Written by Phindile Tshabangu – Centre Manager, TuksNovation

“Toddlers are more active, curious and expressive. At this age, your child may begin to use words, be able to stand on her/his own and take a few steps. To help your little one learn and grow, read books to your child and encourage active play.” UNICEF, Your toddler’s developmental milestones at 1 year

Introduction

TuksNovation occupies a unique space in the South African entrepreneurial ecosystem. The company fosters innovation by providing specialised product and business development support to technology start-ups from the University of Pretoria and surrounding communities by identifying, partnering and supporting promising early stage innovations. 

I was privileged to be appointed to head TuksNovation just over a year ago. It was a momentous shift in my career, which I hope to look back with fond memories. The 1 year milestone is an important one as it offers a time to reflect on the highs and lows (and the in-betweens) over the period.

I have chosen to contrast the developmental milestones of a 1 year old toddler to my journey of the past year. The three features that stood out for me in the UNICEF observation of these milestones – curiosity, growing pains and active play.

I was born and raised in Pretoria, then spent 12 years in Cape Town. I was thus driven by curiosity back to Pretoria – curios to figure out what has become of my hometown in all these years?

Curiosity (breeds Adventure)

It is during the 1 year milestone that a child begins to take the first steps. I walked into TuksNovation in the midst of the Corona virus pandemic. At the time, Covid-19 restrictions continued to be the single biggest disruptor of economic activity, with Gauteng being the most affected having reached a peak in June 2021 (the month I arrived at Tukkies!). By the end of the year, loadshedding was recorded to have been 40% more intense in 2021 than in 2020 and to crown it all the economic pull back in South Africa continued as uncertainty persisted. I bet you to find me a more adventurous endeavour than this combination when taking on a new challenge.

Despite this backdrop, our performance was the strongest since inception – the portfolio companies supported by TuksNovation have collectively generated over 250% above the annual target. The number of new Jobs created by the nascent companies was 3 times more than anticipated and significantly the number of Jobs that were sustained was over 200, at a time which most companies were shedding jobs due to the negative impact of the pandemic.

 TuksNovation proved resilient, braved the storm and continues on to the next phase of the adventure.

Growing pains

You would think that working with company founders as a day job is a fun job. There’s never a dull moment as you watch them take on new markets, grow revenues and employ more people. The buzz and the ideas is a source of new energy and inspiration. However as with any undertaking, there’s always the messy stuff. The stuff that is often hidden when we romanticize the fun part of supporting start-up companies. When it comes to the non-cool stuff, we shared similar pains with some of the mature businesses we are supporting. Dealing with bureaucratic red tape, Financial audits and human resources management do not rank amongst the top 3 of the fun list of any entrepreneurial venture. But, hey someone has got to do it. And we had do go through this. I inherited a team virtually and had to take on new members during unstable economic times.

The complexity couldn’t have been more pronounced. It’s near impossible to build, instil or even transform an organisational culture during fragile times. Part of the growing process was to part ways with employees and make readjustments where appropriate. I’m yet to meet a tech founder who even remotely mentions labour relations in their pitch deck!

It is not all doom and gloom though as the way ahead looks exciting with a fresh outlook and revitalised organisational structure.

Active play

Encouraging active play is what most well-meaning parents are advised to do for their little ones during the first year journey. Play we did. In spite of some of the downsides and adventures, there were fun moments.

Some of our early incubatees continued to grow in leaps and bounds. Wingu Academy expanded their operations and graduated from the incubator into new premises in Centurion, Aviro Health concluded a pre-series A funding round that enabled further improvement and expansion of Aviro Pocket Clinic, the company’s flagship product and more recently KTO Digital, one of our latest addition to the fold, reached the Top10 of the Nedbank and Radio702 SME Business Ignite challenge.

Equally exciting was the launch of two pivotal programmes – the Blue Oceans Corners, supported by the French Embassy in South Africa and the University of Pretoria Vice Chancellor’s Challenge (UPVCC), a continent wide entrepreneurship challenge that aims to support new tech ventures in Africa.

Building businesses that build the economy

TuksNovation proudly carries the University of Pretoria brand. UP is one of Africa’s top universities. Our vision is to position TuksNovation as one of Africa’s top University based incubators by 2028 (the year TuksNovation turns 10!). This vision will see us produce 1 unicorn, expanding our footprint to 10 locations and managing a R100 Million venture fund. We are playing our part in seeing to it that the University of Pretoria is indeed recognised as an entrepreneurial university.

Our business is to build businesses that build the South African economy and expands into new global markets. Beyond the 1 year milestone we are committed to learn from lessons of the past year and begin to walk steadier, take on new challenges and of course continue to have more FUN in the process.