Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Umbono: Jump Starting the Internet Ecosystem in Africa

Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa! To preemptively answer your question, no, I'm not on vacation – I'm here to help set up a new program called Umbono, Google's new start-up incubator that will be located here. But before I delve too deeply, let me briefly explain what a start-up incubator is. While the concept of incubators is relatively common in the US, when I've told folks in South Africa what I'm doing here, I often get a look of confusion – "An incubator? Isn't that something you put eggs in?" Well, yes, you could say that...

Simply put, start-up incubators are programs that select a group of early-stage companies, generally through a competitive process, that most commonly provide mentorship and funding. The start-ups are also usually given space in the same establishment so that they can form bonds and learn from one another's struggles as well. The idea was most notably popularized in the US by Y Combinator, a high-profile incubator founded in 2008 by software legend, Paul Graham. Since then, a number of similar programs have cropped up around Silicon Valley and beyond, but very few outside the US.

That's where Umbono comes in. As part of Google's goal to establish a thriving, sustainable web ecosystem in Africa, we realize that there need to be a wide variety of players in the space. So Google partnered with a number of local South African players, including a variety of angel investors to provide funding and guidance, the Hub to provide working space, and Cell C to provide internet connectivity. In addition, the program also includes business skills training, specifically tailored for new businesses, and mentorship from local experts and various Googlers with experience working in emerging markets (like me!).

The program is still in its very early stages – we're just vetting the candidates and getting the space set up, but I have very high hopes for how it will turn out. If all goes well, maybe I'll come back here in the winter (summer for South Africa) and work with my start-ups on the venture capital pitches. At least that's my secret plan for the moment – I'm sure it would be much nicer than dreary winter England!

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