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Stellenbosch University (SU) Group of Companies celebrates their spin-out success

In celebration of entrepreneurial and innovation excellence at SU, the University of Stellenbosch Enterprises (USE) held its annual CEO event to show appreciation for and commemorate the remarkable progress of its group of spin-out companies and the dedicated leaders and hard-working teams behind their success. Set against the backdrop of the Cape Winelands, more than 50 people gathered to raise a toast to another promising year ahead.

In 2023, the Stellenbosch University (SU) group of companies recorded an annual turnover of R422m, compared to the previous year’s turnover of R348m. The group employs nearly 400 people and USE received nearly R6m in dividends in 2023. These numbers are not merely a financial accolade but are a testament to the impact delivered by the companies on our society through the delivery of new products and services emanating from research at SU. It also demonstrates the relevance of research at SU in developing solutions that can make the world a better place.

Kicking off the celebrations, Anita Nel, Chief Director of Innovation and Commercialisation at SU, welcomed everyone and applauded the 32 spin-out companies and their teams for their achievements and perseverance. Nel highlighted invaluable contributions of the Innovus Technology Transfer Office and LaunchLab teams whose expertise support these companies toward success. Special recognition was given to Doris Peters, New Venture Support Manager, who has been the driving force behind the ‘Instant Startup’ platform. This comprehensive toolkit assists entrepreneurs to validate their ideas, do customer discovery, draft a lean business model canvas and business proposal, pitch deck, and create and populate a data room for investors plus a lot more.  It is loaded with articles, videos and training to support entrepreneurs throughout their journey with this tool.  Launched last year, the Instant Startup platform is implemented by the business incubator team at SU LaunchLab to assist academics and students who want to commercialise their research and ideas.

Nel noted the importance of collaboration in the commercialisation process. She lauded the companies for entrusting their inventions and ideas to the Technology Transfer Office team, and for their willingness to adopt invaluable business acumen from the LaunchLab team.

In striving for excellence Stellenbosch University aims to be the leading research and entrepreneurial institution in Africa. “I have visited many universitiies locally and abroad, and Stellenbosch University is providing comprehensive and world-class entrepreneurial and innovation support,” concluded Nel.

Professor Stan Du Plessis, Chief Operating Officer of SU, also addressed the guests. He commended the exceptional efforts of the Innovation and Commercialisation Division staff, CEO’s of the SU group of companies and the valued service providers. He emphasised that the existence and prestige of these companies is no accident, acknowledging the immense responsibility required to commercialise and achieve such impressive outcomes.

As a macro-economist, Du Plessis referred to the ongoing volatility of the South African economy, with the recent political elections further complicating the environment for securing investment and achieving substantial profits. Despite these challenges the SU group of companies recorded a healthy 21% revenue growth across the portfolio. Reflecting on these achievements, Du Plessis highlighted CubeSpace, who raised R47million for its global expansion, as well as Immobazyme which received further investment in Series A funding from the University Technology Fund (UTF) and USE in 2024.

Speaking to the year ahead, Du Plessis cited seven guiding principles from a history book about the renowned Habsburg family to help guide the companies towards long-term growth and success in the coming year:


Lesson number 1: Get married and have lots of children

Like marriage, to spin-out a company requires courage and tremendous commitment. Just as the Habsburgs had many children, companies must continuously develop new ideas and improve existing ones.


Lesson number 2: Be Catholic

Treat your customers well and with respect. In most moral codes we use the golden rule: do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. To build a sustainable business you need to treat your stakeholders in such a way that they maintain their support for your enterprise. Profits should be pursued, but not at the expense of ethical business practices. This is how you get repeat business.


Lesson number 3: Believe in Empire and in subsidiarity. Much like empires, companies need to have a core management team while strategically outsourcing services. “Companies are like empires. You do not contract all of your services on a daily basis on the open market. Instead, you have a permanent core – and an ‘area of planning’ as the Economic Philosopher Hayek called it – which is a non-market zone you manage directly,” says Du Plessis.


Lesson number 4: Stand for law and justice

We all function under the rule of law and that requires a deep commitment to ethical business practice and good governance. You cannot compromise on this. Most white-collar criminals do not start out that way, they end up as criminals after they had taken a series of ethical short cuts and compromises, often with the sincere intention that this is just temporary.


Lesson number 5: Know who you are and live accordingly

“Our tech transfer team and the Launchlab work hard to help you answer this question. You must work deliberately at discovering what your company is about,” continues Du Plessis.


Lesson number 6: Be brave in battle

Building a successful company requires courage and perseverance, especially in challenging economic environments. Leaders must decide to pull ahead despite difficult circumstances.

“The South African economy has stagnated for 15 years. Unemployment is up by 50% over the same period. This business environment is potentially calamitous for all of us; and you will need the courage, the bravery and the conviction to pull ahead despite the circumstances,” says Du Plessis.


Lesson number 7: Die well

The lesson here is one of humility. Hubris is toxic for business leaders and is directly related to the greatest corporate scandal in this country’s history.


Du Plessis concluded, “Like the Habsburgs, you the CEO’s of USE companies have built resilience, have innovated and thrived despite tough conditions. I congratulate you”.


In conclusion, the annual CEO event emphasises SU’s dedication to excellence and that as a leading research and entrepreneurial institution, we all have an important role to play in advancing Africa’s innovations.

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