It’s noisy, smelly and there’s nowhere to park: there’s a lot of building work going on around Juta Street in Braamfontein at the moment. Not only has construction begun in earnest on the high tech incubator-cum-research hub that will become the Tshimologong Precinct, where walls demolished and building cleared out of the way to make way for an elaborate piazza-style “founders’ square”, but on almost exactly the same day that ground was finally broken on the multi-million rand development the City of Johannesburg decided to dig up the streets outside too.

For Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE), it’s the culmination of several years’ worth of work to get an ambitious project that is designed to be a catalyst for high tech innovation in the city off the ground. Tshimologong is planned to be a shared workspace, a research lab and a networking venue all in one, but more than that it’s a beacon that will, it’s hoped, attract rich investors, hungry-for-talent corporates and wannabe entrepreneurs in equal measure.

“South Africa has lost a lot of traction,” Dwolatzky explained at a recent roundtable conference to discuss the 10th anniversary of JCSE, “Because 10 years ago we were the gateway to Africa, we were going to be the lighthouse to everything good in Africa, and we’ve missed a beat there. There’s fantastic stuff happening in Kenya, in North Africa, in East Africa. Stuff where we should be the major player.”

In Dwolatzky’s view, it’s not just South Africa needs to regain its reputation for innovation and leadership. Very specifically it’s Johannesburg which, as sub-Saharan Africa’s richest city – with a huge population of students, technologists and IT workers – that should be the technology leader. And in this vision it’s the JCSE – a joint venture between the City of Johannesburg and Wits University – which is ideally placed to act as a co-ordinating force which can inspire and lead.

Dwolatzky has toured the major tech cities of the world – Boston, Berkeley, Mumbai, London, Nairobi – and says that success and the right culture of innovation comes when the state, academia and private business are all present in the right mix to combine research and training with commerce and the social conditions for, say, Silicon Valley.

“I strongly believe in the triple helix,” he explains, “Government, industry and university working together.”

It’s been almost two years since Dwolatzky first showed me around Tshimologong. At the time, it was a block of mostly abandoned buildings – including the old Inc nightclub, three decrepit structures and a poorly maintained office block – that had been bought by Wits and which was to become the JCSE’s home shortly after.

At the time, Dwolatzky hoped that a revamped precinct would be open for business within a year, with superfast broadband connectivity and a steady stream of ambitious young blades with world-changing business ideas.

An artist's impression of what the eco-designed Tshimologong Precinct will look like when finished.
An artist’s impression of what the eco-designed Tshimologong Precinct will look like when finished.

While progress has been hampered by a lack of money – the effort expended by JCSE staff on fundraising is incredible – things are coming together. Earlier this year, IBM announced that it would be investing R700m in its second Research Lab in Africa, to be based in the development. A revamped building on the edge of Tshimologong will, by Christmas, be home to one of the firm’s cognitive computing servers, Watson.

Watson’s services are already being used by call centres in South Africa.

“Our research labs in Nairobi and Johannesburg are all about giving back to the marketplace and growing local skills,” says IBM’s Sunil Mahajan, “We’ve always invested in R&D, we invest billions. Supporting startups is part of that.”

Other corporates will also have a base in Tshimologong. Telkom’s incubation program, Future Makers, will be run out of Juta Street and Microsoft’s internship program, The AppFactory, will also have its home here. Finally, with backers like this, the money is starting to come in.

“There’s still a funding gap,” says Dwolatzky, “Nominally we’re R2m short, but more would always be better. We’re starting to reach a critical mass of sponsorship, though. We have lots of strategic partnerships.”

One major program that will help put Tshimologong on the map is the prestigious #HackJozi startup accelerator. Funded by the City of Joburg and run through JCSE, the winner of the top prize announced by mayor Parks Tau next week will walk away with a cool R1m – making the competition one of the most lucrative for startups around.

Not that it’s all about the money, Dwolatzky is keen to add. Ten finalists have had access to workshops, coaching a shared workspace temporarily relocated outside of Tshimologong while building takes place.

Outside Tshimologong as building works begin.
Outside Tshimologong as building works begin.

“There’s two kinds of accelerator program,” he says, “There are cohort programs where 10 startups win 13 weeks training to try and create viable budgets. These are usually favoured by corporates as it’s easy to budget for and promote. I don’t personally believe that’s the best way. All 10 of our finalists will get access to the space for a whole year, as well as access to Bluemix [IBM’s internet of things cloud platform] for a year too.”

Being apply longer term thinking is one of the benefits of that ‘triple helix’ model, says Dwolatzky, but one other key advantage is that University backing gives JCSE a long reach. In February, a three way partnership between Wits, Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada and the Mumbai Stock Exchange in India.

Ryerson currently runs an influential startup accelerator called The DMZ, while Mumbai Stock Exchange is home to Zone Startups. Not only does the partnership give Dwolatzky and his colleagues access to a decade of cumulative experience in cutting edge startups, but businesses incubated at Tshimologong may end up with the opportunity to be tenanted at the other two hubs in the network, gaining international experience in scale and access to key markets.

A product developed for South African townships, for example, might be a perfect fit for solving problems in Mumbai too. Toronto, meanwhile, is a gateway to the highly lucrative north American market.

It’s a model which Dwolatzky wants to see repeated closer to home, and he’s currently discussing partnerships or franchised models of the JCSE incubator at other universities in South Africa, so that Joburg entrepreneurs can get more first hand experience of what the Free State needs, for example.

“We’re looking now to create a national network of hubs,” he says, “To circulate start ups around them and into the wider world. The two things we’re about is skills and businesses, and now we have the potential to take a startup global.”

Back outside in the cramped parking, the fact that Tshimologong is a building site is exciting – the makeover is long overdue and architect’s sketches certainly live up to expectations for a municipal centrepiece. There may be some concerns that the roadworks are badly timed and probably going to have to be done again in order to lay the fibre infrastructure that IBM will need to begin its big data research, but that’s something everyone seems happy to put up with if it means this ambitious project is finally off the ground.

We’ll be catching up with the building project regularly as the walls go back up. Check back again soon.

[Main image – Building works at the new IBM Research Lab]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.