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Celebrating 10 Years of SU LaunchLab




What started as an initiative to inspire students towards entrepreneurship became the leading university incubator in Africa within 4 years of its founding and has continued to go from strength to strength in its impact and contribution to the startup community in South Africa.


The Stellenbosch Ideas Competition instigated the founding of the SU LaunchLab. Driven by Innovus in 2011, dozens of students at SU would pitch their ideas during the lunch break on stage at the Neelsie. Creating momentum for entrepreneurship was the motivation for this early programme, led by Anita Nel who was then the Director of Innovus, the Technology Transfer office of Stellenbosch University, and Philip Marais, then Business Development Manager at Innovus. Within 2 years the momentum had grown tremendously, and the rest of the SU community had taken notice. Also, the need for entrepreneurially minded people to join the growing portfolio of spinout companies that Innovus was becoming much more apparent.

In 2013 LaunchLab was established as a company and took up residence in the basement of a building on campus that had become vacant. This space was 400m2 and provided a few offices and event space. It was perfect for the beginning, but we quickly filled it!


There was an official launch event in August 2013, where key business leaders and Maties alumni were in attendance. A significant milestone happened at that event, where the CEO of Entersekt (Stellenbosch-based fintech security company) and an executive at Nedbank spoke to Innovus about a sponsorship of the SU LaunchLab to help it establish itself as a key player in the South African and African startup ecosystem.


This sponsorship motivated some funding from Stellenbosch University’s strategic fund, which together unlocked a substantial investment from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). This was the beginning of 8 years of multiplying impact of the SU LaunchLab. We were able to renovate an old carpentry facility in 2014 that was no longer being used into the current cutting-edge facility. We moved into the revamped 1200m2 building as a team of 4 and 8 companies/teams. Within a year all the offices were full, and the hot desks were buzzing. The launch of SU LaunchLab at its new facility attracted lots of interest from beyond the Stellenbosch community. Nedbank was quick to activate its partnership with SU LaunchLab through various innovation challenges. As the ball got rolling several South African corporates lined up to work with SU LaunchLab to try to drive innovation in their industries and get ahead of the disruption curve by partnering with startups. Following Nedbank were several other innovation challenges that SU LaunchLab facilitated for its corporate partners.

· Multichoice-Media innovation challenge

· ATTACQ-Retail and Smart City innovation challenges

· Santam-Safety innovation challenges

· Mercedes-Automotive innovation challenge

· Nation Builder-Social innovation challenge


Through these innovation challenges SU LaunchLab was able to work with Data Prophet, NumberBoost, Cloudline, Spatialedge, Solarturtle, and many others.

From 2015-2019 SU LaunchLab ran 11 innovation challenges for these partners, which brought massive exposure to incubates at SU Launchlab, as well as the SU LaunchLab itself. We were able work with dozens of businesses through these, in addition to the students at Stellenbosch University and the growing number of spinout companies.


While SU LaunchLab began student entrepreneurship programmes in 2011, it gained much more momentum when student entrepreneurship was given a specific focus by the SRC at Stellenbosch. This gave rise to the SU IdeaSmash. By students and for students, entrepreneurship had taken centre stage among Maties. Shortly after this student momentum spike, the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) initiative by DHET kicked off and brought much more attention to student entrepreneurship with its launch in 2019. This brought with it the formalisation of the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity, which is a pitching competition for all universities in SA across several different categories.


Over the years SU LaunchLab has worked with dozens of students to help incubate their businesses. Basket, Lekkefresh, InforMed, and Adagin, to name a few.


While all of these programmes and challenges were happening, the spin-out portfolio from parent company, Innovus, was building up steam. Innovus is the custodian of the biggest IP portfolio held by a university in Africa. Innovus’ intent from the beginning was to help set up SU LaunchLab so that their spin-out companies could have a space to launch into and a community of other entrepreneurs to connect with. Quickly, SU LaunchLab was also seen as a hunting ground for VCs and other successful entrepreneurs who were looking to mentor new exciting companies, and perhaps even become angel investors.


Up until 2015 when SU LaunchLab was established in its own building, Innovus was averaging about 1 technology spinout company per year for the previous 5 years. From 2016 onwards Innovus has been averaging 4-5 spinouts per year. This multiplication of spinout activity can be directly attributed to the awareness and momentum that was created when SU LaunchLab was launched.


Some notable spinout companies that make up this exciting portfolio are:

· SNC

There are currently 24 spinout companies in the portfolio, and several more in the process of spinning out.


SU LaunchLab has also collaborated with various partners in other initiatives to help support innovation and entrepreneurship movements across Africa. These include:


The impact that the student programmes, innovation challenges, technology spinouts have had has been tremendous. Exciting technology, impressive entrepreneurs, and profitable companies building wealth and creating jobs. In addition to the companies that have been incubated through these programmes, SU LaunchLab has attracted other incredible companies that were eager to be part of the movement. Some of those include:


Incubators exist for the companies that they support. That is simply how the industry works, so incubator teams are constantly pushing accolades for the companies that they work with. From time to time there is an opportunity for incubators themselves to receive recognition for their efforts and impact. University Business Incubators (UBI) Globalexists to give recognition to university incubators across the world. UBI Global runs a bi-annual benchmarking study of thousands of incubators from around the world. This benchmarking study culminates in a World Incubation Summit where the findings of the benchmarking study are shared, and rankings are announced. There is a global top 10 every 2 years, as well as a regional ranking of the top in each region. Through this independent 3rd party benchmarking study, SU LaunchLab was named the top university incubator in 2017-2018, as well as 2019-2020.


Startups that SU LaunchLab has engaged with since 2015 have collectively achieved more than R500m in annual revenue. This number is incredible hard to keep track of once companies have “launched” out, so this number may be much higher. Also, in the same time frame, companies that SU LaunchLab has engaged with have collectively raised more than R450m in investment. This does not consider grant money from innovation challenge prizes or for research purposes.


Brandon Paschal was part of the LaunchLab leadership from 2015-2021 and has recently returned to Innovus as the Deputy Director: Spinout Companies and Funds and will be managing SU into the future. Over the next several months, SU LaunchLab will be engaging with current and past companies that they have worked with to unpack more about what it takes to succeed and demystify what it takes to start a successful startup in South Africa.


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