Internet Solutions (IS) is hoping to recreate the excitement, energy and innovation of the early Internet revolution in South Africa. It has created a new division, IS Labs, to drive more local development of Internet businesses and Internet technologies in South Africa.
The division will include a mix of funding, business and technical resources and mentorship.
"In the 1990s, as the Internet spread from academia to the business and consumer world, South African technologists like Andras Salamon and entrepreneurs like Ronnie Apteker were some of the world's great online innovators," says Angus MacRobert, CEO of Internet Solutions.
"Over time we¹ve seen South Africa¹s prominence in developing new Internet technologies decline, and we¹ve become used to seeing Web innovation happening overseas. There's no reason we can¹t reverse this trend we just need to pay our Internet entrepreneurs a lot more time and attention."
IS Labs is looking for good ideas from anyone active in the Internet space students, people already involved in start-ups, small tech businesses as long as the idea is workable, practical and helps make the Internet in South Africa a better place.
It can be a full-blown business proposal, or just a good idea that others can take and develop further.
People can approach IS Labs directly with a concept (if they want to keep it confidential) or they can post it publicly to the IS Labs site.
The first port of call is to visit http://islabs.is.co.za/, where a social networking style platform will allow people to comment on ideas, and vote for them. The site is for people that wish to post an idea to see if someone else wants to take it and run with it, or for people that would like to let others comment on their idea before they take it forward themselves.
"We're looking for business ideas and technology ideas – new kinds of Internet services as well as ways for us Internet service providers to do things better.
"It could be an online commerce idea, or a better way to route traffic or deal with spam. It doesn't need to turn into a successful business, it could just lead to some kind of advancement of Internet technology in South Africa," says MacRobert.
"It's very easy to replicate what people have come up with internationally it¹s not so easy to create, innovate and be more relevant to the South African Internet user. There is a huge amount of intellectual capital in this country, but we don't foster it enough."
A major challenge for the South African Internet and telecommunication industry is the amount of data traffic we send overseas traffic that costs the country a fortune (around ten times the cost of moving content within South Africa), and which could just as well stay within our borders.
Vast amounts of information, pictures and video content about South Africa and aimed at South Africans is uploaded every day onto servers in other countries that should be hosted right here, saving international bandwidth and giving faster response times. IS currently spends several hundred million rand per year on international connectivity, with similar amounts spent by the other top tier ISPs.
"If even 1% of this international traffic could be kept in the country, it would reduce currency flowing out of our economy by tens of millions of rand per year," says Jeff Fletcher, product development manager for IS and a founder of IS Labs.
"The bottom line for us at Internet Solutions is that with IS Labs we want to make the South African Internet better both technically to improve the user experience, and in the services that are available here.
"Conceptually, the Internet is a cloud of information that spans the globe, without borders or distance but practically it's a collection of servers and connections that have to be physically located somewhere. We want more of this 'somewhere' to be here in South Africa," adds Fletcher.
If the evaluation team at IS Labs sees a strong idea, or if an idea is widely supported by the online community, the process to move forward with it is simple both public and private proposals are evaluated by the IS Labs team of Jeff Fletcher (technology and new product development expert), Greg de Chasteauneuf (technical guru) and Justin Spratt (business and management brain). Chosen proposals will then be forwarded to a panel of senior management and independent advisors.
If they get the green light, IS Labs will work with the idea's originator to develop a support plan, which could range from business and technical mentorship, to hosting and Internet access facilities and potentially start-up funding (the seed funding would roughly cover the costs of two developers working for two months to develop a prototype to establish if the project is viable).
Once a project is more established, further support will be evaluated. The support from IS Labs would involve no onerous conditions for the entrepreneur, although IS Labs would get the right of first refusal for additional involvement in an interesting project.