Qualcomm’s Make in Africa incubation: Good old startup contest whiling time in Africa or Business?

L.S.M Kabweza Avatar

Last month, Qualcomm, known mostly for making chips for smartphones, announced a list of 10 African startups that have made it into its Qualcomm Make in Africa incubation program.

You can see the list of startups on the Qualcomm website here.

Qualcomm says the startups will be getting “business coaching, access to engineering consultation for product development, and guidance on protecting intellectual property.” Though not mentioned, is the 2023 edition of the same program is anything to go by, on startup will also be getting what they refer to as a “valuable stipend.”

Africa Innovation Platform

This is the second year in a row they are doing the program. It’s part of a wider initiative called Africa Innovation Platform, which was launched in December 2022.

Going through some of these startups, it’s hard not to feel this is the typical startup pitching contest in Africa. I’ve seen it play out like so: Following the advice of an innovation consultant who sells a story of the need for a global company to be part of an Africa tech rising (or Africa Emerging, or Africa the next frontier) opportunity, said global company launches a program, and the contest (or hackathon) is part of it.

On the entrepreneur side of things, they see the opportunity to pitch, get some money or some visibility/clout. Companies don’t see really see actual serious business. They see an opportunity for a feel-good thing. A few startups who have honed the art of pitchpreneurship win. An announcement is made and the stories are published. The company moves on to the next batch. Startup also moves on to the next pitching contest. There’s an unsaid understanding between the veteran pitchpreneur and the global company, that this is not business.

This felt a bit like that. It’s not that I blame Qualcomm. They are a business and will go where opportunity takes them. And maybe right now, Africa is just not that place.

Besides the startup mentorship program, within this innovation initiative on the continent, Qualcomm also has Qualcomm Wireless Academy whose aim is to “expand its 5G University Training Program to students at select African universities, who will be able to receive 5G training and certification from industry-leading engineers.” That program feels more serious than the startup mentorship and I hoped to find news about partnerships they now have with universities and actual courses/degrees that they are now actively contributing to. Maybe numbers of students trained as well.

So to be fair on the company I asked them these things. Here are the Qualcomm responses to my questions. Whether this is a feelgood intervention or actual business, I’ll leave to you and time.

Who shortlisted the 10 startups out of the 250? Is it Qualcomm itself or is it working with partners (which ones).

A panel of judges from Qualcomm shortlisted the 10 startups.

What’s the shortlisting criteria?

The selection process is a rigorous one and involves selecting the participating startups from hundreds of applications. This year, over 250 applications were received from over 30 countries. Over 20 startups were shortlisted for a rigorous evaluation by industry experts before selecting the final 10 for mentorship.

What is the progress regarding the 5G training at African universities.

Qualcomm has been supporting Africa’s burgeoning tech ecosystem through our education work. We are collaborating with universities in the continent to enhance engineering curriculum and provide technology training.

Through our Qualcomm Academy, we’ve been working with universities and industry on training, distribution, and certification of 5G technologies and standards in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, and Rwanda.

The Qualcomm Academy is the education and training arm of Qualcomm that provides training and certification to students at African universities and organizations through its 5G University Training Program.

What kind of activities have been engaged in with the 2023 cohort. What is the progress there with the program?

Since Qualcomm established this program a year ago, we have been impressed with the hard-work, determination and innovative spirit of startups across the continent.

We were privileged to witness the growth of the entrepreneurs over the seven-month mentorship period. They worked tirelessly through hundreds of hours of masterclasses, and specialized clinics on everything from business development to branding, technology trainings, covering topics, such as 5G extended reality and machine learning.

We are also grateful to our 20 Qualcomm colleagues who acted as mentors throughout the 2023 program. They volunteered their time, energy and expertise to invest in hundreds of cumulative hours in one-on-one mentoring time, providing mentoring for technology, business leadership, skills, marketing and IP protection.

The 2023 participating startups are driving the innovation agenda on the continent and creating new prospects for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. These startups found incredible solutions for issues they see in their countries and communities. Yet, the market for their innovation goes beyond the local to have global potential. We are proud to play a small part in their global journey.

Embracing the paradigm of “teaching to fish,” the 2023 program provided masterclasses covering guidance and training on product management, pitch clinics, intellectual property rights and hardware architecture. We also facilitated connections with industry leaders, venture capitalists, investors, and other accelerators, ensuring enhanced visibility for participants.

How does the program mentorship work? Is it remote or in person? It happens over what period of time and with what frequency?

The mentorship program is fully remote, with masterclasses, one-on-one mentoring and pitch clinics taking place over a seven-month period and culminating in a Finale event in December where the startups pitched their groundbreaking ideas and innovative solutions.

What is the timeline of the events? When will Demo Day be and how will it work? Is it in person or remote? Which investor?

After a seven-month mentorship period, the Finale will take place in December. In 2023, the 1-hour Finale took place on December 11. This event took place virtually. An audience of African media, policymakers, government officials, VCs, and the African tech ecosystem heard insights from esteemed figures such as John Omo, Secretary General, African Telecommunications Union (ATU), and Qualcomm’s Alex Rogers, President of Global Affairs and Technology Licensing, Qualcomm. The following startups had the opportunity to pitch their groundbreaking ideas and innovative solutions: EcoRich, FixBot, Karaa, Maotronics, Microfuse, Neural Labs Africa, OneTouch Diagnostics, QuadLoop, SLS Energy, SolarTaxi.

The speeches and startup pitches were followed by a Q&A with Qualcomm’s Sudeepto Roy, Vice President Engineering, Qualcomm Technology Licensing, and Elizabeth Migwalla, Vice President International Regulatory Affairs.

There was mention of a “valuable stipend” for the 2023 cohort. What is the purpose of that stipend?

In addition to the grant awarded to Ecorich Solutions Ltd., Qualcomm® Wireless Reach™ is also providing financial resources to the remaining nine organizations in the 2023 QMIA cohort. Each of the 10 organizations submitted robust proposals to Wireless Reach, outlining how they would utilize the requested grant funds.

These proposals, which included detailed timelines and deliverables related to the use of the funds, underwent review by a cross-departmental panel. The stipend recipients receive resources, such as development kits to help them develop their applications on an advanced platform.

Qualcomm also will offer financial reimbursement for filing a single utility (non-provisional and complete) patent application with a pre-approved patent office or patent union based in Africa. This patent filing incentive encourages organizations to protect their innovative ideas within the African innovation landscape, enabling them to offer differentiated products and services, as a continuation of their journey in investing in new ideas and fostering new discoveries.

I didn’t see any mention of Qualcomm Ventures. Why is it not involved in a startup initiative by Qualcomm. Does Qualcomm not see the opportunity to invest in some of the startups?

We do invite QCV to sit as a jury panelist to help us make a determination when selecting the top candidates for prize money.

Does Qualcomm have an office on the continent? If it does, where and what kind of operations are carried out by this office? If not, why?

Yes, Qualcomm has an office in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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