Entrepreneur brothers get a Silicon lift
AT FIRST take, Silicon Graphics's entrepreneurial grooming programme seems obvious in its simplicity and refreshingly devoid of tokenism.
In the creative space of Silicon's Sandton offices, sub-Saharan Africa managing director Weaver Simmons says candidly: "This is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for the beneficiary."
That beneficiary is Dyadic Systems, a specialist visual computing and telecommunications outfit established in 1995 by brothers Tshepo and Lawrence Molai.
They had been canvassing support since Tshepo's return from exile in 1992, but with little success. Their break came when Tshepo met Simmons at an IT conference in February 1996.
The practical outcome was that Silicon supplied office space, equipment and support services to Dyadic within its Sandton headquarters - and became its first paying customer.
Clearly, it was a gift of seed capital and cash-flow insurance that other entrepreneurs would kill for.
Dyadic - the name is a play on the principle of system redundancy and business partnerships - began to find its niche in Internet-related products, concentrating on Web design, authoring and hosting as its core business. Clients include Silicon Graphics Sub-Saharan Africa, Umbono Investment Corporation, Newslink Trucking Magazine and Tecor and it was sub-contracted to do the imposing World Cup of Golf Web site.
The work impressed Silicon's international divisions sufficiently to secure Dyadic additional business.
The company has become a value-added reseller of Silicon products and the Molais hint at a potential contract to supply networking services to the Gauteng government.
Another spin-off from its association with Silicon is the award of sole rights to market the HiCube telemedicine technology. HiCube enables medical images, such as x-rays, to be viewed across vast geographic distances in real-time.
According to Simmons: "The focus of this unique partnership has been mentoring, collaboration and cautious growth. The objective is to achieve a point of critical mass that will enable Dyadic to launch out on its own. Silicon will then take another entrepreneur under its wing."
Both Simmons and the Molais are cagey about exactly when they expect Dyadic to reach 'critical mass' which will see it lose Silicon's financial support.
The measurement of Dyadic's financial and managerial progress also seems to be an ad hoc affair.
Meanwhile, Dyadic remains heavily dependent on Silicon's name and influence. And despite assurances to the contrary, Silicon appears to fulfill the role of lender-of-last-resort.
Lawrence says: "When we tender for a contract, we do say that we have Silicon behind us, but we still have to do the work."
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Silicon is unlikely to allow a contract to fail on Dyadic's fortunes. It must be an enormous comfort to both Dyadic and its prospective clients.
In response to a question about the potential attractiveness of Dyadic to larger players, Tshepo Molai laughs uncomfortably and shrugs his shoulders. "We have been approached by larger companies wanting to buy Dyadic or associate with it, but we haven't been satisfied with the offers. We have a vision to fulfill. We want to avoid being a cover for companies trying to get on the bandwagon."
But the brothers are not saying which companies have approached them.
Lawrence explains Dyadic's vision as "moving beyond simple economic empowerment and wealth creation to building capacity and developing technical excellence".
Commenting on an observation that black involvement in computing and technology remains almost invisible, Tshepo says: "There is a pool of black talent and expertise that remains untapped or under-utilised. Part of our aim is to allow these people to emerge."
To emphasise the point, Lawrence says that plans are afoot to employ new specialists who will boost the company's staff complement to 10.
Silicon's incubator programme has enormous potential, but its present success may short-circuit the long-term objectives. Silicon derives considerable mileage from a high profile and expensive social responsibility programme.
Dyadic is the right partner at the right time, but it is difficult to imagine the partnership being replicated without another chance meeting. Ideally, observers would like to see a new entrepreneur emerge using the same technologies applied to a different discipline.
Ultimately, the programme's success will be determined by the number of times the cycle can be repeated to deliver new entrepreneurs.
The lack of a set timetable for Dyadic to leave the nest fudges the objectives somewhat.
But Tshepo remains unassumingly confident that Dyadic will be able to stand on its own in the tough telecommunications market when the time comes.