Davis Cook is the CEO of the Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS) and the Non-Executive Director of ZASpace and the South African Innovation Summit, which before COVID-19 was the largest in-person entrepreneur event in Africa. Furthermore, in April 2021, Davis was named one of the 15 Karman Fellows for the year.
Space in Africa had a chat with Davis about his involvement with the Karman Fellowship Programme, his aspirations and his work at Africa’s first innovation firm, RIIS. Below is the question and answer with Davis Cook
How will your position with the Karman Fellowship Programme help your company gain more traction moving forward?
Being a Karman Fellow puts me into a great network of space professionals and advocates worldwide. This is because my work at RIIS and ZASpace is about building communities. In particular, the more we can crowd in people and organisations around the world, who can contribute towards accelerating space for development, the faster we can achieve our corporate mission.
One exciting area for me is how we can effectively connect the African start-up ecosystem to the global start-up community. I will be picking up these kinds of conversations, not just through Karman but also more generally so that we can properly ‘launch’ African space-technology start-ups.
One example is the annual Earth Observation Innovation Challenge that we run, in partnership with the South Africa National Space Agency, to promote awareness of the space sector as an exciting sector for entrepreneurs to explore. The Challenge has been running for five years now, with the 2020 edition winners from Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.
So we’re going to continue trying to catalyse a new generation of space entrepreneurs across the continent, working with both older partners (such as Maxar Digital Globe) and some new exciting partners that I’ll be happy to share in time.
You have a very diverse background, and you have done a lot of work for governmental organisations and startups in the downstream sector; how would you say your experience has helped shape your company?
My background is a crossroad of different professional journeys that have afforded me a great deal of perspective and understanding about how other actors in society add value: whether it is the public sector, private sector, academia, or the communities, citizens and consumers that ultimately enjoy the final benefits of the products and services.
So I always take a system view about how things are changing – it’s not just about making one change, but understanding how one change can positively affect the entire logic of markets and societies. The Space Sector is at an inflexion point where it will begin to dramatically enable a whole new system to emerge. This requires an understanding of the space industry and a view of what these changes mean and how we make sense of the world. And sometimes, the unexpected career journey that I’ve taken gives me a unique view of how each different stakeholder may react and respond to those changes.
It has also given me an appreciation for two important principles – the diversity of thought and partnerships. The first is that we will be most successful when we have different perspectives on the world – and so building diverse teams is a real competitive advantage for us. The second is that we cannot do everything ourselves, and finding a way to create shared value will ultimately create more value for everyone.
At RIIS, you pride yourself in the ability to attract a team of qualified young individuals. What kind of enabling environment have you put in place to help individuals from different backgrounds coexist?
This can be summed up into two critical elements – diversity and collaboration; this extends to how we have built our organisation. Currently, we have 25 staff members at RIIS, with 15 completely different degrees. Our leadership is 60% women, and the team itself comprises a half-dozen nationalities. None of this was accidental; we have been cautious about bringing onboard people whose qualities and aspirations align with what we are trying to achieve, which is creating an enabling environment for innovation across South Africa and Africa by unlocking the capabilities of our citizens to solve different problems. We aim at accelerating and driving developmental goals without relying on solutions from outside the continent.
The other element is, as much as possible, to get out of the way. When given the platform to make a difference, many passionate and capable people deliver utterly remarkable outcomes. So in a sense, it is easy to do amazing things – just find incredible people, give them the support they need to excel, and then get out of the way.
Why do you believe that incorporating social-economic development models into a company’s business model will positively influence the global community and drive its profit?
In the late 20th century, it was a popular idea amongst business leaders that the exclusive role of business is to create profit for its shareholders – the “business of business is business.”
But more recently, there has been a very positive shift in many organisations’ attitudes. I believe that part of this is because these business leaders are more aware of the damage we are creating to the planet and how our decision affects the whole ecosystem. They are dealing with questions such as: as CEO, do I want to be part of a value chain that subjects workers to inhumane conditions? Or that destroys priceless archaeological sites? And I think, quite frankly, more leaders are just unwilling to do that. Indeed, I am not willing to be that kind of leader. I only want to work in an environment that would positively impact societies, and I believe that this also drives up the profit margin. The reason for that is because operating in a positive contribution manner also requires that you have an excellent idea of how the entire system works – and in knowing that, you are also able to create more value.
However, operating ethically is not always easy – and sometimes, there are no great choices. But we shouldn’t shy away from these issues just because they are difficult – that is precisely where we should engage and figure out how to create a business model that works, and in doing so, we can create a unique competitive advantage.
Many other organisations strive to be ethical in their dealings, and we have recently seen that upward trend. Moreover, several companies have started pressuring shareholders about improved corporate social responsibility. For instance, BlackRock, the largest asset manager globally, has taken a firm stance in fighting climate change. From a purely cooperative perspective, it positions us to build a profitable business and a better world. Suppose more people can increase their profit without damaging the environment or constraining the ability of future generations to have a substantial livelihood and make money at the same time. In that case, it is a feasible business model.
You are the CEO of Africa’s first cooperative innovation firm and have a specialist team that drives innovations in various sectors. Can you share some of your milestones and achievements over the years?
RIIS was established in 2008 as an innovation consultancy firm, and in 2010, the organisation established OpenIX, its first Open Innovation hub in Africa. We established multiple open innovation platforms across Southern Africa – Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique; and sector platforms such as the SA energy sector. Since then, we have delivered over 100 innovation-focused programmes for major industries across the region; and actively build innovation clusters in mining, the marine and energy sector, and the aerospace sector with ZASpace and SANSA.
Another important milestone at RIIS was establishing the Innovation Summit, which was pre-COVID, the largest in-person entrepreneur showcasing event in Africa, with 1,350 participants that generated about USD 60 million worth of deal-making.
ZASpace has also achieved some remarkable achievements since its establishment in 2019. This includes hosting extensive industry consultations supporting the USD 300 million Space Infrastructure Hub being evaluated by the SA Government, hosting the Virtual Industry Track for GEOWeek 2020, or even more recently, hosting the first Space Industry Virtual Summit between Brazil and South Africa. More specifically to the start-up environment, ZASpace has further supported the continuation of the Earth Observation Challenge Programme as a lead partner in 2020 and is driving this programme in 2021. So, while still a relatively new organisation, ZASpace is already having a significant positive impact on the acceleration of our local space sector.
Mention some of the partners and current projects that you are working on.
RIIS is a private consulting firm, and so we work hard like every other entrepreneur. My role at RIIS is also entirely independent from ZASpace, which is a non-profit industry body. However, we partner on innovative programmes; and RIIS is committed to building a vibrant innovation ecosystem in the space sector.
Our major start-up focused event this year will be the 2021 Earth Observation challenge. This will be launched in July and will be supported by major players in the sector. In previous years, we have received support from Airbus, Digital Globe, Wits University, and The Innovation Hub; partners for 2021 will be announced in due course and promise to be incredible.
How do you plan to bring other stakeholders from other African states to increase your company’s reach?
We are actively engaged in targeted conversations with individuals and industries to build a community of actors interested in space activities. As a result, we have strong networks in the start-up communities across the continent and, through our corporate partners, access to major networks. And, of course, the Karman Fellowship is an incredible community aimed at promoting the use of space for development purposes.
Ultimately, if we can get different leaders around a table, the conversations will lead to ideas that will eventually lead to some traction. While this still requires proper support, funding, and resources – it all starts with the declaration of intent.
From my perspective, space is a fundamentally disruptive new technology. And if African citizens do not actively get involved in the space sciences, our access to space technologies will continue to be controlled by the rest of the world. And, thus, we must work hard to ensure that an orbital divide does not come into existence in the same way that we have today, a digital divide.
Fortunately, we have the skills, resources, and aspirations across Africa to bridge this divide and perhaps even fly an African flag proudly in space.