Two Cape Town-based entrepreneurs have returned from Silicon Valley with newfound inspiration after presenting an innovative system – which could revolutionise public transport in South Africa – to US business leaders.
Devin de Vries and Christopher King were among six winners of the 2008 Microsoft Imagine Cup Innovation Accelerator Award, which pitted 100 000 of the world's best student programmers from 100 countries against each other. As part of their prize, they travelled to Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus in California to explore how their solution could potentially turn into a business reality.
Their "Where is my transport" system is an application that allows bus commuters to plan routes and schedules using their cellphones. Their project uses SMS, mapping technology and a database to let consumers find out when the next taxi or bus will reach them.
De Vries and King demonstrated the application, and explained their business plans, to a high-powered group that included the presidents of Microsoft and British Telecom International. They hope to be able to garner enough interest locally to implement the system, and possibly gain venture capital funding elsewhere to further develop and market the application.
"The trip was a great success and it was an incredible privilege to receive coaching and input from the Valley's elite," says De Vries. "Over the week, our ideas were refined, we were coached in how to obtain investment, and ultimately were given the opportunity to pitch to a panel of venture capitalists and angel investors from the Valley and abroad."
David Ives, who heads the developer platform at Microsoft South Africa, says that ongoing global exposure for young developers and entrepreneurs plays an important role in developing the vital high-level technology skills that the country's IT industry needs.
"We're trying to produce start-up companies, but the real issue is that we're giving people real skills to take into the industry, whether their companies succeed or not," says Ives. "High-level technology skills have a multiplier effect on employment: the more highly qualified people there are, the more people with entry-level skills can be absorbed by industry."
De Vries and King hope the system will get more South Africans using public transport. Their research found that a lack of security and absence of bus schedules are the main reasons for middle and upper income groups not using public transport. Yet South Africa, despite its high levels of poverty and unemployment, has the highest mobile-phone usage density per capita in the world.
Their goal now is to take their learning to the next level by creating a successful company. "If we manage to interest the correct transport authorities, South Africans around the country might just enjoy the use of the world-class transport services in the not-too-distant future," says De Vries.
The effects of their business idea can be far-reaching: from improving the efficiency of transport companies, to ensuring better auditing of transport subsidies, to ensuring commuters have access to real-time transport information from any mobile or web-enabled device.
"Being able to participate in this innovation accelerator event was the culmination of two years of hard work on something that we believe in. Making the final six teams in the world serves to confirm our belief that we have created a world-leading product, and has created an awareness of the quality of software that South Africa is capable of producing," De Vries says.