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Tackling the wicked problem

Audrey Verhaeghe says the SA Innovation Summit may hold the key for investment into the country.

by Lesley Stones   |   photography Karolina Komendera   |   brainstormmag.co.za   |   January 2019

For three days every year, entrepreneurs, investors and potential customers get down to business at the SA Innovation Summit in Cape Town.

The event brings together all the elements to help turn good ideas into great products and find the funding or the market to make them sustainable. As well as giving fledgling companies the opportunity to pitch to po-tential investors and customers, the summit features workshops and masterclasses to teach them crucial business skills to survive and thrive.

Although everything happens in that three-day flurry of activity in September, planning the event is a full-time job for chair-person Audrey Verhaeghe. “Every year, we try to do more and do it better,” she says. “People underestimate what an event can do when it’s trying to change the well-being of technology entrepreneurs and grow them into strong, scalable businesses that will create jobs and change the future of South Africa and Africa.”

The summit has several components, and Verhaeghe takes over my notebook to sketch its organogram. She draws circles captioned artificial intelligence, big data, volunteers, scalable, and several other themes, then links them with arrows under a heading of ‘wicked problem’.

“The wicked problem we’re trying to solve is to grow businesses to be investable, scalable and sustainable,” she says. “The biggest problem in the innovation system is a lack of alignment between government, the private sector and the creators. There must be a symphony and the summit tries to con-tribute to that symphony.”

Innovation ecosystem
The event welcomes innovators exploring a variety of fields, including technology, fin-tech, nutrition and healthcare, and entrepreneurs can apply to attend from anywhere in the SADC region.
One popular feature is the programme of masterclasses covering topics like design thinking and how to scale up a business. “There are a lot of things you need to know as an entrepreneur to get to the next step. It’s not just about investment – it’s about capacity, markets, technological expertise and protecting your ideas. Very few businesses get investment, but many businesses make it, so we don’t always need investment to succeed,” she says.

Other entrepreneurs attend because they’ve been chosen to pitch their business plans to a panel of judges, with the winner earning the chance to pitch to IT experts and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. “We’re the African leg for the Startup World Cup, so if you win our competition at the summit, you’re a finalist in Silicon Valley against people from all over the world with the chance to win $1 million,” Verhaeghe says. Not surprisingly, about 500 entrepreneurs entered the local contest this year, of which 20 were invited to pitch in Cape Town.

The summit has become the biggest innovation ecosystem on the continent, acting as the glue that brings all the crucial elements together. As part of that, it works with universities, incubation centres and innovation hubs across Africa, which send speakers and sell tickets to the summit to members of their own community.

Some potential investors or technology partners already come from overseas be-cause word about the summit has spread. That international market is something Verhaeghe is keen to cultivate as a springboard to generate more foreign direct investment.

“Do you start screaming on another corner about something else, or do you become the entrepreneur you actually set out to be? These are my challenges.”

“The value proposition is to bring the best of African ingenuity to one spot and make it attractive for investors to come and check it out because they know there’s value here,” she says. “The aim is to have the summit become known as a safe landing space so people across the world know that if they want to invest in South Africa, the Innovation Summit is the place to come. Africa is uncharted territory for them, but this is a curated space where you can deal with people who know how to grow businesses.”

Building the summit into the success it is today has been harder than expected, but that made her grit her teeth and go full-throttle. The first event attracted only 78 people, and this year, 1 500 were expected to attend every day. “It was a much harder business to build than I ever thought, but the harder it got, the more I loved it. Everybody is now on board, but when we started, there wasn’t even any legislation in South Africa around entrepreneurialism,” Verhaeghe says. She believes the summit and the lobbying behind it may have helped to shape legislation such as the tax rebate companies can claim on re-search and development spending.

Social innovator
A challenge for her personally is how to turn this business that helps other entrepreneurs make money into something that makes money for her, too. Fighting to make the summit a success has moulded her into an activist, to the detriment of her entrepreneurial side. “When I started my career, I never thought of myself as an activist, but it’s made me become a technology activist and I love it. But I’d like to make money. As an entrepreneur, I’d like to act as an entrepreneur and not just as a social innovator – I’d love the satisfaction of monetising the linkages I’ve created. We’ve got this massive ecosystem, but how do you turn that into a viable business? That would be very cool,” she says.

The concept of the summit is now being franchised to Zimbabwe and Australia, and that should ensure a more profitable future.

Verhaeghe is comfortable with her role as an agitator, screaming and screaming while nobody listens. But now that people have started to listen, perhaps she should change her focus. She ponders this and says: “Do you start screaming on another corner about something else, or do you become the entrepreneur you actually set out to be? These are my challenges.”
Since many sessions at the summit focus on how to develop a startup to a stage where it’s investment-ready, those are probably the workshops she should attend herself, she jokes.


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