Roy: Qualcomm is Developing Next Wave of African Startups

Roy: Qualcomm is Developing Next Wave of African Startups

Vice President, Engineering, Qualcomm, Sudeepto Roy, and Vice President, Government Affairs in charge of Middle East and Africa at Qualcomm, Elizabeth Migwall, spoke with Emma Okonji about Qualcomm’s initiative to incubate and develop African startups that will address African challenges. Except:

Last year, Qualcomm rolled out the ‘Make in Africa’ initiative, designed to mentor and support African startups in developing tech solutions that will address African challenges. What motivated Qualcomm to roll out such initiative?

Qualcomm as a technology company has been operating on the African continent for more than 16 years and focused on policy and regulatory provisions in all the African countries where we have presence. We did this to enable technology solutions and services that we offer on the continent. Our solutions have supported emerging technologies like 3G, 4G and 5G networks and Nigeria is one of the first African countries that licensed spectrum for the rollout of 5G. What Qualcomm did in the past 16 years was to partner with African governments to enable technology deployment on the continent. Today the world is shifting towards 5G deployment to ensure that every sector of the economy is impacted by 5G. With 5G deployment across countries in Africa, each region will be able to create and develop solutions that will meet their needs. Africa has large youth population and Qualcomm is developing technologies, in partnership with other global technology companies, that can transform any sector and our goal is that everybody and everything will be connected through technology. So the Qualcomm ‘Make in Africa’ initiative, is designed to transform the African continent through the adoption of technology to become creators of technology innovations and solutions that will address the African challenges. So the initiative will help Africans startups create their own solutions that will address their immediate and long-term challenges, and also meet their needs.

Last week, Qualcomm announced 10 shortlisted African startups that will benefit from the Qualcomm ‘Make in Africa’ mentorship programme. What were the criteria for the selection and how many applications were received from across Africa?

From the time we launched the programme mid December 2022, until the time it was closed in March 2023, we had over 550 applications from startups across 34 African countries. We later reduced the applications to 15, based on some set of qualifying criteria, and the 15 startups represented nine African countries. Since the number we were looking for was 10, we again shortlisted to get the final 10 startups, based on certain criteria and the 10 startups were selected from five African countries. Among the selected 10 startups, four came from Nigeria, two each from Kenya and Uganda, and one each from Rwanda and Ghana. In terms of the criteria for selection, we looked at the African challenges that the solutions intend to solve and the relevance of the solution to the people and the community. We also looked at the robustness and the efficacy of the solutions, as well as the business module of the solutions, in terms of money generation and its scalability. Then we also considered the composition of the startup teams in the areas of technical expertise and their ability to grow the solution and take the solution to the market, based on their expertise and experiences.

What are the full details of the sponsorship programme. Will Qualcomm patent the successful solutions or allow the startups to patent their solutions?

The full package of the sponsorship programme, comes with mentorship, fortification of their Intellectual Property (IP) rights, training in special skills and enable them to go commercial with their solutions. So Qualcomm will not own the solutions at the end of the day, but will allow the startups to patent their solutions.

In terms of mentorship, Qualcomm is providing experts within the organizsation, drawn from India, United States, and Europe, that will mentor them for six months in technology and business skills. We will also put up top master-class programme in technology areas like 5G, Robotics, Internet of Things (IoTs), Virtual Reality (VR), among others. The startups will be developing innovative products in the areas of clean energy, agricultural technology, computing for education, geospatial predictive analysis, medical technologies, and innovations utilising electric vehicles, and we will provide experts in these fields to mentor them.

How much is Qualcomm investing in terms of dollar for the training and what is the likely impact on the startups and the Nigerian economy?

Giving our involvement about investments in different tech skills, we are not targeting any particular amount to invest in African startup for this initiative. All that we are interested in doing is to support the startups and mentor them to develop successful solutions for the African market. The impact of the training and mentorship will be huge on the startups and on the economies of different countries in Africa, because technology itself is an enabler.

What are the likely solutions that the startups will build on and improve on, during the mentorship programme?

The startups were carefully selected by a global jury based on a variety of qualifications including technical capabilities, business factors, and potential for innovation and intellectual property generation. The Qualcomm ‘Make in Africa’ startups will receive equity-free mentorship in business planning, engineering, intellectual property protection, and the application of advanced connectivity, sensing, AI/ML and other processing technologies for innovative end-to-end systems solutions.

Fixbot, a startup from Nigeria, for instance, developed vehicle diagnostics and inspection solution, while another, OneTouch Diagnostics, developed solution for diabetes patch and monitoring system. QuadLoop, which is the third startup from Nigeria, developed solar e-Lanterns and battery storage from e-waste, and the fourth startup from Nigeria, Maotronics Systems Limited, developed IOT-enabled precision agriculture solution. 

Other startups from other African countries, developed organic composting solution, healthcare diagnosis solution, affordable plugin computers for the education sector, e-Bike tracking and rentals solution, recycled lead-cell battery storage banks solution, and electric vehicle (EV) taxi and fleet management solution.  

Considering the over 550 startups that applied from 34 African countries that were shortlisted to 10, how will Qualcomm encourage those that could not make the final list of 10?

Giving our limited resources, we will not be able to sponsor the over 550 startups that applied, even when we had loved to do so.  But what we can do to encourage others, is to extend our master-class programme to more startups so that they too can get technical training. We will be glad to support majority of startups from Africa, based on available resources.

What is your view about startup development in Africa, and do you see the selected 10 competing favourably with counterparts from developed parts of the world?

Startup development in Africa is on a growth trajectory, and 99 per cent of African startups are in the services sector like the Fintech, health and education services. Qualcomm is using technology skills to further develop African startups. So we are building the next wave of African startups that will develop solutions that will meet the needs of Africans in the era of digital transformation.

In the area of competition, we do not expect African startups to compete with startups from developed countries. We expect them to develop solutions that will address Africa’s immediate and long term challenges and not about global competition. Nigeria for instance is a growing economy with large population and diverse challenges. So we are looking at startups from Nigeria, being able to develop solutions that will address the needs of Nigerians and by extension the needs of Africans. 

The truth is that Africans have to develop solutions that will solve the African challenges, because others are interested in developing their continent and economies.

Africa has funding and mentorship challenges. Do you see the Qualcomm initiative as a measure to address the challenges?

 Recent statistics show that the inflow of Venture Capital (VC) into Africa, has increased, compared to the inflow last year. Qualcomm will continue to help African startups develop solutions that will address the needs of Africans. The move by Qualcomm to continually bring technology innovations to governments, coupled with the Qualcomm ‘Make in Africa’ initiative, will definitely help in addressing most of the African challenges.

What is your advice for African governments in relation to providing support for African startups?

That is a very interesting question. For us at Qulacomm, we have been speaking to governments across Africa on the need to support African startups. I think government needs to create that enabling environment for the startups to grow and grow fast. The second thing that government should do is to protect Intellectual Property (IP) across Africa. Again there is need for policy harmonisation among African countries. Different African countries have different policies about the business environment and it becomes difficult for businesses to expand outside of their countries because of the regulatory laws that are different from their country of origin. So harmonisation of policies and regulations are key for startup growth across Africa.

The Qualcomm ‘Make in Africa’ mentorship programme is one of many initiatives we are working on in close collaboration with government and industry stakeholders in Africa, to help position African entrepreneurs and researchers to service markets throughout the continent and realise their global ambitions. We believe that startups based in Africa are best placed to identify uniquely African problems that can be solved through end-to-end systems solutions and new business models.

Qualcomm on its part, is enabling a world where everyone and everything can be intelligently connected. Our one technology roadmap allows us to efficiently scale the technologies that launched the mobile revolution, including advanced connectivity, high-performance, low-power compute, on-device intelligence and more

A recent survey report that was carried out across 34 African countries, said only 13 African countries have deployed 5G technology The report concluded that Africa does not need 5G at the moment. Do you see a setback on the Qualcomm initiative that is hinged on 5G technology?

5G is an emerging technology that will develop economies even in ten years time. Now from the survey report, I am not surprised that only 13 countries in Africa has 5G deployment, because Africa is a developing nation. It will be erroneous to say that Africa does not need 5G deployment. because 5G is an enabler to technology development that traverses Agriculture, Education, Health, Sports and many more. 5G transforms every aspect of life. No continent will want to be excluded from the next dispensation of connectivity and digital transformation and 5G drives all of that. So we need 5G for personal and national development.

As a chipset maker, what is the latest in the chipset market and how is Qualcomm driving the market?

The chipset market is making significant progress. As part of the mentorship programme, and as a chipset maker, Qualcomm can introduce the startups to the latest chipset technology, even if they do not have immediate need for them. But the truth is that they will definitely need it in the future. So the knowledge of chipset will not be in vain.

As a forward looking company, Qualcomm has released newer versions of its chipset that will drive 5G technology that was designed for high intensive bandwidth IoT applications as against 4G that was designed for relatively low bandwidth IoT applications. So 5G enabled devices need software updates, diagnostic information and the Qualcomm chipsets have enabled capability of these high bandwidth IOT application devices. We have new chipsets that can bridge the walls of devices operating satellite networks and devices that operate cellular networks and create hybrid devices. With our chips, tracking of devices has been made a lot easier and faster.    

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