British universities' 'business incubator' rated world's best

Business incubator
Image caption A group of British universities have been ranked as the world's best for their business incubators

British scientists are famously creative. But are they commercial?

For years people have complained that great British ideas only make money when they are exploited by foreign firms, often American or Chinese.

Now a group of British universities has been rated the best in the world at helping scientists turn their creativity into cash.

The SETsquared Partnership - a collaboration between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey - was ranked "Number One" by respected independent research group, University Business Incubators (UBI).

They call it a business incubator. A place for baby businesses to grow. Where scientists and digital developers can meet lawyers, accountants, marketing experts.

UBI analysed more than 1,200 incubators, based in 64 countries, measuring their performance in 60 different areas, including total investment, the number of jobs created and the number of successful firms born out of the incubator.

'Feeling without touching'

'SETsquared' came top, beating Ryerson University in Canada and the Chaoyang University of Technology, Taiwan.

Dhruv Bhatli, one of UBI's founders, explained the centre's success.

"SETsquared is the top performing business incubator globally as it consistently outperforms on our three assessment categories; value for ecosystem, value for client and attractiveness," he said.

Image caption Electronic engineer Tom Carter shows Dave Harvey how to control the computer by hovering his hand over it

That is the dry business analysis. For Bristol PhD student Tom Carter, SETsquared has turned an idea into a £10m business in a year.

Working in a university lab, Mr Carter created "feeling without touching".

He demonstrated how to control a computer game simply by moving a hand in mid-air, the gestures controlling what happened on screen.

Mr Carter calls his device "Ultrahaptics", a fusion of haptics - the science of touch - and ultrasound technology. An array of small ultrasound emitters are responsible for creating the feeling in the user's fingers, linked by software to a camera which sees how the hand is moving.

The device has caught the world's attention. Car manufacturers are developing controls that would adjust the volume of a car stereo, or the temperature of the heating, all by mid-air gestures.

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Media captionComputers which can be controlled with the wave of a hand are being developed in Bristol.

Kitchen appliance firms are creating a hob with no buttons, the heat turned up simply by a wave of your hand.

But when he made his discoveries, Mr Carter was doing his PhD at Bristol University, and knew nothing about building a business.

SETsquared introduced him to lawyers, to protect and patent his invention; to accountants and HR experts to create a company; and most importantly of all, to a man who has become his business partner.

Image caption Steve Cliffe said Tom Carter's "touchless control" idea was the "best he had ever seen"

Steve Cliffe had worked for 30 years in the Bristol technology sector, before he met Tom Carter. He said it was the best idea he had ever seen.

Now, Ultrahaptics chief executive, Mr Cliffe said: "The response from customers is amazing; we have a piece of technology they want. This is going to be huge."

Interest is so strong that Ultrahaptics has recently received £10m of investment from City backers. There are serious applications for touchless controls.

Mr Cliffe added: "The dirtiest place in a hospital are the buttons on the lift. Lift manufacturers are very interested.

"We can allow people to choose the floor they want to go to, simply by waving their hand. That way, we cut down germs and infection."

'Most innovative area'

In all, SETsquared firms have attracted £26m of investment in the past year, creating 100 jobs. Since the centres were set up, it is estimated they have contributed £3.8bn to the UK economy. But the impact is wider than that.

Simon Bond, SETsquared's director of innovation, put it like this: "Bristol and Bath is a leading tech hub outside of London.

"The region has produced an incredible wealth of technology companies and products, and SETsquared is very proud to have played our part in putting it on the map as one of the most innovative areas in the UK."

Image caption Tom Carter said he was now "too busy" to finish his PhD

Tom Carter has still not finished that PhD. "I'm too busy now," he said.

Last week he was in Korea and Japan. In January, he and the team are going to Las Vegas for the big American Consumer Electronics Show. Every session is sold out as the world queues up to feel his invisible technology. That PhD may have to wait a while.

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