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IBM to invest R700m in Wits’ Braamfontein tech hub

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

Technology giant IBM is undertaking a ten year program of investment in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry to build a new Research Africa facility in downtown Johannesburg.

The lab will focus on big data and mobile, particularly in the fields of healthcare, science, and the internet of things. It is being billed as a part of a “digital urban renewal” project being carried out under the auspices of the University of the Witswatersrand, and will be built as part of the ambitious Tshimologong Precinct on Jorissen Street.

According to IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, the investment will be worth a total of R700m and will create IBM’s 12th international research lab.

“This is the most important contribution we can make to South Africa,” Rometty said, adding that data scientists are among the most high demand employees in the world, and that she hoped the new research centre would encourage more South Africans to enter the field.

The announcement was made at an IBM ThinkForum event in Sandton this morning, attended by minister of science and technology, Naledi Pandor.

“International technology companies are beginning to appreciate the role that Africa will play in their own future and sustainability,” Pandor said, citing growth rates across the continent. “Africa’s drive and innovation will change the world.”

“For technology companies, Africa is a vast new market,” Pandor added, saying that this is the first time an international corporation has invested in R&D through BBBEE financial models.

Pandor also said that she wanted the new facility to focus on promoting the role of women in science, and to take a role in ensuring more female graduates enter careers in technology. Part of the funding will be used to provide bursaries for students.

“We need to build the skills to build new businesses,” says IBM’s Gavin Pieterse, “Particularly amongst young black women.”

The investment is a coup for Wits, which announced almost two years ago that it was developing a tech hub in Braamfontein to support big industry and IT entrepreneurs. The Tshimologong Precinct – tshimologong is a seSotho word meaning new beginnings – is part of a grand vision to both attract existing IT firms into Johannesburg and provide a space for innovators and entrepreneurs modelled on international initiatives like London’s Silicon Roundabout.

IBM joins Microsoft as an investor in the development. Microsoft’s App Factory – part of its 4Afrika initiative – is currently based at the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) next door.

Tshimologong Precinct is currently under construction on the site of the old Inc nightclub on Jorissen Street in Braamfontein. The brainchild of Wits professor and head of the JCSE, Barry Dwolatzky, Tshimologong will combine a massive shared workspace for tech entrepreneurs with a hardware lab and the new IBM research facility. Last year, Tshimologong was host to the annual festival of games and playful media, AMAZE.

Dwolatzky’s vision is of a tech hub capable of acting as both a major research centre and a startup incubator, which will act as a catalyst fr attracting other startups to the area. The IBM investment will include sponsorship of an academic program for under- and postgraduate students in disruptive technologies.

The new facility will be the second IBM Research lab in Africa following the opening of a similar unit in Nairobi in 2013. IBM itself, meanwhile, is under fire for a program of layoffs known as Project Chrome which began this week, which will reportedly see the firm shed up to a quarter of its global staff – some 100 000 people.

The IBM Research team in Johannesburg will be led by Dr Solomon Assefa, pictured below. Assefa has previously worked at IBM’s Nairobi facility.

Assefa told journalists that the new facility would be a “living lab”.

“By that I mean that our lab will be set up in such a way that students and entrepreneurs and start-ups will come in and work on our infrastructure,” Assefa said, “Including Watson, to investigate solutions to problems facing both business and society. We can create a technology revolution, a revitalised and rejuvenated area.”

[Main image – An artist’s impression of Tshimologong, below, Tshimologong as it is today.]

The Inc nightclub as it is today, awaiting renovation by Dwolatszky and his team.
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