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Building Africa's AI initiative

- Cirrus Initiative

Considerations behind the largest and most complex undertaking of its kind in Africa’s history.

In collaboration with academia, Cirrus is a private sector led initiative bringing together academia and industry for the establishment of a world class artificial intelligence (AI) research and application capability for Africa. Although launched in 2019, work on Cirrus started several years earlier which included laying the ground work for Wits University to host the Cirrus infrastructure.

Cirrus was conceived over a decade ago but work on the first formal proposal started in 2017. At the time, Dr Dean Barrett, who works at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS), was seeking a way to apply machine learning to the vast amount of data they were producing.

Working with his fellow collaborator at Wits University, Dr Roy Forbes, it soon became apparent that Wits had similar needs and should be incorporated into the requirement. This was detailed in a proposal document and in early 2018 presented to Wits.

Following meetings with stakeholders from across the university, Professor Dean Brady, Head of the School of Chemistry and Director of the Molecular Science Institute, with the support of Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, took the lead on pushing Cirrus forward within Wits with the intention that this should benefit not only Wits University but all academic and research institutions in Africa.

Read more about the history of Cirrus.

Read more about the launch.

What Cirrus is all about

Cirrus has three major components:

1) Cirrus itself houses the cooperation programs, the state-of-the-art computing infrastructure and the open learning programs.

2) The Cirrus FOUNDRY is equipped with everything needed to bridge what is called the “Valley of Death”, and that is overcoming the challenge of turning a start-up idea or scientific research into large-scale commercial application. Simply, the business of the Cirrus FOUNDRY is building other businesses.

The Cirrus FOUNDRY is characterised by:

  • ideation generally carried out by the in-house team
  • the use of in-house staff in product creation
  • building multiple products centered around AI
  • with the objective of being standalone businesses
  • retaining some ownership stake and has a capital fund

For these reasons it is not an incubator or accelerator and referred to as a foundry.

3) The third component, the Cirrus FOUNDRY Fund is the in-house fund to support start-ups in the Cirrus FOUNDRY to ensure they are not wholly dependent on outside capital.

The Cirrus FOUNDRY Fund has a target capitalization of 35 million dollars and will undertake pre-seed and seed stage investments. For most investments, capital will be allocated at the pre-seed stage with investments of up to 3.7 million South African rand. The FOUNDRY Fund will also follow a lead investor in seed rounds, with investments of up to 7.5 million South African rand.

Read the full story.