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Sandton, 22 October 2015 – Belgium Campus hosts innovation panel discussion focusing on local and international business development

 

South Africa has always been at the forefront of innovation. From Christiaan Barnard innovating in the medical space as the first cardiac surgeon to perform a human-to-human heart transplant, to Mark Shuttleworth’s founding of Canonical Ltd and Elon Musk’s founding of SpaceX, PayPal and Tesla Motors.

Belgium Campus, a higher education institution focusing exclusively on Information Communications Technology (ICT) curricula in Pretoria, used South Africa’s innovation heritage to set the tone for a panel discussion held alongside the My World of Tomorrow (MWOT) conference which took place on 22-24 October 2015. MWOT focuses on technology and lifestyle experiences in Africa across a broad range of sectors from SMMEs to the public sector.

 The Belgium Campus panel discussion, entitled ‘What does the future hold for your business in the age of innovation’ focused on four core themes: the value of ICT and innovation in business, lessons learned in this industry, entrepreneurs and intrepreneurs as well as how to build and sustain an innovation ecosystem. Moderated by Belgium Campus Vice Chancellor Enrico Jacobs, the panel was attended by industry leaders from the Department of Science and Technology as well as representatives from Alexander Forbes and Barclay Africa to name a few.

 The panel began with a conversation surrounding South Africa’s advantageous position in terms of innovation development and opportunity – much like Belgium, South Africa is well-schooled in dealing with a multicultural environment. Capitalising on this diversity and expanding partnership networks across boundaries is essential for innovation growth. “If you don’t play the multicultural card, you lose,” said panellist and part-time professor/innovation consultant Johan Braet. Braet is also co-inventor and board member of Startit@KBC, a start-up incubation platform that boasts 207 success stories.

 The concept of the Triple Helix was a central aspect throughout the panel discussion. Simply put, Triple Helix relates to the equal collaboration between government, universities and industry in order to promote economic development and innovation in our current knowledge economy. Panellist Kris Vander Velpen, an independent consultant originating tailor-made innovation practices at major companies and part-time professor, believes that although government plays a crucial role in this model given their authority regarding subsidiaries and legislation “the success of innovation is based on all three partners working together equally – when the Triple Helix is not in full force, innovation won’t work.” Vander Velpen was previously the general manager of Fortis Venturing where he developed a service incubator and accelerator hub.

 Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Technology at KU Leuven University and panellist Kris Willems also weighed in on the Triple Helix approach: “The definition of engineering, for example, is ‘engineering by doing’ which is essential in the Triple Helix. Interactions with local industry are important in educating students as engineering technologists; typical classroom teaching is no longer the most effective method.” Willems has originated a project called Engineering 2020 which looks at changing the approach taken in educating university students in the engineering sector.

 Dirk Wauters, who is also part of this project as well as being the co-founder of Internet Protocol television and part-time innovation management professor and consultant, elaborated on the research done by Engineering 2020 in the market: “We went and asked ‘what are the needs of the engineers of tomorrow?’ What we found was that they need a much broader skill set including interpersonal competencies, a proficiency in multi-disciplinary work as well as the ability to solve more complex problems.” Findings such as these don’t only relate to the world of engineering but all sectors of business, as well as the ICT and innovation environments.

 The significance of ICT and its contribution to GDP growth was also a hot topic. Innovation is one sector which is driven by ICT according to Wauters and, now more than ever before, allows for greater access to massive data and markets which means better decision making on the part of business because they simply know more than they used to. Businesses are able to ‘start from the consumer’ and develop enterprises and solutions that fulfil a tangible need and are easy to use.

 ICT patents were also up for debate and, due to the collaborative nature of ICT projects (each specialist/industry brings their own brand of expertise), the real question is how do you deal with new knowledge coming out of these collaborations? Braet advocates securing patents as quickly and possible and entering these partnership with an awareness of the rights of all concerned. This type of ICT teamwork adds a richness and depth to innovation and research that large companies are willing to pay for.

 From larger companies to smaller enterprises, panellists discussed the advantageous although slightly uncertain position of SMEs and start-ups in the innovation and ICT space. Wauters elaborated: “It’s much easier than it was before to start a new venture but much harder than before to scale it. Large companies have the distribution networks but not the mindset, whereas smaller companies have the innovative solutions but not the distribution channels.” The route towards ultimate success is about spanning and scaling business which means establishing the right connections and being open to collaboration.

 For these four panellists what lies at the heart of innovation is knowledge and education. Surrounding and bolstering this are mentoring services, incubation, supporting services, industry partnerships, technology transfer and proof of concept. When these aspects are present the potential for success is infinitely enhanced.

 The very nature of success was also deliberated with Braet advocating failure as one of the key stepping stones to success. Vander Velpen believes that failures create the dynamism to grow and improve on original ideas and concepts. In this same vein Braet believes there needs to be a mentality change when it comes to failure and this can only happen through education: “Young people are brilliant and we need to encourage them and give them positive reasons to carry on and channel their creativity through expert mentorships.” This type of mentoring and incubation of ideas means less time ‘wasted’ on failing as it were, and a more acute understanding of what will and won’t work in the market.

As a platform for innovation insight in business, this panel discussion provided much food for thought and attendees benefitted from a broad international perspective spanning a myriad of sectors.

For more information regarding this panel discussion as well as any queries relating to Belgium Campus you can send an email to info@belgiumcampus.ac.za or call +27 12 542 3114.