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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 September 2007, 08:29 GMT 09:29 UK
Reporter's log: British innovation week
The UK has a long history of innovation and ideas.

But a quick scan of today's tech titans, such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, reveals few that originate in the UK.

The Growing a Big Gorilla conference in Cambridge is hoping to help redress the balance.

BBC News website technology reporter Jonathan Fildes and BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones are reporting from the meeting as it happens.


The conference is winding up for the day and the would be gorillas are heading back to their nests.

Coins and bank notes
Lack of funding for firms in the early stages
There has been a lot of debate here about how to grow big companies - the Gorillas - in the UK.

And, as with a lot of things, the answer was about money.

There seemed to be a feeling that although the UK was brimming with ideas, there was not enough funding at early stages.

A particular need, identified by many, was for so-called business angels, affluent individuals who provides capital for business start-ups.

"We've got a really small number and they are people that will only invest 50,000 or 100,000. In the States there are lots of people willing to put in millions," said Peter Hornby, a conference organiser.

It was a view echoed by Mike Lynch of Autonomy in his opening address.

However, there seemed to be a Catch 22 situation: the reason that there are so few business angels is because there are so few serial entrepreneurs who had made enough money to invest in new tech start-ups in the first place.

It was clear that it was a situation that needed to be addressed if the UK was to grow big Gorillas he said.

In addition, Mr Hornby said, there needed to be a cultural shift in the UK before firms become the tech titans of the future.

"In the UK people generally sell out to overseas firms," he said.

He said UK entrepreneurs were willing to walk away from a project at a relatively early stage.

"They say: 'I've made 5m, what am I going to do with 10m'."

In the States there is a mentality that 'I have made 100 million, now how do I make a billion'," he said.

So the bottom line, it seems, is if you want to grow into a big Gorilla you have to remain hungry.


In one of my earlier posts I asked whether growing into huge global concerns was the right aspiration for UK tech start-ups.

GlaxoSmithKline offices
Big business is embracing open practices for research

An article in the Guardian had posited that Wikinomics - effectively open source collaboration over the internet - could spell the end of the big business.

Peter Hornby, one of the conference organisers disagreed.

"I agree that there has been a change and an ever increasing pace of change; whether it will be the end of the big company, I suspect not," he said.

He pointed to large organisations such as Glaxo Smithkline and Proctor and Gamble that had already embraced open practices for its research and development.

He said businesses were interested in this way of working because it opened up "vast opportunities that have never been available before and tap into resources."

BBC News website readers agreed that it would change business practices.

Ken from London wrote: I agree new ways of mass audience collaboration is changing how business is done. It's the law of abundance at work. Which means you're bound to get more solutions to problems when you have more brains working on it?

Whilst John Ferguson from Ballymena wrote: 'Wikinomics' will not change basic economics, as shown by the Goldcorp example. The company offered a reward for a service and people offered their services.

So perhaps growing big should still be an ambition of UK tech start-ups but perhaps the route to becoming bigger is changing.


Using a pattern instead of PIN

There are now almost three billion mobile phone users worldwide.

So it's no surprise that a number of the Gorillas of Tomorrow displaying their wares here are hoping to exploit that massive user base.

Alongside home alarm systems that use text messages to alert a user to a break-in or fire at their home and a range of maps to put on your GPS enabled phone are a host of other UK innovations.

One, called GrIDsure , is a collaboration with mobile security firm Masabi.

Its technology hopes to make pin numbers redundant.

"Instead of a pin you have a shape," said Ben Whitaker of Masabi.

Each user chooses their own shape made of four squares on a five by five grid.

When they need to use a pin number they are shown a grid on their mobile phone and they enter the 4 digits which are in the squares that make up their shape. The numbers in the grid change each time.

Another technology, called CapturaTalk, uses a camera phone to translate text to speech.

The technology is aimed at people with learning difficulties and dyslexia.

It has been developed by Dutch researchers and UK firm iansyst.

A user points the camera at the text they want to read perhaps on a road sign or in a book takes a picture and the onboard software does the rest, converting the text into audio.

The interface is totally icon based.

"It has to be as simple as possible,' said Neil Milliken of iansyst.

It is currently only available on a phone made by HTC, but the firm eventually hopes to offer it as a download.

Along with English, the technology can already be used with Swedish, Danish and importantly Spanish software.

"We're looking to take it to the States and obviously that's one of the most widely used languages," said Mr Milliken.


Alongside some of the more charismatic pieces of technology - the flying saucer, the chemical sensor that uses live bees - are, perhaps, the more specialist, less attention grabbing ones.

Gary Lineker sporting comedy ears
One invention promises help for those with prominent ears
There is Enval that has built a pilot recycling plant to cope with aluminium and waste plastic.

Across the room are a couple of medical applications: computer models of cancers designed by Horizons Discovery to help the search for better drugs and an invention called Ear Scaffold, funded by the NHS, that reduces the need for surgery for people with prominent ears.

Alongside these is Inkski, another firm whose display looks like it has been transported straight from the laboratory bench.

The firm says it is using nanotechnology to change the printing industry.

Simply put, the firm has invented a new high-speed inkjet nozzle that could allow commercial printers - newspapers, and magazines - to go completely digital.

At the moment, the last stage of the printing process is still mechanical - using large printing plates to put ink to paper.

Last minute changes are therefore difficult and production runs are small.

Using the Inkski nozzle, the company claims, could change that.

It uses a rapidly spinning cylinder and a laser to selectively fire ink on to the paper to form an image. The researchers say it is 20 times the speed of conventional inkjet printing.

"The ultimate objective is to print at the same throughput as conventional commercial printing," said Dr Daniel Hall, CEO and co-founder of the firm.

He believes if the industry did take up his idea, it could change the entire concept of a paper.

"It makes it possible to customise the content for the readership," he said.

"There's no reason why if you sign up for a Sunday paper, you couldn't have two pages of eBay adverts in the middle for things that you are particularly interested in."


Geoff's Flying Saucer

The technology demonstrations have started as part of the Gorillas of Tomorrow display.

The gadget that grabbed most attention was a remote controlled flying saucer from a company called GFS.

There are no bizarre acronyms here. The name stands for Geoff's Flying Saucers, after the inventor and founder Geoff Hatton.

The discs, equipped with cameras, have been developed as a surveillance platform.

Geoff happily showed off the saucers as they whizzed around the quad here at Churchill College.

A flying saucer is supposedly more stable than a helicopter but has similar manoeuvrability - and unlike current unmanned aerial vehicles, it can land anywhere.

The company already has a contract from the US military and will compete in a UK military technology competition next year.

But Mr Hatton says there are far more uses for the eyes-in-the-sky than just defence, including agriculture and wildlife tracking.

The sky's the limit for Geoff.


Model house

Some firms seeking funding find novel uses for old technologies.

A company adapting tried and tested systems in innovative ways is Alertme.

It sets up a data base of your home's security systems and monitors what is happening.

So, if you go out without locking a door it will phone you.

It will also alert you if a window is opened while you are away.

The question is, is this significantly different enough to systems already on the market to attract investment.?


It seems if you are a UK tech start-up you are not much different to the latest boy band or budding actress; you need to break America.

US flag
Breaking America is essential

That was the message from Mike Lynch, founder of global software firm Autonomy in his opening speech to the Growing Big Gorillas conference,

"The US is not a choice," he told delegates.

He should know. He has managed to grow a Gorilla that started out with $2000 (995) to a $4bn dollar (1.9bn) global concern.

"Moderate success in the US will dwarf success in any of the European markets," he said.

But, he warned, don't be sucked in by marketing spin by state governments trying to attract you to set up in a backwater in the centre of the US.

Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin in Texas he said were the places to go if you needed the people and the infrastructure to break the country.

He also talked about the climate of innovation in the UK.

He said that the UK was bursting with good ideas, and tech people, but, unlike Silicon Valley, companies were poor at marketing themselves and their ideas.

Change that, add some extra funding for early ideas and get rid of the mindset of trying to beat Silicon Valley ("turn your competitors into customers") and the UK, and Silicon Fen in particular, could begin to grow more gorillas, or "orang-utans" as one person referred to his company.


Bee being fed sugar

A whole host of firms in Cambridge, eager to seek investment for their ideas.

Many companies are including green policies in their portfolios amid concerns over global warming and pollution.

Security has also risen up the political agenda - provoking increasingly inventive ways of detecting illegal or dangerous substances.

Hertfordshire-based research firm Inscentinel is at the conference, hoping to find a backer for its concept of using bees to find substances such as explosives.

It trains the bees, measures their reactions, then returns them to their colony once their work is done.


There's an interesting piece in today's Guardian called the wiki way.

Footballers hugging each other
Has collaboration rendered traditional economics redundant?
It's essentially an overview of Don Tapscott's new book Wikinomics: How Mass collaboration changes everything.

In it he argues that we have barely begun to imagine how the internet will change the way we live and work.

In particular, he says, the rise of collaboration will change the nature of business.

The Guardian article highlights the case of a struggling gold mining company, Goldcorp.

In 2000, the firm made the bold decision to make all off its complex geological data online and offered prize money to anyone who could identify where potential new gold reserves may lay.

The company received 100 recommendations, half of which the company had never considered. Four fifths of those contained gold.

The company's value has since rocketed from $100m (49.7m) to $9bn (4.4bn).

The article suggests that the rise of this kind of collaboration could spell the end of large companies.

"We could yet see the day when big companies such as Google seem prehistoric," the article says.

Which all made me wonder whether the goal of trying to grow "gorillas" - the theme of this conference - was now an outdated concept.

So, in the interest of collaboration: what do you think? Will the internet change the rules of the game? Is it game over for big corporations or is the rise of wikinomics just a passing fad?


The conference hopes to help the gorillas of tomorrow

Growing Big Gorillas isn't an obvious name to pick for a business conference.

After all, it conjures up images of King Kong-inspired scientists hoping to breed a lineage of oversized apes.

The one-day conference, being held at Churchill College, Cambridge, is (unfortunately) not about that.

Rather, it is a chance for budding entrepreneurs to listen to the people behind some of the UK's most successful start-ups and find out how to grow their business into a large international company - a "big gorilla" in the words of the conference organisers.

Speakers include Dr Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, a successful Cambridge University spin-out company that develops software, some of which sits in products from the likes of Oracle, Symantec, Hewlett Packard and IBM.

Autonomy is already a gorilla - a leader in its field - but the conference organisers hope they can inspire another generation.

And some of those are on display in an emerging technology show, aptly named Gorillas of Tomorrow.

Gadgets developed by some of these would-be giants include a sensitive chemical detector that uses trained bees; unmanned flying saucers for surveillance and reconnaissance, and a smartphone application that photographs text and reads it out.

The latter, known as CapturaTalk, is aimed at people with dyslexia or visual impairments.

Throughout the day I'll be dipping in and out of the conference sessions and taking a closer look at some of the devices and gadgets on display.

I'll be trying to find out what makes a gorilla and whether the UK has the right environment for one to grow.

In short, I'll be trying to spot a gorilla in our midst.

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