South Africa’s universities are taking a lead on incubating on-campus entrepreneurs

University of Cape Town.
University of Cape Town.
Image: AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
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Universities across Africa should consider following the likes of Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town (UCT) in encouraging on-campus entrepreneurship to help play a more creative and meaningful role in tackling the continent’s growing unemployment problem.

Stellenbosch University, located in South Africa’s Western Cape, has established an incubator for campus startups called the LaunchLab, which not only offers infrastructure and support but also invests in startup companies. UCT has its own incubator and a dedicated unit for encouraging social entrepreneurship. Up in Johannesburg, Witwatersrand has also opened a digital hub.

Unemployment among the 15–24 age group in South Africa is almost 50%. With the increase in uncertainty in employability, these universities believe they need to expose students to the possibilities offered by entrepreneurship.

“Universities have strong links to industry and with access to research and innovations are in the perfect position to be a key driver of entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Philip Marais, CEO at LaunchLab.

This was, in fact, very much how Silicon Valley started, springing up around Stanford University, with industry working with universities to commercialize technology.

The number of incubators in Africa have more than doubled in the last year, but often remain inaccessible to student entrepreneurs. That is not the case when an incubator is embedded within a university. These incubators are more easily accessible to young entrepreneurs, or even those who just want to experiment with entrepreneurship while studying.

Protecting IP

Custos Media Technologies, which uses bitcoin to crack down on digital piracy, was launched from within Stellenbosch University. Bitcoin bounties are embedded in digital videos sent to reviewers, which can then be claimed by bounty hunters when they appear online. G-J van Rooyen, chief executive of Custos, says there are benefits to this from an intellectual property (IP) angle.

“Our invention would have been unlikely to arise outside of a dense-network research environment like a university,” he explains.

Patenting is usually extremely difficult to do outside of a large institution. Custos simply wrote its initial disclosure the day the invention was made, with the university’s technology transfer office Innovus handling the rest.

Incubators and technology transfer offices within universities also help with the legal costs of setting up the company, while Custos even received seed funding. This is a model many South African institutions are adopting, leaving their counterparts elsewhere on the continent behind.

“There’s a precipitous gap between a good idea and a viable product, and it’s one that’s very difficult to bridge without financial or business development support,” van Rooyen says.

There are signs notice is being taken elsewhere, especially at the likes of the University of Nairobi and the American University in Cairo.

With publicly funded infrastructure, world-class expert researchers, promising future leaders, bright young minds and skilled student interns, it is not hard to imagine a hub at every tertiary institution in Africa.

But there is still more that can be done. Marais says universities need to be like entrepreneurs themselves, and collaborate by fostering more relationships with industry.

For van Rooyen, diversity is key to the whole process.

“The best way to support student talent is to let ideas collide. Bring students from different disciplines together to pitch business ideas, critique each other, share knowledge. Make it easy to test attractive ideas in a low-risk environment. Have the resources to support the ideas that have legs.”