There’s never been a better time for someone with an innovative idea to see it realised with a working design, but successfully launching a product in a crowded market has arguably never been harder. What’s more, while there will always be a place for the traditional electronic engineering fraternity and the established manufacturing sector, a perfect storm of factors is fuelling the rise of the everyman as a real force for innovation.
First of all, the ‘makers’ community of hobbyists and tinkerers is flourishing thanks mainly to simple-to-use, highly capable prototyping platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi (to mention just two). Not only has their hardware power advanced to the point where they can legitimately be described as credit card-sized computers, they are also supported by massive open-source communities who are more than happy to share their ideas and software with others. Such is the popularity of Raspberry Pi in particular that Premier Farnell recently sold its ten millionth unit after less than six years, and now sells over 50 000 per week globally. So-called ‘Raspberry Jam’ events have also sprung up in dozens of countries (including South Africa) as get-togethers for members of this community to show off their designs.
Secondly, knowledge is now freely accessible by anyone willing to search for it, apply their minds to understanding it, and experiment. Gone are the days when university hallways and dusty old libraries were the exclusive entry points into the arcane engineering arts; access to the Internet gives anyone and everyone an opportunity to learn. Tertiary institutions still have their place, of course, as they provide an unmatched method of planning, structuring, imparting and testing advanced, relevant knowledge.
A decisive factor, though, and one that people of a technical bent tend to struggle with, is commercialisation – even the greatest idea in the world is worthless if it can’t be developed into an actual product, or if nobody wants to buy it. This is where incubators can play a part, providing a means of filtering out the marketable ideas from the otherwise, and advising and consulting on product industrialisation.
Just one example of this is Savant, a hardware technology incubator, which has partnered with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) as an enterprise development partner. In October, Savant announced that, since its first incubation client in 2007, it had secured R106 million in investments from private investors and government agencies such as the IDC, TIA and DTI, and the startups on its books had earned revenues in excess of R2,51 billion.
That is not to say it’s easy being a startup. In November, Ventureburn released the results of its latest survey of 260 tech startup founders. The survey produced a host of facts and figures – here are just a handful that stand out: 72% of founders were male, 44% were white, 31% were black, and 65% were aged between 25 and 35. Gauteng has gained ground on the Western Cape as a hotbed of innovation, being home to 44% and 47% of startups surveyed, respectively. Most identified their biggest challenge as raising enough funds, with 40% being self-funded and 51% expecting to run out of funds within just 3 months. Only 10% of respondents said they were turning a profit, which is down from the 17% reported in a similar 2015 survey. So, opportunities aside, money talks and there is clearly not much to go around, despite the private and public incubation efforts.
So where does this leave electronics design and manufacturing as an industry? Some might argue that the sector loses out when the tools for innovation are put in the hands of the man in the street, but in the long run I believe it can only be stronger for it. A culture of science, technology and innovation is not easy to create – just ask the South African government – but it is a slowly rising tide that is hard to stop once it gains momentum.
Brett van den Bosch