The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will fundamentally change our understanding of the universe. It also holds enormous potential to transform business and propel job creation and economic growth. To scope some of the near, mid, and long term opportunities, and how to harness them for competitive advantage, Accelerate Cape Town hosted a CEO dinner with Dr Bernie Fanaroff, project director of the SKA project, on 12 March 2015. While part of the meeting was held under the Chatham House rule, we are able to share the following points from the discussion:

  • The SKA is a strategic infrastructure project that presents transformational opportunities to businesses of all sizes, but particularly to multinational organisations (MNOs) with long term interests in SA that span the next 50 years (the project’s life span).  There will be significant opportunities for these MNOs to collaborate with ‘scale-ups’ in entrepreneurial activities related to the SKA, including in the ‘big data’ arena, stated to be a $1 trillion industry by 2020.
  • Just as the SKA is attracting the world’s leading scientists, physicists, etc., it is also at the top of the enterprise growth agenda for influential MNOs.
  • IBM’s recent announcement to expand IBM Research by $5 million was influenced by opportunities presented by the SKA. The expansion plans form part of the company’s 10-year investment program through the Department of Trade and Industry and the new research facility will be based at the University of the Witwatersrand to focus on, among others, big data.
  • Business opportunities presented by the SKA include the manufacturing of components, innovation, and maintenance – particularly in the information and communications technology (ICT) field.
  • Early indications of take up and traction are extremely encouraging. In one example, a local manufacturer has developed a processor that has reduced the time it takes NASA to conduct a certain deep space exploration process from two years, to a month.
  • A Stellenbosch-based software company is now considered the world’s leading developer of optics and receivers, thanks to the products it has developed for the SKA.
  • The SKA head office is based in Cape Town and, together with the hundreds of PhD-level researchers and scientists the project is attracting and will attract, the Cape offers National Research Foundation A-rated scientists and engineers centred around UCT’s H3-D drug discovery lab;  the Two Rivers Urban Park;  the Cape Health Technology Park;  and the Biovac Institute;  as well as 94,000 students;  a history of innovation and entrepreneurial success;  and several centres of excellence – all of which is available to access as business works to realise growth and jobs from the opportunities presented by the various phases of the SKA project. As the development of the internet completely changed the way that we communicate, the next decades will fundamentally be influenced by SKA developments with opportunities in data processing, high-performance computing and engineering.

Chris Whelan, CEO of Accelerate Cape Town, says: “In the words of Dr Fanaroff, ‘excellence attracts excellence’. Accelerate Cape Town is committed to helping business translate the economic potential of the SKA as we seek to bolster the economy together. We have so much going for us in the Cape and, if we can temper our tendency towards short term-ism and think expansively, collaboratively and inclusively, we will be successful in creating a better life for all.”