Community partnership in business coaching

Stellenbosch University’s Innovus initiative – which is responsible for technology transfer, entrepreneurial support and development among students – is providing a platform for community and industry through entrepreneurial grooming.

The on-campus LaunchLab is a mixed-use business accelerator that provides emerging entrepreneurs with infrastructure including affordable rental, network services and guidance from academics and business leaders, to help them launch business ideas.

Some delegates at the global Talloires Network Leaders Conference held at Spier in Stellenbosch outside Cape Town from 2-4 December, visited the LaunchLab at Stellenbosch University to witness a community research partnership at work.

Delegates from America, Ghana, Malaysia, South Africa and Zimbabwe nestled in the Pitching Den as they were treated to another form of community engagement.

“We are working to demystify the stigma that universities do not want to work with industry and communities,” said Johnathan Smit, innovation officer for Innovus.

One of the initiative’s roles is to stimulate student entrepreneurs in their first year at the university, and give them counselling as they go along, said Smit. “Most of them do not know what they want to do with their lives,” he added.

The Pitching Den

Participants enter a viable business idea by doing an informal pitch, through the Pitching Den, in front of a camera at the LaunchLab, Smit explained.

The Pitching Den provides a safe environment where any business idea can be shared and receive constructive criticism. “It allows us to listen to the students," he said.

Participants can practise pitching and do a final pitch before a panel of judges – representatives from industry, the Stellenbosch University Entrepreneurship Forum and faculty members – who choose the best ideas. Workshops are also held to stimulate idea generation and assist with idea endorsement.

The Pitching Den is open to current students and staff of Stellenbosch University, alumina of the university, students from other universities in the Western Cape and non-student entrepreneurs from the community.

Stimulating entrepreneurs

LaunchLab programmes were designed to create a value chain and a network that accelerates entrepreneurs and businesses to a new level, JD Labuschagne, junior business developer at Innovus, told University World News.

The LaunchLab has been operating since August 2013, and calls for ideas twice a year. After the three-week intake of ideas, a week is allocated to filter the ideas and choose the finalists.

Labuschagne said responses are provided to students on the merits of their idea and the audience is allowed access throughout the event to add input on the ideas.

The winning ideas receive seed funding, mentorship and space in the LaunchLab to get their idea off the ground.

“We encourage innovation, equip with the right basic skills and then fund the best. Mentorship match-ups build a strong support base, but if you mentor for money, I’m not sure that is the right model to follow,” said Smit.

More than four companies have moved in and out of the LaunchLab in the past 15 months.

Smit said LaunchLab was open to share ideas with other organisations and universities globally.