Oxford's robots and the funding of innovation

An iPad display in the self-driving car Image copyright Oxford University
Image caption The iPad display tells the driver when the car is able to take over

Where does innovation come from - the private or public sector? A question provoked by news of what sounds like an exciting spinoff from Oxford University research, and by a fascinating book.

First, the news. Oxford's Mobile Robotics Group has done some pioneering work on driverless cars, and now the academics who have led that research are starting a company called Oxbotica. The idea is that the firm will manage and market the intellectual property already developed by the group and look to develop more ideas in the field of robotics.

When I spoke to Prof Paul Newman, one of the leaders of the driverless-car project, he made it clear that the company's expertise will lie in software not hardware. "Our fundamental technology," he explained, "is about machines knowing where they are, what's around them and what to do next."

Oxbotica is going to build products in areas like indoor navigation and factory automation, marrying increasingly sophisticated robots with its software skills. "Information engineering is a huge UK strength," enthuses the professor, "and it needs to be more so - we are hoping to bridge the gap between academe and commerce."

If Oxbotica does turn out to be a success, then it will be largely thanks to the blue skies research done at Oxford University funded by the taxpayer. By contrast, Google's driverless-car project started in the company's own labs rather than a university, although the search company no doubt has excellent connections with American academics and helps to fund many of their research projects.

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Media captionThe BBC's Richard Westcott tests out the driverless car in 2013

If you were to bet on who will be big in robotics in 10 years time, you would probably take a punt on Google rather than Oxbotica, indeed it may be that the Oxford firm will eventually be snapped up by the search giant. After all, Google has already acquired half a dozen American robotics firms, and earlier this year bought Deep Mind, the London firm which specialises in machine learning.

Does that mean then that we must look to the private sector, which has brought us everything from internet search to the smartphone, for the innovations of the future? Not necessarily. I'm right in the middle of Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators, an enthralling account of the people who built our modern digital age. When I say people, I really mean teams, because Isaacson's thesis is that most of the advances we have seen over the past 60 years - from the transistor to the internet - came about as a result of collaboration not individual inspiration.

That collaboration is not just between various people in the same lab, but across companies and universities. The internet, for example, was born out of a defence project to build a secure communications network that would be resilient in the event of a nuclear war - although many of its pioneers insist that for them it was more about sharing computing resources.

It pulled in dozens of American academics at government labs and universities, and at least one British scientist Donald Davies, who was working at the National Physical Laboratory. While some of the research at places like the Rand Corporation came from the private sector, most of the funding was from the government.

In general, many of the innovations of the 20th Century - from nuclear energy to space travel to GPS - came as a result of defence spending, first in the Second World War, then in the Cold War that followed.

Now, with defence budgets under pressure, there is little chance of governments on either side of the Atlantic funding projects on a grand scale. The UK is putting some money behind the new wonder material graphene, and into big data research but the sums involved are small.

So the mix of funding for innovation may have to be more heavily skewed towards the private sector. But Professor Paul Newman believes that a mix of state and private funding is something academics should welcome: "I feel it is vital that taxpayer funded engineering research is given every chance to transition into the commercial world," he says. "I don't think it is easy to do this on 100% state-funded research. I find it helpful to have the desires of industry to help you decide which avenues not to follow."

Britain's universities still produce some world-class research, but turning that into world-class companies has proved a bigger challenge. There are signs in Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford and elsewhere that academic entrepreneurs are changing that, but getting the right mix of funding will be crucial to their success.

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