Feature

Start-ups take advantage of IT breakthrough

Cambridge has been recognised as an important cluster for technology start-ups since the publication of the Cambridge Phenomenon Report in 1985. The area now hosts 1,400 such firms within a 25-mile radius of the city, employing 43,000 out of a total working population of 360,000.

While the recession has slowed the amount of funding available for new businesses, particularly from venture capitalists, the angel network is still strong. Support infrastructure, ranging from incubators to professional services firms, is readily available and experienced entrepreneurs on their third or fourth venture abound.

Although traditionally the region has been associated with life sciences and electronics companies, the region has more recently diversified into everything from medical devices to clean technology, software in its various forms and gaming.

Many of the ideas behind such ventures come from research projects undertaken at Cambridge University, with its traditional focus on scientific disciplines such as physics. But one of the key themes appears to be taking commodity products and applying them in new ways. That can mean taking standard equipment and using it in a fresh context, or employing open source software and/or cloud services to keep costs down.

Cambridge start-ups

Here are three examples of the Cambridge start-up scene.:

Cambridge Temperature Concepts - ovulation monitoring system

Cambridge Temperature Concepts (CTC) uses a combination of open source software and Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud to provide a cost-effective back-end infrastructure that can support its ovulation monitoring system.

The system, which is called DuoFertility, comprises a stick-on under-arm patch, which includes a low-power microprocessor to automatically and regularly collect women's basal temperature readings while they sleep. The data is then sent wirelessly to a small handheld reader that can be placed on a bedside table for statistical analysis purposes.

The aim of the system is to non-invasively chart temperature rises over the course of months to ascertain when ovulation is most likely to occur, and therefore when a woman is most fertile. It is possible for both users and GPs to view this information in graphical form on a PC as the reader also includes a USB port.

When plugged into the PC, the device simultaneously uploads the user's statistics anonymously to a CTC database running on Linux servers in an Amazon datacentre. As a result, the various features of a woman's ovulation cycle, such as duration, can be compared with other women's to improve the accuracy of forecasting.

Shamus Husheer, who is chief executive and chief technology officer at the company, came up with the idea while working on his PHD in chemistry and instrumentation at Cambridge University. "The availability of processing on demand means that it is foolish for us to invest capital in equipment. Using a provider that is better than us at creating a datacentre also means that we can maintain uptime, ensuring that when a user plugs in their device the service is always there," he says.

CTC, which is housed in the Cambridge Science Park and employs 10 staff, has also deployed a range of Linux servers in-house to run its open source SugarCRM applications and XTuple's OpenMFG enterprise resource planning software. It has likewise used open source tools for development purposes, employing the GNU Project's R programming language for statistical and graphical development because it can be replicated on different machines easily without any licensing concerns.

The free availability of Microsoft software for three years under the global BizSpark programme means that its versions of C and C++ have also been used for other development work, while the supplier's Windows operating system has likewise been installed on the desktop.

"Open source used to have large barriers to adoption, but we have enough technical people in the company who know about it that it has been relatively easily. The fact that you can go on to the web and download this stuff for free, and the fact that Microsoft is making its pricing equally attractive, makes it much easier for start-ups these days," says Husheer.

CTC, which was set up in 2007, has just completed trials with 100 couples across Europe, 40 of which were based in the UK, to build up information in its database, fix bugs in the system and improve its user-friendliness. All of the couples were recruited via search-based advertising on Google, but the company is currently in discussions with retailers and distributors about stocking DuoFertility, which costs £495. It has also added a shopping cart facility to its website.

E-Stack - low-energy ventilation systems

E-Stack has developed an automated natural ventilation system based on industry-standard programmable logic controllers, which it claims can reduce heating bills by as much as 50%.

The idea behind the company was born out of a five-year BP-funded research project on low-energy buildings that was undertaken under the auspices of the Cambridge University-MIT Institute. Following on from this research, co-founders Shaun Fitzgerald and Andy Woods set up E-Stack in 2006 after receiving a two-year £75,000 applied research grant from the Carbon Trust to fund the development and testing of a prototype system.

The firm has been operating commercially for the past 18 months out of the St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge, which provides office accommodation and business support to early stage companies. It has so far sold the system to 15, mainly new-build, primary and secondary schools in areas ranging from Cambridge to Newcastle and Birmingham. Over the next three years, it also plans to target the offering at public sector buildings, excluding social housing, and retail developments such as shopping malls.

Fitzgerald says that although the organisation's system is proprietary, it uses components that have been used in the building industry for a long time.

"We are not trying to produce new components that have not been used before, with all of the associated risks involved in that. The equipment we have developed is controlled by programmable industry controllers or sensors that have been configured in a novel way to deliver performance," he says.

The controllers, which sit both in rooms and at the base of ventilation shafts, measure factors such as external temperature, room temperature, CO2 levels and humidity. When such vital signs become too high or low, the sensors in a given room send a pulse width modulation signal to the central E-Stack ventilation unit.

This also includes a controller and optimises air flow using a variable control damper and air-mixing fans. Signals are also sent to a key panel, which includes a blue light to let staff know that windows should be opened and a red light to indicate that they should be closed.

"Historically, natural ventilation has been associated with manually controlled windows, but to achieve better energy performance in buildings, ensuring that they are thermally comfortable and comply with building regulations, you need some automation. We are bringing intelligence into rooms by using IT that controls bits of hardware. It is a simple idea, but the algorithms we use are non-trivial and that is the clever part," says Fitzgerald.

Inkling Software - time series data analysis service

"These days, you can get started with very little, as most of the infrastructure for solving problems exists," says Andrew Walkingshaw, a co-founder of Inkling Software.

"You can take software and build on what others have done. You can buy in the support services. And all the information you require is on the web if you look for it. The only thing you need is the idea, the ability to take things forward and the commitment to do it," he adds.

Inkling Software was set up in September 2008 by Walkingshaw and two other physics researchers, with the aim of launching Timetric. Timetric is a software-as-a-service-based tool for aggregating time series statistical data, such as stocks and shares and interest rates, and displaying the information graphically so that users can view it in context, and compare and analyse it. The data can then be embedded into blogs, intranet pages or other online documents.

"Context is where the value is, and the obvious market is business as companies have internal statistics and indicators that would be useful to compare and to view in a wider market context," says Walkingshaw. "It is about providing a system that makes it possible to pull together all of the information you need and enables everyone in the organisation to look at it over the web. If you can push data out in a form that everyone can use, you are engineering serendipity."

The company, which is housed in Cambridge University's Cambridge Enterprise Laboratory incubator, has already undertaken a trial using statistics from Twitter by launching a "heckle meter" based on the number of tweets celebrities receive to gain feedback on the service.

It has also signed up the Guardian as its first fee-paying customer and as a means of garnering further feedback. Inkling is now working in collaboration with journalists to develop graphs that complement blogs and news stories using the newspaper group's Open Platform application programming interfaces.

But to date, the only physical IT equipment it has purchased is Adobe's Flex for building and maintaining open source applications. The three founders subscribe to the Google Apps personal productivity application service and undertake their software development on their own Apple Mac laptops. They do Windows testing using PCs they already owned and run Timetric on Linux servers provided by Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service.

Timetric was developed with the Python open source scripting language using a Django web framework and is in the process of being migrated from the PostgreSQL open source database to its cousin, Tokyo Cabinet. Tokyo Cabinet is particularly suited to storing vast quantities of time series data and being able to retrieve it quickly and was discovered via a blog. A bug tracking service is provided by Lighthouse and version control by GitHub.com.

"It is a post-2000 phenomenon that more and more people are getting started with less as they no longer have to do systems administration. IT is no longer expensive so you can get away with a few people and not much money. These days, it is about having the idea and tackling the business side of the equation," says Walkingshaw.


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Photo by Geoffrey Robinson/Rex Features


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This was first published in June 2009

 

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