It was on this first week in August, exactly 20 years ago, that inqaba biotec officially opened for business and needless to say, it has been an interesting and eventful 20 years. Here is the tale of how it all began…
It actually all started on a bus. In 2000, co-founders Dr Oliver Preisig (a molecular biology researcher at the University of Pretoria) and Dr Joaquim de Gama (a law student at the time) had regularly and serendipitously taken the same bus from Sunnyside to the University of Pretoria. During these bus trips they had forged a friendship and struck up many interesting conversations.
During one of these regular commute conversations, Joaquim proposed the idea of starting a business growing mushrooms. Oliver, though enticed by the idea of a business, thought his experience and skills would be better suited to a company that offered DNA sequencing and oligos synthesis instead. Although many such companies did exist in the 90s, no such company existed in South Africa or Africa at the time, hence, the idea was borne.
Oliver then proceeded to share the idea with some friends back home in Switzerland and Germany, and with surprising swiftness, the venture team of 5 was established. The initial venture team included Prof Michael Göttfert, Dr Christoph Beck, Dr Sandra Neumann and of course, Oliver and Joaquim.
Unfortunately, the four scientists and one lawyer were largely inexperienced in writing a business plan which lead to their first draft document being a massively thick document. Furthermore, the business needed an astronomic amount of funds and guidance if they were to achieve any sort of success. The situation did not look exceptionally good.
Then fortunately and most opportunely, they came across the Swiss Organisation to Facilitate Investments in the developing world (SOFI) in Zurich and it was there that they received invaluable support and guidance from a consultant, Mr Andre Calame. Mr Calame, proceeded to coach the team and assisted in the write-up of a more concise and thorough business plan.
Mr Calame, taking a vested interest then began to drive this start-up and with his advice, the venture team applied for funding from the Start-up Fund for business developments in developing countries from the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco) back in 2001. Mr Calame’s support was truly an instrumental part leading to the success of the company. Luckily, a stalemate in the fund committee turned in their favour and they were eventually awarded a credit facility for CHF 250 000 despite the committee’s worries that the team were inexperienced in marketing.
With the credit letter from the Swiss Government in hand, Standard Bank was further willing to grant them lease funding for lab equipment to the value of R4 Million and as we know well, banks only extend you a loan when you have collateral somewhere.
Then in April 2002, they occupied their first facility opposite the Sunnyside Police Station (Pretoria), even sharing the floor with South African police detectives. The first few months thereafter were dedicated to instrument installations including two oligo production instruments and their first Sanger sequencer.
On August the 1st, 2002, they were finally ready to officially launch as ‘inqaba biotec’. This very unique Xhosa name was found with the help of a Xhosa friend as they wanted to have a name that was not only meaningful, but one which also had the famous African tongue-click. And this is the story of inqaba biotec – Africa’s Genomics company.
We want to share our excitement in reaching this milestone and so we have put together a video to capture some magical moments of our journey so, please watch our 20 Year Anniversary video that features some of the members of the inqaba biotec team which now comprises of around 150 members across sub-Saharan Africa.