The Step-Up Technology Innovation Competition has launched in South Africa, inviting local innovators to submit their ideas, and possibly win venture capital, technology support, mentorship and market development. 
The competition is sponsored by Traction, Sasol ChemCity, the Technology Innovation Agency and Microsoft, and also offers support from a variety of groups including venture capitalists, business mentors and incubation practitioners.
Martin Feinstein, MD of Traction, points out that many good ideas dissolve because of lack of support, and because the innovators who come up with them are unable to commercialise or market them.
“Many innovators require access to skills, knowledge, resources to develop their ideas and to take them to market. These things are not easy to come by,” he adds. “The path to innovation almost never straightforward.”
Feinstein says the Step-Up awards will help budding entrepreneurs by giving them coaching and guidance.
“We believe South Africa is on the cusp of an innovation surge, and there are brilliant new things emerging. We believe the Step-Up competition has the potential to feed talent and potential into funds and incubators and will do a lot to address the huge asymmetry between seekers and providers of early stage funding.”
Muhammed Sayed, business development manager of the Technology Innovation Agency, explains that the agency was set up by government in 2008, with the aim of supporting new ventures.
“Our role is to bridge the innovation chasm between ideas/R&D and commercialisation/manufacturing,” he says. “We are open to ideas across the board: if there is clear potential in terms of the product, TIA would like to support it.”
The agencies focus areas are biotechnology and technology. Clifford de Witt, development and platform director at Microsoft, reveals that Microsoft is about to sign an agreement with the Jobs Fund that will complement its BizSpark initiative.
He explains that BizSpark has been running for about four years, and has supported about 400 start-ups since inception.
“However, about a year ago we realised there were a couple of deficiencies in the programme, and we weren’t able to give support on training, business management and coaching – and in many cases it is lack of these things that leads to the failure of start-ups.
“As a result, we are in the final throes of concluding an agreement with the Jobs Fund. We will work with partners and incubators to take the BizSpark programme, together with support from the Jobs Fund, to five additional services to start-ups and to make them more successful.”
De Witt believes South Africa is rapidly moving from a resources-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, and that this will increase the viability of a local software industry.
“We believe in the innovation on the continent and in South Africa,” he says. “We are always pleasantly surprised to see how innovative South Africans are.”
The Step-Up Technology Innovation Competition invites submissions in seven categories: health and biotech; chemicals; mining and manufacturing; green environment; food and agriculture; energy; and ICT.