IBM to invest $60m in South African startup and research hub

Big Blue's second research centre on the continent, and its thirteenth in the world, will be based in Johannesburg.

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Image: IBM
Beleagured tech giant IBM has announced plans to invest more than $60m (ZAR 700m) in a new tech hub and startup accelerator in downtown Johannesburg, which will see the firm establishing its twelfth international research centre in the city.

The new facility will be the second of its kind in Africa - the first opened in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 - and will be part of the University of the Witswatersrand's Tshimologong Precinct.

Dr John Kelly III, VP of IBM solutions portfolio and research, said that as the physical space is being provided by the university, most of the funding will go directly into student bursaries and postgraduate research.

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According to Dr Solomon Assefa, who will lead the research team at Tshimologong, IBM will work closely with universities around the country and the continent beyond, and will provide students with access to its cognitive computing platform Watson. The lab will focus on Big Data, science and healthcare projects, including existing initiatives such as the groundbreaking Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, currently under construction in the Eastern Cape.

The Tshimologong Precinct itself is a planned shared workspace in a renovated nightclub, which will provide entrepreneurs access to software skills and hardware resources in a neighbouring makerspace. Tshimologong founder, Prof Barry Dwolatzky, has spoken frequently of his vision for a high-tech community in the heart of Johannesburg which can act as both a centre of economic activity and a catalyst for urban regeneration in the area.

Assefa said that IBM Research Lab would also be active in the entrepreneur community, describing it as a "living laboratory".

"By that I mean that our lab will be set up in such a way that students and entrepreneurs and startups 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."

The investment is being made over ten years, and has been welcomed by the South African government. Minister for science and technology, Naledi Pandor, said that some of the money would be earmarked specifically to encourage more women to follow a career in technology and the sciences.

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