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4 September, 2013 - 19:45 By Tony Quested

Computer Laboratory carries torch for innovation

The Computer Laboratory – Image courtesy, University of Cambridge

Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive sources of innovation. It has set the compass for corporate technology advances since foundation in May 1937 while spinning out international-class companies of its own at an impressive rate in the last 50 years.

Iconic computer pioneer Acorn’s roots are within the Computer Lab and its legacy continues to be leveraged – not least in the inspiration that trailblazers Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry provided for Eben Upton with the Raspberry Pi micro-computer which has so captured the imagination of new generations of young programmers. Acorn also gave birth to ARM which remains the jewel in the Cambridge crown.

Some of the spin-outs have spiralled onwards and upwards through global acquisition – such as Virata, XenSource, Datanomic, Artimi and Level5 Networks. Others have forged ahead to world leadership in their own right, among them Cambridge Broadband, DisplayLink, Jagex, Bango, Ubisense, RealVNC, Linguamatics, blinkx, Amino Communications, Bromium and ANT.

Almost 200 spin-outs and hardly a failure as curators of the laboratory have provided exemplary leadership advice and skills. Andy Hopper, who heads up the laboratory, is a successful dontrepreneur of long standing and his vision and sure touch have helped steer companies he chairs, such as Ubisense and RealVNC, to leadership positions globally.

RealVNC recently won the UK’s premier engineering prize, the MacRobert Award – and judges ventured the opinion that it would be a billion dollar company within five years.

RealVNC, spearheaded by Andy Harter, was set up by some of the inventors of remote computer access software and has gone on to work with global technology giants such as Google, Apple, Intel, Sony, Jaguar Land Rover and countless more. The technology is being used to improve consumer products and services and develop gadgets of the future and is already used on over a billion devices worldwide; VNC protocols have even become an official part of the internet.

RealVNC was chosen in recognition of its outstanding innovation, commercial success and contribution to society, by a panel representing the cream of modern British engineers and entrepreneurs from a range of disciplines.

Another Lab spin-out, Ubisense – under the astute leadership of Richard Green – is going like a train globally with its smart location technology – picking up deal after deal in the automotive sector and is seeing massive success with its smart factory system for manufacturing environments.

Bango’s Ray Anderson, who read computer science at Cambridge University, developed a business model based on his belief that there would be a merger of the internet and the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. Bango was on its way and today drives transactions for Mozilla, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, MasterCard and Facebook.

Haroon Ahmed’s book on the Computer Laboratory’s recent 75th anniversary makes the same point that Business Weekly has stressed about the success rate of Lab spin-outs.

He writes in a chapter on the laboratory’s Hall of Fame: “Data for the Computer Laboratory indicate that a disproportionately large number of companies which have been set up by computer science graduates become dramatically successful compared with the national average. The publicity given to these highly successful companies both locally and internationally attracts more budding entrepreneurs.”

Maurice Wilkes and Roger Needham actively encouraged members of the laboratory to spin out companies. Needham was himself a consultant to industry so had none of the traditional academic’s scepticism about crossing the divide. Bill Gates asked him to become first managing director of the Microsoft Research Laboratory in Cambridge – the corporation’s first research hub outside of HQ and the forerunner of similar ventures in China, India and elsewhere globally.

Even at Microsoft, Needham’s talented charges were allowed to talk to patent attorneys and develop their own ideas as long as they were unrelated to the corporate agenda. It was an enlightened approach that Cambridge University belatedly followed within its own, often befuddled, IP exploitation policy.

Cambridge Enterprise, first under the inspired leadership of Teri Willey and now headed by Dr Tony Raven, has done a wonderful job in its relatively infant history to bring the university’s commercialisation of IP into the category of world-class.

Cambridge Enterprise currently manages close to 1,000 active IP, licensing, consultancy and equity contracts (including equity in 66 companies), and is working with close to 1,000 academics at various stages of the commercialisation process. In five financial years, CE reports income of £46. 6 million from knowledge and technology transfer involving university IP with distributions to academics, the University and others of £38.2m.

It is an upwards trend that Dr Raven is determined to continue as Cambridge steps up its efforts in technology transfer, industry collaboration and general outreach.

Photograph courtesy: University of Cambridge

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