IBM research lab to work with the cool kids

Multinational research company IBM announced on Friday that it will be opening a research laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand, in the Tshimologong Precinct in Johannesburg.

The premises was once a bar, and still has a long bar counter and heavily-graffiti’ed walls, but in a year this will be one of the top information communication technology (ICT) research laboratories in the country.

In the up-and-coming suburb of Braamfontein in Johannesburg, computer programmers and tech-preneurs will soon be rubbing elbows with artists, hipsters and those attracted to the rejuvenation in the city centre.

“We’re expanding our global research network to South Africa,” said Dr Solomon Assefa in a telephonic interview on Wednesday. He is director of the laboratory, which falls under IBM Research Africa.

Fostering innovation
The plan for the new laboratory, which will open its doors next year after extensive refurbishment, is threefold, he said. “The first is to work on breakthrough technology for national priorities and to address Africa’s grand challenges; promoting science and technology; and fostering innovation,” Assefa said, adding that the facility would do that through creating an “innovation ecosystem”.

“We will work with students, start-ups and entrepreneurs and help them develop intellectual property … [with] our scientists mentoring and guiding them.” This involves working with universities to develop research skills, and teach people how to take things from research and development to commercialisation on a faster track, fostering innovation through applied research, he said. “As IBM, we are capable of doing that. We have more than 100 years of experience, and are a major player in IP ecosystems.”

While a lot of innovation and research and development (R&D) takes place in South Africa, little of this makes its way onto the market or into companies. Government, through the National Research Foundation, universities and research councils, is the major funder of R&D in the country, but often these developments stay in the laboratory, due to a lack of venture capital, difficulties faced by start-ups or industry ignorance.

Asked why Wits University had chosen to locate its ICT laboratory in Braamfontein, Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice-chancellor for research at Wits, said that it would “create an environment for techies that is close to the universities and urban regeneration”. “Whenever institutions start engaging with the environs, it has ripple effects.”

Assefa said that IBM Research’s model involved partnering with universities. “We want to work with young people and equip them with the latest knowledge tools and skills.”

Bolstering contribution
The facility is also the recipient of government support, through investments from the departments of trade and industry and science and technology. Science and technology minister Naledi Pandor said on Wednesday that the collaboration could not have come at a better time.

“Our government is increasingly putting science, technology and innovation, and research and development, at the centre of our social and economic development policy and strategic interventions.” It would also bolster the private sector’s declining contribution to research and development, she said.

This will be IBM’s second research laboratory on the continent. The first is in Nairobi, Kenya. Asked if the political upheaval was the reason that IBM was setting up a laboratory in South Africa, Jonathan Batty, responsible for external relations at IBM Global, said that the company had always intended to expand on the continent.

“The fact that we’re opening this lab in Johannesburg is a testimony to the success of the Nairobi lab … [and] proving that our African research strategy is successful.”

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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