UWC alumni and Real World Diagnostics founder Ashley Uys believes there are opportunities for students to become successful and established entrepreneurs in the current market.
Ashley Uys founded his three companies at a young age – Real World Diagnostics in 2006, Medical Diagnostech in 2010 and OculusID in 2013.
Medical Diagnostech specialises in the development and manufacturing of lateral flow rapid diagnostic kits used to test for drugs, HIV and pregnancy, among other applications (‘lateral flow’ refers to lateral flow immunoassays, the laboratory technique that is at the heart of the development of the test kits).
He started his journey shortly after completing his B.Sc and B.Sc Honours degrees at the University of the Western Cape.
The Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation chatted to this proud UWC alumni to find out more about his journey from student to entrepreneur.
What attracted you to study at UWC?
UWC is a great university and they have renowned biotechnology facilities and infrastructure. It was a great opportunity to further my knowledge, education and skills in science. The campus was also 10 minutes away from my home, so it was easy to travel.
How did UWC create a foundation for your career?
My studies at UWC set the foundation for me to gain knowledge and excel in science. I also had great mentors, who believed in my potential. They opened many doors for me, which provided the necessary opportunities for me to grow as a professional in a tough industry.
What motivated you to start your own business?
My mentors motivated me to spot the gap and create something of value. The local industry also lacked competition at the time… it still does. South Africa is importing a lot of products, which we can produce here. The business environment is still undeveloped and there’s so much potential to fulfil from a regional and national perspective.
What challenges did you face initially?
The lack of cash flow. At the age of 24, I wasn’t always taken seriously. I had to work very hard to prove my worth and credibility. Getting funding from investors was also really tough. Funders focus a lot on the chance of success and the invention of a product, which isn’t always possible when it comes to scientific and chemistry innovation.
How did you overcome these challenges?
After my studies, I went back to UWC and asked them for lab space. They were happy to give it to me. I also participated in various entrepreneurship incubators and initiatives. I was able to secure some funding, office space and the necessary infrastructure to support my business. This support helped me build a successful company.
What were the major lessons you learned as a youth entrepreneur?
Never compromise… always establish the proper professional structures. So have a lawyer look through all your contracts and invest in a very good accountant.
How did you overcome the discouragement from friends and family?
I made the necessary sacrifices to give myself a fair opportunity to build my business. When I struggled with cash flow, I asked my parents if it was okay if I didn’t pay board until things improved. I also asked my former boss if I could work three days a week instead of five days, giving me the opportunity to spend more time in the lab. The emotional discouragement from friends and family was a challenging thing to overcome, especially during the initial stages. But once I started making progress and invented new products, that discouragement turned into support.
What do you still hope to achieve as an entrepreneur?
I want to continue developing new products and play a leading role in innovation. I want South Africa to be recognised as a global leader in science. I think this is a realistic goal and something that motivates me everyday.
How important is it for you to give back and provide opportunities for your community?
Social impact is very important in my eyes. For example, in my field, we are still dependant on importing raw materials. If the university can find a promising student who can go on and create a business that focuses on material production and tech transfers, that would service so many needs in the industry. I’d be a willing partner company!
With UWC opening the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, do you believe this will be an important department for students?
Definitely. I wish I had access to a centre that offered entrepreneurship support. It’s also a department that appeals to students from all faculties. I also believe the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation can transform more balanced mindsets. Right now, I know the young minds are encouraged and focused on getting their papers published. But what about commercialising their ideas and creating business opportunities? What about creating new trade secrets or patents for future innovation? I think we need to find a better balance to grow the science industry.
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