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Tech boost for SA

- By Erna van Wyk

 Wits University will be the home of the second IBM Research Laboratory to be built in Africa.

The global technology giant already has 12 labs across the world, including one in Kenya, and this is part of a 10-year investment programme through the South African Department of Trade and Industry. The announcement was made on Friday, 6 February 2015, during an IBM ThinkForum held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

In choosing Wits as the lab’s home in South Africa, and partnering with the Department of Science and Technology and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), IBM’s South African researchers will work closely with local universities, research institutions, innovation centres, start-ups and government agencies to bolster South Africa’s emerging innovation ecosystem and help develop the next generation technology skills.

The lab will be located in Braamfontein’s new software hub, Tshimologong Precinct – home of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering that is a three-way partnership between government, academia and industry. Headed by Wits Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the JCSE is multifaceted with various programmes and facilities positioning it as a focal point of a software development industry for South Africa and the rest of the continent.

“The development of a successful innovation ecosystem is crucial to the further development of the South African economy and the country’s international competitiveness,” said Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal. “IBM Research’s decision to locate in Braamfontein in Johannesburg will give a huge boost to a dynamic community of programmers, designers, developers, entrepreneurs and start-ups.”

Opening in April, the lab will focus on advancing Big Data, cloud computing and mobile technologies. Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at Wits, said the University offers world class skills and research talent. “Wits has a long and established research history. Our illustrious alumni include Nobel laureates in the fields of science and the health sciences. We are looking forward to working with IBM Research to develop new technologies and pushing the boundaries of science.”

The IBM investment will include sponsorship of an academic program for under- and postgraduate students in disruptive technologies.

“South Africa is amongst the most technologically and scientifically advanced countries in the world,” said Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology. “However, it is essential to increase research and development activities in order to foster innovation and support the further diversification of the economy. We welcome IBM Research to South Africa and offer our very best scientific talent to ensure its long-term success.”

“IBM considers three factors when deciding where to place research labs: access to world class skills and talent, the ability to work on pressing business and societal challenges that can be best addressed through advanced information technology, and collaborating and partnering with academic communities and government to be successful,” said Dr John E. Kelly III, Senior Vice President of IBM Solutions Portfolio and Research. “South Africa provides an exciting backdrop as we look to expand our research efforts in the region. Our Africa-based researchers are part of a global community of IBM scientists who are forging the future of our company and ensuring that we remain at the forefront of scientific discovery.”

The new South Africa IBM research team will be led by Dr Solomon Assefa, formerly a research scientist at IBM’s flagship Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. He was named one of the World’s Top Young Innovators under 35 by MIT’s Technology Review in 2011 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Last year he was named a Fellow of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences.

About the new IBM Research Lab:

Digital urban renewal

The lab’s inner-city location will allow IBM’s new researchers to form part of a ‘living lab’ that will explore the role of advanced digital technologies and Big Data analytics in urban renewal. Mobile technologies, global positioning systems, cameras and sensors are becoming ubiquitous in cities, thereby providing opportunities to re-imagine the delivery of services such as transportation, energy and security. IBM’s researches and partner organizations will develop solutions using computational modeling, Internet of Things and cognitive systems to engage more effectively with citizens and help revitalize inner-city areas in South Africa and around the world.

Helping to transform health care

IBM’s South Africa-based researchers will explore new approaches using Big Data analytics and cognitive computing to increase the efficiency, scalability and effectiveness of healthcare in resource-constrained environments in South Africa and across the African continent. IBM Research is already engaged with the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) to research new treatment approaches to fight tuberculosis (TB). Using Big Data technologies in bacterial genetics and drug susceptibility tests, the work is increasing understanding of the genomic mechanisms that cause resistance to antibiotics.

Big Data for big science

IBM’s new researchers will also contribute to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project which aims to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the universe. In one of the most ambitious science efforts ever launched, scientists from South Africa will work with those from ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and IBM Research – Zurich to collect and analyse unprecedented amounts of Big Data from deep space that contain information dating back to the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.