Monthly Archives: March 2017

Taking the long view on innovation investment

Allied Electronics Corporation Limited (Altron)

Winner of the MTN Award for Excellence in the Management of Innovation
Category for large enterprises

Taking the long view on innovation investment

How many South African companies are prepared to wait three to five years before receiving any return on an investment? That’s how long it realistically takes for an innovation investment to start paying off, says Dr Willie Oosthuysen, Group Executive: Technology and Strategy at Altron.

This might explain why the local innovation community is so small and why South Africa is a technology-consuming nation rather than a technology-producing one. “In China and India, the technology industry contributes around 7% of national GDP; here in South Africa, technology contributes less than 1% of GDP.”

Altron is certainly doing its best to fill that gap. In 2016 alone, despite a subdued economy, it invested R70 million on research and development, gave bursaries to 44 bright young engineering students, and continued to employ as many master’s and doctoral engineering graduates as it could find.

“The people who are the main contributors to innovation have master’s and doctoral degrees – and they are mostly young,” says Oosthuysen. “If you want real innovation, disruptive innovation, you need someone younger than 35 who is willing to take a little more risk and willing to put in those extra hours.”
Apart from youthful energy and engineering expertise, other essential ingredients of Altron’s innovation strategy are robust IP rights protection, institutionalised technology processes, value-adding technology partnerships and, last but not least, customer feedback.

What do customers want?

“There are different views on asking customers what they want,” Oosthuysen says. “Apple’s Steve Jobs could afford to be arrogant; he didn’t ask customers what they wanted. He once famously said, ‘I have never been so out of ideas that I had to ask my customers what they want.’ Canon, on the other hand, did. It found out that 70% of new photographers doing photography as a hobby were female and that the company’s cameras were too big for them”  Making a smaller camera in the Canon 7D, produced one of the fastest ever selling SLR cameras.”

Altron itself commissions quite a bit of market research to test customers’ requirements, compare its competitiveness and see what changes are taking place in its markets – for telecommunications, multimedia and IT.
It also keeps an eye on the latest innovations in criminal behaviour, particularly in vehicle theft and hijackings, and responds with innovations of its own.
An example is the signal-jamming detection system of Altech Netstar (part of Altron), which picks up areas where signal jamming is occurring and then uses its Safe and Sound app to alert customers when they enter signal-jamming hotspots.

Similarly, to deter speed fiends from racing their cars – at potentially great cost to their insurers – it has designed a system that can detect when a car is on a race track and can notify insurance companies when an insured car is driven excessively fast or is taken to a race track.

These innovations, and many others, have to be protected from would-be copycats and so Altron has a formidable IP portfolio of patents and trademarks. As its latest annual report says, Altron safeguards its investments through “strident protection” of its IP rights, which includes registering patents, designs, domain names and trademarks.

As Altron continues to look to innovation to maintain its competitive advantage, expect more of the same – but different.


Da Vinci’s 4th Inaugural Lecture: Prof Ben Anderson – 16 March 2017

The Da Vinci Institute hosted the very first Inaugural Lecture for 2017. The Inaugural Lecture is an opportunity for appointed Professors to inform colleagues in the institution and the general public, about their research career so far; and update colleagues on their current and future research directions. 

Prof Anderson’s educational pathway consists of a Bachelors in Philosophy and Psychology, an Honours in Psychology, a Bachelors of Theology, a National Diploma in Theology, a Masters in Psychology and a PhD in Psychology and he is a registered Psychologist. He designed, developed and implemented the Bachelor in Management Leadership (BML) Degree Programme during 1998 in South Africa and established an inter-institutional partnership agreement with the School for New Learning at the University of De Paul (USA) and the University of the Free State (South Africa). Since 2005 he also designed and developed: a Certificate in the Management of Technology and Innovation, a B Com (Business Management), a Masters in the Management of Technology and Innovation and a PhD in the Management of Technology and Innovation, as part of the educational offerings of The Da Vinci Institute. 

To read more about Prof Ben Anderson, click here 

Prof Benjamin Anderson presented his lecture, titled “Anarchy and Individuality” on 16 March 2017 at The Da Vinci House. The abstract of his lecture reads “The university seems to be the only western institution to have survived since the Middle Ages by doing intellectual battles at conferences and expensive hotels, pretending this somehow promotes learning about reality and society. There seems to be a need to revolt and rebel. Being an anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities are run and re-defining the way they could be run.” 

To read Prof Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture presentation, click here

To see photographs taken of Prof Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture, click here

Allied Electronics Corporation Limited (Altron): 2016 Winner MOT

Allied Electronics Corporation Limited (Altron)

Winner of the Greg Tosen Award for Excellence in the Management of Technology

Category for large enterprises

How to keep moving when markets are slow

Being first in a new market is first prize for any company, and in 52 years of operations, Altron has had its share of firsts. No less important than being first to market, though, is the ability to stay ahead in markets that are stagnant or saturated.

Altron , whose core business is information technology, telecommunications, and multimedia, is a pastmaster at stretching technology that much further – making it work better, finding new uses for it or taking it to new markets.

Consider the South African vehicle tracking and recovery sector. Altron, through Altech Netstar, is a market leader here, but the market itself has stagnated in recent years. Netstar’s response has been two-pronged.

First, it has improved its tracking technology so significantly that the rate of recovery within 45 minutes has rocketed from 60% to consistently above 90%, according to Dr Willie Oosthuysen, Group Executive: Technology and Strategy at Altron. Not content with that, it has increased its vehicle-tracking value add, such as by issuing real-time alerts to customers entering signal-jamming zones.
Second, using its core vehicle tracking and recovery capabilities as a springboard, Netstar has expanded into fleet management and telematics – a line of business that uses similar technology but has the added advantages of higher margins, lower risk and better customer retention.

Going global

More often than not, this kind of technological expansion paves the way for geographical expansion too. Altech Netstar recently acquired an Australian fleet management company, Pinpoint Communications, enabling it to enter the market down under. All in all, Altron and its portfolio of businesses now have a direct presence in 18 countries, including Botswana, China, Kenya, Mauritius, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, to name a few.

Some solid international success stories are emerging, such as the news that Altron-owned Bytes UK is the top cloud-licensing partner in the UK and has taken more companies into the cloud than anyone else in that market.

Strategic partnerships with some of the world’s best technology companies are a key pillar of Altron’s technology strategy, enabling the group to expand its already formidable IP portfolio and access a diverse array of technology and capabilities.

“We have ongoing access to the latest technologies worldwide through our partnerships, and at the same time have our own internal research and development programmes,” Oosthuysen says. “We actively encourage and promote internal technology implementation, the protection of intellectual property and the commercialisation thereof.”

The group certainly puts its money where its mouth is, investing millions of rands a year on research and development (R&D). The almost R70 million budgeted for R&D in 2016 included R30 million for vehicle security and fleet management technology and R40 million for telecommunications, IT and multimedia technology.

Says Oosthuysen: “In terms of managing technology, one of the things we do very well is to invest in future value-creating activities and skills.  There is a handful of engineering and computer science (software engineering) students completing their studies on an annual basis in a variety of engineering disciplines in South Africa, and many of them work at Altron.”