IBM invests R700m in SA research lab


12 February 2015

International technology company IBM will invest R700-million over the next 10 years to build a new Research Africa facility in downtown Johannesburg, the company announced at an IBM ThinkForum event at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 6 February.

As part of a 10-year investment programme through the Department of Trade and Industry and working closely with the Department of Science and Technology, the new research facility will be based at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

The lab will focus on advancing Big Data, cloud and mobile technologies to support South Africa’s national priorities, drive skills development and foster innovation-based economic growth, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said.

IBM already has 12 labs across the world, including one in Kenya. The lab will be in Braamfontein’s new software hub, Tshimologong Precinct – home of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) that is a three-way partnership between government, academia and industry.

IBM’s South Africa said its researchers would partner with local universities, research institutions, innovation centres, start-ups and government agencies to bolster “South Africa’s emerging innovation ecosystem” and help to develop next generation technology skills.

The company has already struck up agreements with Wits University, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to collaborate on research programs and skills development.

African innovation

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, who was at the launch, said international technology companies were beginning to appreciate the role that Africa would play in their own future and sustainability.

“Africa’s drive and innovation will change the world,” she is quoted by technology website as saying. “For technology companies, Africa is a vast new market.”

Pandor said this was the first time an international corporation had invested in R&D through BBBEE financial models.

Pandor reportedly said 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 entered careers in technology. Part of the funding will be used to provide bursaries for students.

World-class skills

“IBM considers two factors when deciding where to place research labs: access to world- class skills and talent and the ability to work on pressing business and societal challenges that can be best addressed through advanced information technology,” said IBM’s Dr John Kelly in a statement.

“South Africa provides an exciting backdrop as we look to expand our research efforts in the region. Our Africa-based researchers are part of a global community of IBM scientists who are forging the future of our company and ensuring that we remain at the forefront of scientific discovery.”

Research team

The South Africa research team will be led by Dr Solomon Assefa, formerly a research scientist at IBM’s flagship Thomas J Watson Research Center in New York.

Assefa has co-authored more than 50 scientific articles and has 45 patents. He was named one of the World’s Top Young Innovators under 35 by MIT’s Technology Review in 2011 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Last year he was named a Fellow of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences.

“The development of a successful innovation ecosystem is crucial to the further development of the South African economy and the country’s international competitiveness,” said Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-chancellor and Principal.

“IBM Research’s decision to locate in Braamfontein in Johannesburg will give a huge boost to a dynamic community of programmers, designers, developers, entrepreneurs and start-ups.”

SAinfo reporter