Microsoft’s plans to take over the world came closer to home last week as the company announced its plan to set up a £50m research lab in Cambridge. Amid the fanfare came promises of jobs for talented computer researchers, and millions of pounds for small companies trying to exploit good ideas.
The lab promises to become one of the most advanced in the UK. It aims to predict future technologies in computing, networking and voice recognition through basic research. It chose Cambridge because of the city’s ability to attract some of the best scientific brains in Europe.
But, despite the hype, Microsoft is not the first to come on the scene. Last year, its arch-rival, network firm Oracle, invested in a Cambridge-based lab owned by Olivetti and staffed by Cambridge academics.
The Oracle and Olivetti Research Lab (ORL) conducts basic research, and concentrates on communications and networking.
`The days of big corporate research are over,’ says Dr Andrew Hopper, director of the Oracle and Olivetti Research Lab. `The world has changed. We have to run faster to stay ahead.’
Research at the big software houses is turning to the small and dynamic research conducted by academics, who have the flexibility to adapt quickly to changing technologies. As specialists in their field, academics conventionally push the boundaries of knowledge.
The novelty of the new labs staffed from the academic community is their independence from the big parent. Microsoft has openly said it will hire the best people and let them decide what they want to research.
As employees of Microsoft, the researchers will produce answers to questions that no one has yet asked, and will be expected to continue a tradition of developing successful products.
It means that Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, will not kill the golden goose by bending the creative edge of academic researchers to its own commercial will.
In fact, Hopper at ORL claims that academics are more entrepreneurial than people give them credit. Poor pay for academics and an explosion in patent registration has produced hard-nosed specialists who know how to find a niche and exploit it.
Some observers even think the academic/commercial distinction is parochial and out of date: `When I’ve been to the States, commercial labs look remarkably like academic labs,’ says Professor Roger Needham, a computing professor who will take charge at the Microsoft lab.
High-tech, inward investment perpetuates Cambridge’s image as a centre for research excellence, but the university does well from it. It has an agreement with ORL to use research results, and on occasion gains financially.
Probably the most important longterm payoff is the money foreign investment brings for small companies trying to get off the ground. In addition to its annual budget of £4m, ORL claims to have brought in more than £40m in venture capital since it was set up. It has spun-off two successful companies and expects another soon. Microsoft has also promised £10m in venture capital.
Lack of venture capital is one factor that stops academic researchers looking for a commercial escape route. Microsoft et al might just be able to reverse that trend.