have. Currently, there’s a move to find a legislative framework in order to do just that, so that there’s a proper framework.
But what we’re seeing is that the government actually is exploring these particular technologies: the DST funded the solar technology at the University of Johannesburg.
There are currently discussions with the Industrial Development Corporation to look at funding for the production plant that’s going to be in Paarl.
As the benefits of these emerge, I have no doubt that we will see the incentives being crafted into a profit legislation.
How open are South Africans to innovation?
I believe we are open because, if you look at some of the inventions that have made significant impact on people’s lives globally, their inspiration – one way or another – comes from South Africa, whether it be the heart transplant or Pratley Putty.
Since communities innovate in order to survive, the desperate years of isolation in South Africa provided us with an opportunity to be able to innovate for our own needs.
The one issue, however, is obviously the risk that innovation or entrepreneurship carries. It is quite a high degree of risk and, given some of our societal challenges, it becomes quite difficult for some of those ideas to make it onto the market. There are issues as well in terms of availability of financing, to be able to get that particular idea out into the market. We are a highly innovative society, we just need more support to be able to get the ideas into the market.
Is innovation stifled by the red tape in South Africa?
The biggest criticism that we hear is that it takes long. The valuation process – as to whether the funding agencies are going to recognise you or not – is just far too long. It ranges from six months to, in some cases, 12 months as some entrepreneurs will tell you.
For some innovations, six months is way too long, particularly in the ICT sector; in essence, what we require is more robust instrumental evaluation processes that are able to tell the entrepreneur within a month or two at the most whether they are going to take the idea.
Part of the reason it takes so long is that it’s an initial risk: the development finance institutions and funding agencies are just too risk-averse and, in some cases, you simply have to bite the bullet. But it doesn’t mean you need to throw away good money after bad ideas; it just means we need to develop good systems to be able to evaluate the ideas.
Mercedes-Benz is bringing out a new range of “green” cars. Where do you think the future lies: electric or hydrogen-fuelled vehicles?
Well, with the electric cars, there are huge prospects as seen in terms of the Joule (electric car) that is backed by the Gauteng Government, and which is being developed in Cape Town by Optimal Energy. If one takes that on its own, there’s a whole industry that can emerge out of the electric vehicle industry – from charging stations to the battery technology, and so forth.
Hydrogen is another prospect. Part of the challenge has been around the generation and storage issues. My sense is that hydrogen is further away than the battery or electric vehicles.
The problem with electric lies in battery disposal. Is there a greener battery on the horizon? There will have to be a greener battery. There, in essence, lies an area of innovation – to look at greener batteries. But I feel there could be conversions of technology, anyway; that the hydrogen will converge with a commercial battery in a system as we know it.