Former nightclub transforms into Silicon Braamfontein, home of innovations

Internal perspective of the new incubation centre near Wits.

Internal perspective of the new incubation centre near Wits.

A disused building that housed a popular nightclub in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, in the 1980s and 90s is being transformed into a state-of-the-art technology hub for young entrepreneurs.

Once home to the Therapy nightclub, the building is among a row of five in Juta Street, close to the University of the Witwatersrand, that forms part of the Tshimologong precinct – which means “new beginnings” in Setswana.

Managed by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JSCE), the precinct aims to promote the creation of start-up digital technology companies by young entrepreneurs and to also provide skills development.

“A young person working here has such an important role to play in this digital economy,” said the JSCE’s director and chief executive, professor Barry Dwolatzky.

He said they were aiming to offer membership to join the hub, which costs R1 500 a month for full-time members, to at least 400 entrepreneurs.

Those eligible would include entrepreneurs who are already running a business or starting one as well as those who want to turn their ideas into a business.

Some of the benefits they would receive include having a work station, as well as Internet connectivity, having access to a meeting room where they could meet clients as well as the use of specialist facilities such as a research laboratory and 3D printers.

“Every member will be assigned a mentor, who will meet with them every fortnight and provide expert advice on how they can develop their business.”

Dwolatzky said the precinct had attracted heavyweight technology partners IBM and Microsoft. Other partners include Telkom, Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), financial services group MMI Holdings, which are involved in short- and long-term insurance, the city of Johannesburg as well as Gauteng province.

He said that a research laboratory built on the precinct by IBM was “beyond state-of-the-art”.

The laboratory – one of only two in Africa built by IBM – will be officially opened by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor next Thursday. The precinct itself will be officially opened next month.

According to Dwolatzky, it made sense to have a technology innovation hub in Braamfontein because it was near a major research university.
“There are a lot of young people living in Braamfontein. It has become a very vibey place and it’s still where corporates are situated.”

Dwolatzky said that the initiative was Wits’s endeavour to create a hub that will be connected to it, adding: “But it is consciously not on the Wits campus because it’s going to be open to anyone and everyone.”

The buildings which were once earmarked for student residences belong to Wits. “But there has been no money from Wits for the project because it’s not seen by anyone as Wits’s core business. Wits is our academic partner.”

So far, sponsors have spent R40-million towards the renovation of the buildings.

The hub, according to Dwolatzky, would not be competing with the mainstream programmes offered at Wits but “rather complementing them”. “We will work alongside Wits’ researchers and computer scientists.”

He said the IBM research laboratory would be used by the Wits Medical School for, among other things, assisting with patient care or finding causes of diseases.

Another exciting initiative was moving Gauteng’s design and validation centre from Sandton to the precinct. The centre is used to test any ICT that the province was planning to buy and install.

The JSCE together with the City of Johannesburg are also involved in the #Hack.Jozi Challenge, a project which encourages enterprise development through a competition that offers a first prize of R1-million to the person who comes up with the most innovative digital idea.

This year top 10 entries included ways for parents to reduce screen time for their children and a free pick up and drop off laundry service.

Moses Mpofu, 30, a software developer employed by the JSCE, said it was a platform for entrepreneurs to express themselves creatively.

Professor Yunus Ballim, a former deputy vice-chancellor of Wits, said the precinct “will give new character to the city of Johannesburg”. “This whole precinct, including Braamfontein and Newtown, is going to become culturally and intellectually an exciting part of the city.”

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