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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 September 2007, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Hot picks: UK tech start-ups
The UK invests more than any other European Country in new ideas, with more than 1bn being pumped into start-ups firms.

Here the BBC identifies some of the UK's hottest emerging companies.

INSCENTINEL

Inscentinel is a biotechnology firm that aims to make handheld portable chemical detectors using live honeybees.

Inscentinel bees
The bees are returned to the hive after use

The firm hopes that the detectors could be used in searches for explosives or drugs.

"Basically we train honeybees to detect explosives by associating food with a sugar reward," said Dr David Grant, a scientist at the Hertfordshire based firm.

"When we give them sugar and a smell at the same time they learn the two things go together so the next time they get the smell they expect sugar and they stick out their tongues."

To make a working device, the researchers insert the bees into a case where they are filmed as a fan draws in air from whatever is being examined.

A computer provides an immediate read-out of the bees' reactions. The bees are only used for two days before they are returned to the hive.

Inscentinel's researchers say the bees are much more effective than sniffer dogs.

"Dogs treat their training as a game. If they get bored they may tell you that there are drugs present even when they are not," said Dr Grant.

"Bees don't treat it as game; it is a response. They are like little micro machines."

The company was formed in 2002 and is funded by venture capitalists including the majority shareholder, Oxford Technology Venture Capitalist Trust.

It has no revenue yet, but has had research contracts with the UK and US military.

The firm believes they could have a commercially viable product available in a year - but they need money.

Co-founder Matilde Briens said a lot of people are interested in the product but when it comes to investment "nobody wants to hear the word research".

MONITISE

Monitise is a young UK start-up that has already made significant in-roads into the US market.

Phones used for mobile banking
The company will launch in the US later this year

The firm was founded four years ago by ex-professional sportsman Alastair Lukies and provides a mobile phone banking and payment service.

"An injury put paid to aspirations of being a full-time rugby player," said Mr Lukies.

"Ever since, I've been building businesses."

The Monitise interface allows consumers to perform banking and payment transactions regardless of their choice of mobile operator or bank.

Current partners include network operators Vodafone, Orange, O2 and T-Mobile as well as banks such as Alliance & Leicester and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

"The banks have been hugely supportive of us. They invested in the company in the early days."

One of the early investors was the global bank HSBC.

"One of the things that impressed us about Monitise was their passion for their idea," said Mr Joe Garner of the bank.

In particular, he said, the concept fitted with its customers needs.

"We have seen them using the internet more, self service machinery more, so it was the logical extension of that," he said.

Since 2003, the company has grown from two to 100 people and has recently listed on Aim stock exchange, a global market for smaller growing companies.

Although it currently only operates in the UK, it will be launched in the US later in 2007.

"We now have the foundations of a really exciting business," said Mr Lukies.

IMENSE

Imense is a Cambridge start-up that aims to become the "Google of image searching".

Imense search engine screenshot
The system classifies and sorts millions of images

The firm, founded by two ex members of the AT&T lab in Cambridge University, is developing a search engine that will make sense of the huge numbers of pictures that have proliferated online.

"People estimate that there are currently 15 billion images posted on the web, and people are posting more and more every day, and a huge number of these are unlabelled and un-annotated, said Dr David Sinclair, one of the co-founders of the company.

The company is currently training the system to know what something looks like by showing it thousands and thousands of examples.

"If you are teaching the system to know what grass looks like, you extract the features to describe things that you are interested in. Then you feed in high-dimensional classifiers - colour, shape, texture, etc - and you feed a number of examples of pictures of grass and pictures of things that are not grass to standard training algorithms."

The firm started as a result of a Smart Award from the then Department of Trade and Industry. This was followed an East of England Development Award (EEDA) grant and funding from the then Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

"That let us scale the system up from academic systems of about 30,000 images to millions of images," said Dr Sinclair.

The first prototype also netted the start-up half a million pounds of private investment.

"The next phase is to ramp up the number of images we can search over, and that requires more servers and bandwidth," he said.

"We are aiming for a public beta test before Christmas - it will be tens of millions of images, then about six months later, after we have tested how the search engine is being used, the system should go live."

IONSCOPE

Ionscope makes specialist microscopes for use in the life sciences.

Microscope image of cell surface
The scopes are able to image living cells

Using a technique known as scanning ion conductance microscopy (SICM) the scopes are able to produce detailed images of living cells.

"It allows you to see structures that couldn't be seen previously," said Noah Freedman, CEO of the company.

The scopes have 50 times the resolution of a conventional optical microscope.

Other high magnification techniques tend to interfere with or kill living cells, whereas SICM allows living cells to be studied over long periods.

"You can watch groups of cells over long periods - 24 or 48 hours - and see how they interact or how a virus works its way into their interior," said Mr Freedman.

The technique has so far been used to image living processes in heart muscle, kidneys, sperm and stem cells.

The technology was developed by a team of scientists at Imperial College London and Cambridge University.

Investment in the firm initially came from an Imperial College seed fund alongside private investments from some of the founding members.

"We used that to develop the first generation product and start promoting it," said Mr Freedman.

Building the hi-tech machines in his garage, the company secured orders for six scopes, the first of which was shipped in early 2007.

"Once we started taking orders we got interest from the investment community," he said.

The company has recently raised 680,000 from individual investors belonging to the Cambridge Angels, a group of entrepreneurs who invest in technology and bio-technology.

"We believe we now have enough money to start employing a proper team and we think that we can manage the growth in sales so that we can break even and then profit," said Mr Freedman.




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