SA’s Silicon Valley?

Entrepreneurial spirit means a lot to LaunchLab CEO Joshua Romisher, as he explains to Richard Holmes. And he’s confident Stellenbosch has the potential to become a hub for that spirit.

South Africa needs more jobs, more companies, and Joshua Romisher
believes LaunchLab’s mission is to transform seemingly
impossible ideas into world-shaping companies.

“My personal mission is to achieve impact at scale. I ask myself, how can I create the biggest impact for the most people?” states Joshua Romisher, CEO of Stellenbosch University’s LaunchLab. “South Africa needs more jobs, we need more companies. We need more innovative thinking if we’re to attack social problems with private sector solutions. At LaunchLab we’re going to build a platform that can play a material role in building companies that can go out and employ people and solve critical issues in this country.”

It’s a bold vision, but Joshua certainly has the CV to back up his ambition. A finance graduate from Penn State University in the USA, he began his finance career with Credit Suisse, learning the ropes, as he puts it, “on the front line of the financial crisis”. He left to start his own investment firm and then did a second stint at Credit Suisse before going back to university. 

Looking to shift into what he calls “social entrepreneurism”, he took up postgraduate studies at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Centre for Energy Policy and Finance.

“I’ve travelled a lot to Africa, India and parts of the world where there is massive opportunity for social disruption; for public sector roles that the private sector needs to take care of,” continues Joshua. “I’m also conscious of my place in the world as a white male American and felt I needed to use that privilege to accomplish something positive.”

It was a conviction that saw him spend much of the past decade working in Central and East Africa, building successful businesses in both the off-grid solar industry and financial services for emerging economies. When the birth of their first child brought Joshua and his wife to Cape Town, it didn’t take long for them to decide the Cape was a good place to put down new roots and for Joshua to delve into an opportunity at LaunchLab.

LaunchLab is an initiative of Innovus, the industry-interaction arm of Stellenbosch University. The primary role of Innovus is to commercialise the university’s innovation and intellectual property portfolio via the patenting of applications, licensing and the formation of spin-off companies. Over the past two decades, Innovus has filed hundreds of patent applications and formed companies in fields ranging from geographical information systems to media and marine systems. LaunchLab, in partnership with Nedbank, is now a crucial cog in that process.

“I see a ton of opportunity here. Certain public sector goods are likely to move more and more to private in the next couple of years. How can we be part of that? Our mission is to transform seemingly impossible ideas into world-shaping companies,” says Joshua. “People think of Silicon Valley as a hub for entrepreneurs. How do we make Stellenbosch, and this region, an entrepreneurial hub for Africa? The only way to do that is to create even more value.” 

Joshua Romisher, CEO of Stellenbosch University’s LaunchLab, is committed to bringing a global mindset to the company and to build a cross-pollination of ideas.

Joshua Romisher, CEO of Stellenbosch University’s LaunchLab,
is committed to bringing a global mindset to the company
and to build a cross-pollination of ideas.

At LaunchLab, that value comes in many guises. At its most basic it’s about providing a professional workspace filled with other hungry entrepreneurs. Going deeper, LaunchLab offers a number of upskilling programmes, some available online, that help young entrepreneurs to understand the fundamentals of building a start-up, whether it’s cash flow, financial management or taking a product to market. Joshua sees LaunchLab offering an array of tertiary services for companies entering a growth phase.

“Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be out there fundraising,” he says. “We should own that area, guide them through the process. That allows them the freedom to do what they love and what they do best; and that is to build their company.”

While the majority of LaunchLab’s current funding comes from corporate sponsorship, office rentals and Stellenbosch University, Joshua runs the hub as a start-up in itself, looking to build revenue streams for long-term sustainability. “We need to have revenue resilience, revenues that are dependent on our own outcomes, not anybody else’s,” he says.

Along with charging fees for professional services, LaunchLab will look to own equity in companies. “We want to be partners and have a vested interest in building these companies to be successful.” 

Joshua is also committed to bringing a global mindset to LaunchLab, with sector-specific incubators and the integration of international start-ups. “To build great companies, you need diversity and by bringing in entrepreneurs from Lagos, Nairobi, France, wherever, we’re working to build a cross-pollination of ideas,” he adds, noting that the South African environment isn’t entirely conducive to attracting and nurturing entrepreneurs. 

“There are some structural difficulties and geographical challenges but there are also some policy changes that need to happen. For instance, the tech economy needs more employment flexibility. Right now, if you’re looking to start a business in Africa, Nairobi and Lagos are the places to go to. But Cape Town and Stellenbosch should be up there,  too. Give it a couple of years and I think they will be.” 

And with initiatives like LaunchLab smoothing the way, the Eikestad will no doubt become a centre of excellence for entrepreneurism in Africa.

To find out more about Launchlab, go to their website.