TRAVEL entrepreneur and CEO of Travelstart, Stephan Ekbergh, is embarking on a new project, Innovation City, to transform his adopted home of Cape Town into a thriving, diverse ecosystem of digital talent, ideas and capital. It will be launched November 26, the day following WiT Africa.
The seed of the idea first took root when he visited Sophia Antipolis in the French Riviera in the 80s but it took Covid for him to return to the idea – to create a similar tech innovation and development hub in the Western Cape. Leveraging his network in Sweden and South Africa, he wants to bring both worlds together to light a fire in Africa’s nascent digital scene. Here’s why he’s doing this, how he will do it and how travel fits into it.
Q: Why Innovation City Cape Town? Have you always wanted to do it or did the pandemic inspire you, because of what it did to travel?
To make a short story long: When we moved to Cape Town 17 years ago, I was impressed by how much it reminded me of the French Riviera in the 70s and 80s. Outside of Nice, there’s a fantastic place called Sophia Antipolis, where Amadeus amongst others have their European developer hubs. I remember thinking and I made some notes in my diary then, what if we did that here?
Fast forward to 2021. We’re in lockdown. I instructed my teams to come up with ideas on how we could reinvent ourselves. I couldn’t come up with a single idea and realised that my creative muscle had withered. When the borders opened after seven months, we decided to relocate back to Sweden for six months. During that time I took occupation at Epicenter Stockholm which a good friend of mine, Ola Ahlvarsson, had opened six to seven years earlier.
Even though most people were working from home, I was so impressed by the vibe and the kind of people that were there. I loved coming to the office every day. I understood that they were an important puzzle piece in the success of developing Sweden into this colossal digital wonder. And they did it by playing a very active role in getting people and corporations to collaborate and creating something new.
I’m a big believer that magic happens where there’s diversity, but South Africa is low on trust and collaboration and I thought perhaps we could play a part – that we use our platform of influence and our beautiful and now mostly-not-used offices, with the backdrop of Cape Town, to create something new.
So we struck a license deal with Epicenter Stockholm where we get access to their playbook, best practices and their platform. Besides all the bells and whistles, our members now get access to a huge network in Stockholm and vice versa, plus the added benefit of using each other’s offices. Incredible.
As a side effect, my creative juices have come back and I am enjoying my work again.
Q: What key post-pandemic trends are you hoping to ride on?
In travel, we are betting on consolidation/payments and diversification. We, like everyone else, believe there will be some opportunities going forward. The world is not going backwards. There’s real value in numbers and size always matters in our industry so we want to continue to be a player in that space.
Payments – we have invested a lot in that area and think there’s a real role for us. We have the largest customer base on the continent and we can use that for new things.
Diversification – travel in Africa has a big consolidated opportunity but not big enough in any single vertical, for our ambitions. We therefore want to go much much broader looking into other aspects of the eco system where technology can be a differentiator for change and higher earnings.
For Innovation City – our thoughts are as follows.
Imagine a deck of cards. You’re playing Blackjack and know it well. You can count and have a resonable idea what cards might be coming up. Now, the dealer has a fit, collects all the cards and throws them up in the air. You don’t know what cards you’re gong to get and you don’t know if the game will be Blackjack, poker, Heart, crazy eight or if it’s going to be Blackjack again.
That’s the world we’re entering into.
In the larger tech space, we hope to be able to ride on the fact that:
• A lot of people, want to work from Cape Town three months/year and eventually move and invest here. There are so many examples of that. I’m one. We can facilitate that from one of our group companies, Travelstart, Day-1 or Innovation City.
• I’m betting that a lot of multinationals want to set up development hubs in Cape Town. From a pathetic start 10-15 years ago, schools and talent are now catching up and from nothing, it’s now world class. Covid has made it possible for the best talent not to go overseas to seek their luck but they can find jobs locally and internationally and stay here. Cape Town is also the best place on the planet to live. Our jobs is to act as the facilitators and amplifiers.
• Through our local and international network plus access to capital, we can be a bridge between ideas, capital and talent and take part in building the new ecosystem.
Q: Your partner is Epicenter Stockholm, clearly you are the bridge between Sweden and Africa. Why them? What attracted you to their model?
I know one of their founders – Ola Ahlvarsson, he carries a real love for entrepreneurship. He was one of the guys that set Sweden on fire, believing that digital would change the world and put together a programme to help companies scale throughout Europe through Result, a consultancy shop he set up in late 1990’s,
His passion for entrepreneurship and digital is intoxicating and you can feel it when you go to their offices. The model is community-based where everyone sort of pitches in. It’s loosely coupled but works very effectively because their show and tell method really inspires people.
It’s messy and fun, but serious like hell. People share rather freely so corporates and even countries, like South Korea send people there just to be part of the journey and hopefully be inspired.
Obviously with our collaboration it’ll be a double win – members will get the best of both worlds, South Africans plug into what’s going on in Sweden and can go and sit there and vice versa.
Q: What’s their greatest achievement thus far?
I think the fact that they have been able to actually create an eco system out of the community that works in Sweden where people naturally social distance says a lot. Everyone has some representation there today, Microsoft, Google and what have you.
Q: What kind of achievements do you hope to replicate in South Africa? How many years behind would you say South Africa is to Sweden?
I’d say five to seven years. We need to churn out a few Skypes and Spotifys and those experiences needs to be shared and inspire people besides the quite obvious around the returns being invested back into the eco system. The last piece will be quite hard.. South Africans like to send their money elsewhere and buy wine farms, planes and safari lodges. Culturally it’s so different.
Q: It will cover all startups – any particular categories you’re interested in? Will you have a special interest in travel or is travel not as attractive anymore?
We’re going to be completely sector agnostic to start. I believe the future is found in diversity. So the most innovative companies will always learn from a sector where you can create cross pollination. Travel will always be attractive, I’ve got jet fuel in my veins.
Q: How does Travelstart fit into this? Or does it?
I think Travelstart can benefit a lot by being exposed to stuff that’s not in your face everyday. Disruption always comes from the outside and that’s why I believe in disrupting yourself now and then is healthy.
Q: You say it will cross-pollinate ideas with talent and capital. Will there be a fund associated with it that will invest in the startups you want to accelerate?
Innovation City will not make investments or create a fund, but we want to plug in companies and services that can feed off and into the eco system, so we’re expecting talent innovation will be big. We expect media innovation, innovation in rapid education etc. We’re expecting there to be a few funds that will set up shop at IC and others will become members to have a first hand look at what’s going on.
Q: What’s the membership fee and what would I get for it?
Still working on the pricing but we will offer the following: Five membership levels: Knowledge, Corporate, Flex desk, Partner desk, Studio.
There’s everything from corporates and members who want to just be able to have a peek at what’s going on. Then on to corporates who decide to put three people in plus the usual flex desk.
We want to avoid the lifestyle “entrepreneurs” with lattes and laptops who just like to hang around.
Q: Your co-founder is Kieno Kammies. What strengths does he bring to the venture?
Oh boy. What doesn’t he bring? His network in South Africa in business, tech, education and politics is second to none. He brings decades of hard hitting journalism. You can put him in front of presidents and start up guys and he will bring out some great content. Our programming and content will be key as well as building the community. That’s where he fits in. Plus I love his energy.
Q: What kind of partners are you looking for to build out the ecosystem?
The idea is to bring together people from various nations, sectors, schools and fields in in this pot of diversity and something wonderful will happen.
Q: What’s your eventual dream for Innovation City?
Glad you asked, The ultimate dream is to create the equivalent of Sophia Antipolis in France. Sophia was Europe’s first science and technology hub created in the early 70s. The Science and Technology Park was distinguished to be a landmark of science, invention, innovation and research. They understood early the importance of creating a community and encouraging networking across the various businesses with cross fertilisation of ideas as a result.
The concept was to bring together people from different nationalities, intellectual horizons and “making” them meet and this would bring added value and generate innovation. It’s situated outside Nice, and today is home to 2,500 companies from around the world.
We believe Cape Town and the western cape has the same appeal today as the French Riviera had in the 70s. But that’s a 20-30 year project. Let’s see how we manage that.
Note: WiT is partnering with Innovation City Cape Town in launching WiT Africa on November 25. Sign up here.
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