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Ovum Corporation, under the guidance of Nicholas Featherston, are proving that innovation and collaboration are the right mix when it comes to obtaining success in the world of engineering

In May 2019, Nicholas Featherston attended a conference in Singapore. While this was not an uncommon occurrence for him, what he would gain from this particular experience was life changing.

After being considerably impressed by the manner in which the people of Singapore have managed to combine the biology of plant life into their buildings, an idea was sparked in his mind—and the Ovum Corporation was born a year later.

His view on buildings and technology was changed forever, and formed the basis for all that Ovum Corporation is able to offer South Africa and the world at large.

”Our aim has always been to collaborate with our clients and partners to give them the right space to explore their ideas and projects. We therefore started Ovum because we identified a need within the market for niche companies that deal in many of the specialised aspects of civil and structural engineering,” the Ovum Corporation’s Founder and Managing Director says.

”I think that many clients out there are quite tired of dealing with large corporate entities that are slow to respond, are full of red tape, pay lip service to innovation, and often lack the capacity to implement. With Ovum, you get personalised attention along with our technical expertise, and we have found that clients really respond to this in a big way.”

Ovum Corporation specialises in the fields of civil engineering, structural and bridge engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and green building design and certification.

What sets them apart from the competition is their ability to think globally about issues, with innovation and a caring attitude towards our planet and its people being the vital components of their success to date.

Featherston explains: ”We like to think globally, and we like to think about greening the planet and assisting communities in new and innovative ways. Most of all, we like to bring novel ideas to the table when it comes to design solutions. I think that our attention to detail and our overall service level also stands out. Other than this, we have a wide network, a large base of clients, and expertise that we are able to tap into when required.”

Setting a standard in Africa and beyond

Through their alliances with other companies and countries around the world, Ovum Corporation have been involved in various mega-bridge projects in Rwanda, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe.

In Rwanda, their involvement resulted in some very interesting hydrology study work, which led to their findings being published in an article in the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) magazine.

In a bid for further expansion, Ovum plans to take on the Asian and Middle-East markets in a more structured manner in the future.

”Every time we win some new work, it always brings a good feeling to the team. Probably one of our finest moments has been the witnessing of the soft opening of the freeway in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to traffic for the first time. This was a major milestone, after being involved on the project for the past three years,” Featherston, who holds a Master’s degree in Structural Engineering from Stellenbosch University, says.

”We also recently managed to complete the Basic Design Phase for a piece of major infrastructure in Secunda on a tight timeline of two months, with very few comebacks. I think this was also a very satisfying time for our team.

”I believe that the diversity of the projects that we’ve been involved in has made life really exciting, as it has pulled us to all corners of the globe and across South Africa. We’ve been privileged to have visited numerous interesting mine sites, a refinery, several bridge sites, and various commercial properties since we started.”

At the time of writing, Ovum Corporation are busy with various projects of note, including bridge structure-related projects such as the Dhaka Elevated Expressway in Bangladesh. This is a major project in the sense that it will assist in alleviating the significant traffic issues in the heart of Dhaka.

Featherston’s team are also currently focused on the Glen Heatlie N1 project for SANRAL, which will also bring significant benefit to road users in the region.

Expanding on the topic of current projects, Featherston avers: ”We also have some technically challenging work with a gold refinery in Johannesburg which will assist the company we are dealing with to keep their refinery operations running in a safe manner as well as to update the process to the latest technology. We are also working with temporary works contractors to design re-usable girders for some upcoming bridge construction projects across the country—this has been particularly interesting work, getting into the mind of a contractor. These are just some projects we are involved in, there are others in the pipeline, including some large scale materials handling-related projects.”

Not all plain sailing

While Ovum Corporation have enjoyed great success to date, things don’t always go according to plan, as is the nature of the sector.

Two of the biggest obstacles which Featherston has encountered have to do with corruption and red tape. This is down to a lot of growing political instability in various regions around the world; something which Ovum has had to understand, accommodate, and work around—but it’s been far from easy.

In addition, it is generally difficult to enter a country if you don’t have the right partnerships and networks of people who are friendly to you, which Featherston explains as ”a bit of a chicken and egg approach”, as you have to show certain capabilities before you can be given the work. ”From our collective experience and networks however, we have fortunately been able to forge alliances in certain regions abroad,” he adds.

Another hindrance to growth has come in the form of tough times locally, but what cannot be done locally is made up for with business internationally, which provides Ovum with an interesting and diverse mix of experiences.

”There has been a noted slow down in certain work opportunities locally, but there has also been an increase in many energy-related projects. Internationally, we are constantly monitoring upcoming projects and seeking to work with clients from abroad. Sometimes we might get involvement in a project via a contractor, other times we might get involvement via the sponsor of the project or even another designer,” the Green Star New Building Accredited Professional states.

”We are not afraid to take on work from outside South Africa, but we have to acknowledge that it comes with risks. South Africa is no longer the only major economic hub in Africa, and our recent stats show that we are only growing at approximately 0.4%. In contrast, Nigeria’s GDP in 2022 amounted to nearly $480 billion—the highest in Africa, whilst South Africa’s GDP was just over $400 billion.”

Innovation and giving back

A big part of the Ovum Corporation’s strategy revolves around innovation.

It has been Featherston’s belief from the very beginning that real innovation comes from the cross pollination of different disciplines.

This belief is evident in the example he gave us of how innovation can play such a vital role in finding solutions to problems, with the drawing of inspiration from something as simple as a bird having the power to solve issues which have the power to baffle the most impressive of minds.

”There was once an issue with the Japanese train called the Shinkansen bullet train. The train travelled along high-speed railways throughout Japan at speeds of up to 320km/hr, carrying many passengers every year. However, in its first design iteration, the high speeds caused an atmospheric pressure wave to build up in front of the train. When the train travelled through tunnels, the wave would cause an audible ‘tunnel boom’ at the exit, which disturbed nearby residents,” he explains.

”The engineers had to find a way for the train to travel more quietly without sacrificing speed or using more energy, so they chose to look to nature for guidance. They noticed how kingfisher birds are able to slice through the air and dive into the water to catch prey while barely making a splash. They then re-designed the front end of the train to mimic the shape of the kingfisher’s beak. Not only did this help to reduce noise and eliminate tunnel booms, but it also allowed the train to travel 10% faster whilst using 15% less electricity.”

It is this type of innovation which the Ovum Corporation strives for when it comes to servicing their clients.

”At Ovum, we tend to think along these lines, bringing different disciplines into the mix whilst often using BIM (Building Information Modelling) software to provide the client with a clear vision of what the project might look like, as well as its impact. I like to go outside the field of engineering and delve into other sciences. My brother, for example, works with genetics and I often enjoy sharing ideas with him to get alternative perspectives on how to solve problems that we may be dealing with,” he adds.

With their innovation giving clients top quality solutions, Ovum Corporation, as a result, are able to feed their success back to the community.

This is carried out in the form of financial support for several charity organisations—Meals on Wheels, Doctors Without Borders, and Animals in Distress, amongst others—and through the training of students to help them garner work experience on their CVs.

From 2023 into the future

The year 2023 has been a successful one for Ovum Corporation.

While there have been tough economic conditions to navigate, the company has been able to bring on board a number of new clients with some large projects, all of which have played an important role in providing a sense of sustainability.

But the hard work does not stop now, as 2024 is expected to be an even bigger and better year for Featherston’s team.

”Heading into 2024, I would like to see us operate in more blue ocean type markets. We have plans to open up a speciality in acoustic engineering, as music and sound engineering is one of my passions, and we plan to develop some more capabilities in the mechanical engineering sphere. Aside from that, we will be expanding our website and looking to deepen our relationships with our existing client base,” Featherston says.

In terms of the long-term future of the business, Featherston is determined to grow in size and capability, with the opening of offices in other developing countries being a key target.

If time permits, he is also keen to get more involved in the vertical farming and green bridge spaces, as these are further opportunities where he believes his team can add significant value.

”I am also always keen to diversify our current skill set, which I think should be a lifelong endeavour for any person. I think that a person should never stop reading, never stop studying, and never stop learning,” he concludes.

And we couldn’t agree more with that.