SISTEM one-on-one from South Africa with Mr. McLean Sibanda, CEO of The Innovation Hub.
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SISTEM one-on-one from South Africa with Mr. McLean Sibanda, CEO of The Innovation Hub.

McLean Sibanda

McLean Sibanda is an engineer and patent attorney. He is the Chief Executive Officer of The Innovation Hub South Africa and President of the African Division of International Association of Science Parks (IASP). He has extensive experience in intellectual property, entrepreneurship and innovation. He has held senior and executive roles in a number of private and public sector organisations in South Africa. He has served as an Expert to the African Union (AU), World Intellectual Property Organisation, and the Department of Science and Technology on drafting of intellectual property legislation as well as review of Tanzania National System of Innovation. An immediate past board member of the CSIR, past acting executive director of the Innovation Fund (2008-2010) and Technology Innovation Agency Group Executive for Commercialisation until 2011; he currently serves on the boards of the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO), IASP and African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).


Q:  Please tell us about yourself and the path you have taken that led you to The Innovation Hub.

Sibanda: Married to a wonderful woman and with two lovely boys, I was born across the Limpopo river in a city called Bulawayo, and raised by my grandparents until the age of 10, when I started to live with my parents.  From a three-roomed house in a dusty township in Bulawayo, I was fortunate to be given numerous opportunities to get a good education, as my parents could not afford to pay the fees for the schools and the universities I attended.  Both my mother and my maternal grandmother were very entrepreneurial and I learnt a lot from them about business in general, and the struggles one must go through to get what you want.  Both these women, who have since passed on, taught me not to be outworked by anyone but to set a goal and work towards achieving it.  Having studied Materials and Metallurgical engineering at Wits up to Masters with financial support from De Beers Industrial Diamonds, I joined their research Laboratory in Booysens as a research officer and worked my way over a 7 year period to become a Principal Research Scientist.  At De Beers, I led a number of research projects and cooperations with a number of international institutions.  I was fortunate to be mentored by the General Manager, who encouraged me to study.

By the time I left De Beers in 2001, I had 6 months to go to complete my Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree with University of South Africa (UNISA).  I then did 6 months night school course with the Practical Legal Training school in Johannesburg, preparing to write the Attorney Admission Exams.  Coming out top of the class, enabled me to successfully complete the exams in August 2001; and by that time, I was already serving articles of clerkship with Adams & Adams intellectual property law firm, and got admitted as an attorney the following year, and then a patent attorney the following year in 2002, becoming the first Black African South African to become a patent attorney.  In 2004 I joined the Innovation Fund, a public sector fund, to assist inventors and innovators to commercialise their innovations, and build the entity’s intellectual property management capacity. This saw McLean beings seconded to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), where was instrumental in the development of the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act, 2008, including setting up of technology transfer offices at universities.

By 2010 when the Innovation Fund was merged into the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), I was acting executive director and became Group Executive Director for Commercialisation with TIA, prior to joining The Innovation Hub as CEO in 2011. Much of my journey to The Innovation Hub has been shaped by various opportunities for learning and growth, with incredible support from notable people such as Dr Moosa Adia (at De Beers), Dr Boni Mehlomakulu and Dr Phil Mjwara (during my time at DST), Dr Nhlanhla Msomi (TIA), but to name a few.  I have also been fortunate to serve on various boards including the CSIR, African Agricultural Technology Foundation, National Intellectual Property Management Office, JM Busha Holdings, and Technifin; including the boards of startups funded by the Innovation Fund.

Q:  Tell us about The Innovation Hub: Who created it and why?

Sibanda: At the start of the millennium, the Gauteng Provincial Government proposed to establish an environment that stimulates high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship and supports sustainable development.  This led to the inception of The Innovation Hub in Tshwane, Gauteng. Recognized as an internationally accredited leading African science and technology park as well as a full member of the International Association of Science Parks (IASP), The Innovation Hub has been established, by the Gauteng Department of Economic Development through its Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA), to champion the development of a knowledge economy and promote innovation through strategic partnerships with leading universities, research institutions, business and government across the globe. Our priority sectors are smart industries (ICT & advanced manufacturing; biosciences and green economy).

Q: What services and programs do you offer? (Enterprise Development; Sector & Innovation; Skills Development programmes)?

Sibanda: The Innovation Hub offers services tailored to address the innovation gap with business skills development; enterprise development, where it runs a series of incubations; premises, including the offer of space for aspiring entrepreneurs to develop their ideas and evolve into a sustainable business under the subsidized rental fees; and finally fostering innovation by identifying challenges in faced by society and translating these challenges into opportunities that will be beneficial to the development of the economy.

·       Enterprise Development: Various technical and business incubators (Maxum, Climate Innovation Centre SA, Biopark@Gauteng, mLab SA); eKasi Labs is a programme focused on township entrepreneurs

·       Sector & Innovation: Run annual competitions to encourage innovation in our priority sectors and we partner with other organizations that do the same on a larger scale. (GAP – Gauteng Accelerator Programme; IPA – Innovation Prize for Africa; Biotech Fundi Awards)

·       Skills Development: ICT , Engineering and Green graduates are taken through CoachLab®  which is a post-graduate leadership  and skills development programme where participants spend a year in mentoring, soft skills training, entrepreneurship classes and do real life projects, all while studying towards their post-graduate qualifications. Participants are allocated a monthly stipend

·       Networking: We have regular networking events to facilitate a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have partnered with The Hook Up Dinner that is making an impactful effort in doing this in 3 cities in South Africa and more in the rest of the continent. We have a high level networking event Innov8 where the audience is made of the triple helix of the innovation eco-system. Through our Maxum Mondays, entrepreneurs meet for an hour to spend their time inspiring, influencing and motivating each other with a free cup of coffee.

Q:  What challenges does The Innovation Hub currently face?


·       Emerging Hubs, there is a bigger market that needs incubation services

·       Adequate funding for different programmes

Q:   In your opinion, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, entrepreneurship and investment in South Africa in socio-economic development?

Sibanda: South Africa is an emerging economy that is growing at a steady yet slow pace. Encouraging young people to study STEM is important because it means that the youth will be able to participate in entrepreneurship and innovation thus building a knowledge-based economy. At The Innovation Hub, we understand the importance of this thus we have collaborated with the local municipality City of Tshwane to introduce the FabLab Schools Program that rewards and inculcates innovation and entrepreneurship in high school learners. We have also formed relationships with organizations that focus on the development of ladies in STEM such the TechWomen and Taungana Expo.


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