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Bright sparks noted by RCA

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, July 20th, 2001, page 13

    Karaoke in the shower and texting for the elderly are among the technological advances being pro­posed by Royal College of Art graduates.

    Student Cristian Norlin said: "I think as a designer dealing with powerful technologies, you have a responsibility to do something worthy."

    Mr Norlin's Real Virtual Pets concept, which was among the projects on display at The Show 2001 at the RCA in London, would allow people to sponsor and mon­itor the progress of animals that have been electronically tagged as part of conservation projects.

    As well as being relayed via satellites to researchers, the data from tagged animals such as the sea turtles tracked by conservation organisation oneocean.org, which assisted Mr Norlin with his pro­ject, would be sent to the mobile phones of adoptive parents.

    Philip Phelan won first prize in the older generation category of the Design for Our Future Selves Awards, run concurrently with The Show by the RCA's Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, which specialises in socially inclusive design. He was inspired by seeing his 81-year-old neighbour struggle to send text messages from a mobile phone, but operate her TV and video with ease.

    Mr Phelan's prototype Textbox houses a mobile phone and routes the text messages from it onto a users' TV screen.

    "It's good to feed extra function­ality into devices that older people are already familiar with," Mr Phelan said.

    Both the elderly and the hear­ing impaired could benefit from Chatter, a table created by Anna Hiltunen that lights up in response to noise. A microphone under the resin table is connected to a frequency analyser, which separates different sounds from a noisy background, then sends sig­nals to switch on groups of LEDs embedded in the table. Although the prototype reacts to ambient noise, it can be programmed to recognise sounds such as the doorbell, Ms Hiltunen said.

    Priya Prakash's Showeraoke system, which won second prize in the work-life balance section, allows crooners to select from a range of bar-coded song labelsprinted out from the showeraoke website and hung in clear pockets in the shower curtain using a bar-code scanner built into the shower head. The internet connection is hidden inside the shower rail. As the music plays, the words appear on a waterproof screen.

    And for those who would like their rubber duck to quack along too, bath toys with bar-codes would also be available.

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Council spurs industry focus

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, July 6th, 2001, page 17

    The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is re-focusing its funding strategy to help tailor courses to meet the needs of industry more closely.

    “Our new masters training packages should help universities provide the kind of training and courses that employers want,” said Alasdair Rose, the EPSRC's mathematics programme man­ager.

    The EPSRC also intends to increase its support for courses that cover emerging subjects such as those at the interface between disciplines.

    “There are huge amounts of computer-generated data being produced by life scientists and a shortage of people with the skills to analyse them,” Dr Rose said.

    “The funding packages are flexible. They could provide for the development of modular courses, or for development of distance-learning techniques including e-learning,” he said.

    Mike Smith, reader at the Uni­versity of York's mathematics department, said that the EPSRC development money had been “absolutely critical” for the development of the institution's MSc in data analysis, networks and non­linear dynamics.

    This branch of mathematics analyses and attempts to control processes and systems in which several features can vary simulta­neously and interact with one another. The idea for the course came from collaborations between York's maths depart­ment and industrial partners, including telecoms company Nortel Networks.

    “We were both doing research into the control of manufacturing processes,” Nortel's Philip Hargrave said. “We then looked to see whether these nonlinear techniques could predict how internet traffic might vary so we could design appropriate networks.”

    Dr Smith hopes that outside collaborators will send their employees on the course. “If they take people on placements and see these students have the right sorts of skills, we'd encourage that,” he said.

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Judges bowled over by a squashy utensil

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, June 29th, 2001, page 15

    A plastic bowl that can be squashed up for storage and will not hurt when junior throws it at you is the kitchen accessory of the future, according to the judges of the Students' Plastics Design Competition.

    The annual contest, run by the Institute of Materials and plastics trade guild The Worshipful Com­pany of Horners, required entrants to design a plastic kitchen product that would appeal to young families.

    Six finalists were assigned a mentor from the plastics industry who helped them develop the product into something with com­mercial potential.

    Winner Rob Thompson, a second-year product design student at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, said: “What's been really good about the competition is that it made me take a project right through to prototyp­ing, which we don’t normally have time to do.

    Mr Thompson, who designed his “button bowl” as part of a potential range of flexible crockery for children, used the industrial contacts his mentor provided when he needed to get production costs.

    “It brings about a sense of real­ity,” said Alan Baker, a senior lecturer in the school of graphic and industrial design at Saint Mar­tins. “It also builds a connection between companies, colleges and students, which is obviously important for students as they have to find employment once they graduate.”

    However, the entrants are not the only ones to benefit.

    Martin Rayner, purchasing director of kitchenware retailers Lakeland Limited,  which was the competition's principal sponsor, said: “To keep ahead we're dependent on designers coming up with new ideas such as these."

    Mr Thompson won a work placement with thermoplastic manufacturer Ticona UK Ltd along with cash prizes for himself and his university. Designs for an ultrasonic cleaning device and an electronic shopping aid were among the runners-up.

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Entrepreneurs get advice on risk and on carrying the can

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, June 15th, 2001, page 14

    Rapid movements in the stock market, negative commercial and social responses to technology and the fast pace of technological development can prove fatal for high-tech companies if they do not have a strategy for dealing with risk.

    Tim Cook, managing director of Isis Innovation, the University of Oxford’s technology transfer company, told delegates at “ Managing Risk in High-Tech Markets” that allowing time to deal with problems and establishing good relationships with staff and suppliers could help companies cope with crises.

    Dr Cook also advised new companies to recruit experienced senior managers. "In the spin-offs we’ve done that have gone really well, the scientist has stayed in the university and we’ve recruited a managing director from outside who has directed a technology-based business before,” he said.

    Dr Cook said that in too many cases, the managing director set a high-risk strategy and walked away with a pay-off when it went wrong, he added.

    Focusing capital on research and development most closely linked to your business goals reduced the effects of risk according to Daniel McCaughan, managing director of consultancy and investment company McCaughan Associaties and former chief scientist of Nortel Networks.

    “You have to make some clear decisions about what you’re going to do, and then stick with that focus long enough to make it work,” he said.

    Dr Cook said that the window for flotation of high-tech companies was shut because investors seemed to put high-tech companies into the same bracket as dotcoms.

    But he added that people should not be deterred from forming high-tech spin-offs.

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Fibre feat is a load of thin air

by Sharon Ann Holgate

The Times Higher Education Supplement, May 4th, 2001, page 12

    An optical fibre being developed at the University of Southampton looks set to improve telecommunications networks.

    The fibre should carry more data than existing optical fibres and could speed the routing of light signals through networks.

    Tanya Monro, from Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre, said: “We design and make these fibres to have optical properties you can’t have in conventional fibres."

    In solid-glass optical fibres used in telecommunications, data in the form of pulses of light zig-zag down the central core, reflecting off the boundary between the core and the cladding surrounding it.

    Over the length of the fibre, these discrete pulses tend to spread out. This limits the speed at which data can be fed into the fibre - too fast and the pulses merge together at the other end, which makes the data unreadable.

    The Southampton fibres have a solid central core region that is surrounded by air holes. Because they confine light of shorter wavelengths more tightly in the core than light of longer wavelengths, they can be designed to minimise dispersion over a broad range of wavelengths, allowing fast data transmission and the possibility of sending more data down a single fibre.

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Project aims to lift internet experience

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, March 2nd, 2001, page 12

    Design, engineering and computing researchers have teamed up with British Telecom to look at how people are responding to businesses on the internet.

    Nicola Millard, manager of BT’s customer contact futures project, said: “Customer expectations of e-business are rising, but reality is not matching the expectation.”

    The researchers from Bournemouth University and Ms Millard’s team said lengthy download times and poor navigability top the list of complaints about the internet, and companies should take care to prevent both when designing their websites.

    “If people have problems on the internet, they do get angry and, in the future, the competition is going to only be a click away,” she said.

    Ms Millard said that the current lack of human contact could be putting off many potential customers from shopping online.

    “Certainly, for high-value products people feel more confident if they’ve talked things through with a salesperson,” she said.

    The availability of a high standard of after-sales service is another concern for consumers. “Which is why bricks-and-mortar retailers are coming out fairly strongly on the internet at the moment, because you know who to complain to.”

    Combining e-business with older technologies such as call centres was one way of giving the internet a more human face she suggested. Personalising the experience by keeping track of individual users’ buying patterns, name and credit card details, and whether they prefer to go directly to buying rather than be distracted by other things, was another way of obtaining customer loyalty, Ms Millard said.

    “One of the most intriguing questions in human-computer interaction is why are computer games so addictive? We have been looking at the psychology behind computer games and at their interface design, and seeing if we could use this in a business context,” she said.

    BT’s new motivational user interface was outlined at the British Psychological Society’s recent London Conference. The MUI, which BT has been developing with Linda Hole from Bournemouth University, was originally designed to motivate their call centre staff. But Ms Millard said some features of the interface such as information about products appearing as a series of text bubbles that the user can "burst" when they have finished reading them, would be just as effective in encouraging customers to return to a website.

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Project to rethink software design

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, February 16th, 2001, page 13

    A research project involving five United Kingdom universities looks set to revolutionise the way that computer systems are designed.

    The £6.8 million research collaboration between City, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Newcastle and York universities is bringing together psychologists, computer scientists, sociologists and statisticians in a bid to create more dependable computer systems.

    It aims to discover how people interact with computers in an organisational or business setting and how to avoid the huge financial losses or even accidents that can occur when an unsuccessful system is installed.

    “One issue that we are interested in is the notion of people changing their strategies under pressure,” said Michael Harrison, of the University of York’s computer science department.

    “Air traffic controllers, for example, will nurse the aircraft in a relatively empty sky, but stack aircraft if it is a very full sky. They have different working strategies for dealing with those different situations.”

    The York team will look at whether varying degrees of automation could help operators of computer-based systems cope better with sudden increases in workload. This is a complex problem, as operators can become confused and then enter the wrong commands if the computer has taken over tasks without their knowledge.

    Part of learning how to design systems that adapt to the way people work will involve looking at timing issues, ranging from human reaction speeds to planning for deadlines.

    “Typically, when people design computer systems they do not think about human deadlines,” Professor Harrison said. “ But, if we can articulate the kind of decision processes we think users will need to execute, then we can give that to the psychologists and ask can they do it?”

    Andrew Monk, of York’s psychology department, said: “Dependability hasn’t traditionally been a concern of human-computer interaction.”

    Professor Monk, chairman of the British Human Computer Interaction Group, a specialist group of the British Computer Society, added: “We hope to provide tools for the designers such as diagrams or mathematical formulae that they can use to check their design and prove that it is going to work.”

    The six-year collaboration will also address the reliability, safety and security of critical computer-based systems.

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Hub of activity for start-ups

by Sharon Ann Holgate
The Times Higher Education Supplement, November 10th, 2000, page 14

    A network of Enterprise Hubs linked to local universities will soon be providing support to entrepreneurs and start-up busi­nesses across southeast England.

    According to Anthony Dunnett, chief executive of the South East England Development Agency (Seeda), which is responsible for the project, the hubs will address five areas essential to all busi­nesses access to: technology, investment, flexible workspace, business mentoring and other growing companies.

    Seeda is committing £9 million over three years to establish 30 Enterprise Hubs.

    “We expect to help give birth to 600 new companies a year by 2005 and provide five times this number with some direct benefit,” Mr Dunnett said.

    The first five hubs have recently been announced and, while hav­ing a different focus, each will have an affiliated university, a hub director, incubator space and be business led.

    The Isle of Wight hub, which is the first to have appointed a direc­tor, is linked to Portsmouth Uni­versity, for example. It aims to create a world-class research cen­tre in composite materials.

    By contrast, the Newbury hub, connected to Reading University and Henley Business School, will specialise in the implementation of robotics in manufacturing. Best practice in dealing with business angels will be provided by the North Oxfordshire hub, linked to Oxford University, while Southampton's hub, affiliated to Southampton University, will focus on telecommunications, computing, media and creative industries and marine technology.

    Both Brighton and Sussex universities are linked to Brighton and Hove's hub, which will concentrate on new media industries, including e-commerce, multimedia and TV production. A web portal will be created that will link into local cable TV and provide easy access to sources of help for new businesses.

    The incubation units will be provided by the Sussex Innovation Centre, based at Sussex University, which has been helping academics to set up spin-off companies and has been providing incubation support to new technology businesses since 1996.

    Mike Herd, executive director of the Sussex Innovation Centre and a member of the Enterprise Hub's steering group, said: “The Enterprise Hub will enable us to extend what we’ve been doing in terms of networking and will provide support for more students and academic staff to bring their ideas through.”

    Mr Herd hopes new media will not be the only area to benefit. “If we are attracting potential investors to the area to look at new media, let's start introducing them into new biotech and electronics projects as well," he said.

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Wanted: an angel flush with money

by Sharon Ann Holgate 
The Times Higher Education Supplement, May 26th, 2000, page 15

   The path from scientist to entrepreneur rarely runs smooth, according to David Hall, director of the Thames Gateway Technology Centre at the University of East London's Docklands site.

   "A scientist or a technologist may have great ideas, but it's very difficult to get an investor interested," Dr Hall said.

   Part of the reason is because academics do not understand business activities such as marketing, product launch, the consumer and after-sales service.

   "I think there's no way, as an academic, that one can develop that [understanding] without having operated in the business community," Dr Hall said.

   Technology-based businesses in particular tend to make potential investors more nervous because they are often developing new products and trying to define new markets simultaneously.

   Sue Birley, director of the Science Enterprise Centre at Imperial College, London, said that often a number of people are involved in creating a new technology. Entrepreneurs need to identify the owners of the intellectual property and negotiate an agreement with them.

   "Establishing a clean intellectual property portfolio is key," she said. "Without that, they will have problems raising funds."

   Garry Moore, an independent electrical engineer from Essex, has been finding out just how hard obtaining funding can be.

   Mr Moore founded his company, Phoenix Product Development Limited, to develop and market his air-displacement toilet 16 months ago and is keen to expand with the [UEL] centre's help.

   The toilet uses air pressure to flush instead of water, but unlike existing pressure-assisted toilets, it plumbs into standard pipework, requires little maintenance and is lighter in weight.

   Moore's toilet does use some water - 1.5 litres per flush - but this is a substantial water saving compared with the six to seven litres used by standard toilets.

   "I have been talking to the United Nations about the technology and they see great potential for the new toilet alleviating the problems of the limited availability of fresh water and the need to produce less waste water in many of the world's arid and semi-arid regions," he said.

   But there is a catch.

   "The UN wants to arrange field trials of the new toilet as soon as demonstration prototypes are available. However, I cannot produce the required prototypes for field trials until I have the development funds that I need," he said.

   "As a start-up company I have no collateral to secure a bank loan. The Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme can provide loans of up to £100,000 with 70 per cent underwritten by the Department of Trade and Industry, but it requires advanced orders or other serious commitment from customers. Obviously this cannot be obtained until the invention has been developed into a product".

   For the same reason, Mr Moore has found it difficult to attract venture capitalists or business angels. Ideally, he would like to set up in a business incubation unit at the centre.

   There he would get help in developing prototypes, access to equipment, workshops and students, and academic expertise from the University of East London and its other academic partners.

   The centre also offers access to potential sources of finance, such as Business Angel Networks, Enterprise agencies and Business Link networks. Bringing in a business angel certainly made all the difference to a centre-based start-up founded by two of UEL's academics when they applied for a Smart award.

   "We were explicitly told that without that business angel in place and without that business balance there, there was no way the investment would have been made," Dr Hall said.

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Niche products to govern research

by Sharon Ann Holgate 

The Times Higher Education Supplement, April 14th, 2000, page 14

   Market opportunities offered by e-business could mean that research assessments will need to include a measurement of the success of technology transfer.

   Brian O'Neill, from the electrical and electronic engineering department at Nottingham Trent University, told a Brighton conference last week that despite the financial hurdles involved in setting up spin-off companies, he felt strongly that the days ought to be numbered of engineering departments having their research assessed by the number of research papers published.

   "Success in technology transfer is an important measure for the quality of research," Dr O'Neill said. It can certainly prove a great advantage to students.

   "The bottom line of anything I've done is the training I give to research students. They've all got jobs at a far higher standard than they would have if they'd just come out as raw graduates."

   Dr O'Neill, at "The Role of Physicists in Building the Internet" conference, held as part of the Institute of Physics' annual congress, said it was possible to carry out small-scale research within a university that can compete with larger industrial research groups.

   But researchers must find niche applications for their products and be prepared to be more adaptable than larger companies.

   Dr O'Neill founded his spin-off company in 1996 after a research project involving digital circuit design led to a commercially viable microchip. The chip is used to link microprocessors, acting like the hub of a telephone network. Its main application has been in state-of-the-art computer graphics animation, but a new version of the chip could play a large part in creating the first "home networks", connecting household devices to the internet.

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Big help for small businesses

by Sharon Ann Holgate 

The Times Higher Education Supplement, March 17th, 2000, page 12

   South-eastern electronics and engineering companies now have access to industrial research and development facilities thanks to a new centre at Sussex University.

   The £4 million South East Advanced Technology Hub (Seath) will enable smaller businesses to try different techniques and to create and test prototype products without having to invest in expensive new equipment. "The vision is to provide world-class advanced engineering and knowledge-based technology to businesses in the region," said Chris Chatwin, Seath research director.

   The Seath site includes high quality clean rooms, opto-electronics laboratories and an IT suite. Desk space and telephones are available for people wishing to set up spin-off companies from technologies developed at Seath, and there is access to scientific equipment in other parts of the university as well, Professor Chatwin said.

   The idea came from the Alliance of West Sussex Electronics Manufacturers and the Electronics Action Group, which represent local companies. Sussex Enterprise, a business membership organisation incorporating the local training and enterprise council, Business Link and the chamber of commerce, produced a business plan and helped negotiate with the university.

   "Postgraduates get experience of working with real companies, so when they leave they have contacts in industry, and understand working to deadlines and budgets," said Andy Carr, Seath project manager at Sussex Enterprise. 

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