Here at the department of computer science we have an established reputation for research, recognized both in independent UK surveys and by the authority for higher education. One of the most successful areas of research has been in the field of signal and image processing where engineers have developed complex algorithms to significantly improve the accuracy and efficiency of biometric identification systems. Using a complex mathematical model, low quality and highly distorted biometric data can be corrected to reduce errors which first generation systems find difficult to process. So ground breaking was the initial research that in 2004, the group behind this patented technology took the ambitious step to ‘spin out’ their ideas in order to capitalize on its commercial potential. The new company is known as ‘Warwick Warp’ and after receiving initial venture capital is now firmly established and implementing a number of key applications that make use of the original algorithms.
DCS News editor Lewis Herrington met up with one of the founding directors of Warwick Warp, Dr Li Wang at the company’s office in the Barclays Venture Centre to discover more about the ‘spin out’ process, and also to shed light on how the company has lured a number of PhD students away from lucrative graduate schemes in London to its more modest set up here the midlands.
Fingerprint System Guarding the EntranceArriving at the offices of a company that specializes in biometric identification systems I was not disappointed to discover a finger print scanning system guarding the entrance to the laboratory. Having verified my identity the green light flashed and the door opened up to room filled with engineers surrounded by a myriad of expensive computer systems and flat screen displays. Here PhD students under the supervision of Dr Wang are working tirelessly to implement applications they hope will one day be used in everyday life from protecting identities to speeding up airport check in procedures.
In the BeginningDr Wang began his PhD at the department of Computer Science back in 2000 focusing on medical imaging as part of the Signal and Image Processing research group. This group was founded by fellow Warwick Warp director Professor Roland Wilson back in the 1980’s and has earned significant international recognition for its work and collaboration with industry and institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Bristol Universities. While working in the final stages of his PhD, Dr Wang joined an external consultancy firm and continued to collaborate with Professor Wilson and Professor Abhir Bhalerao on a project that concerned latent fingerprinting. Although not specifically related to the technology that now concerns Warwick Warp, ideas developed during this collaboration led the group to identify a need within industry for more robust algorithms to cope with the distortion of biometric data which occurs when identification systems are implemented outside of a clean laboratory environment.
DCS PhD Student Demonstrates the ConceptAt this stage all the group had were mathematical models and complex algorithms, what they needed was an actual implementation that could be used to demonstrate their ideas to potential investors. Fortunately at that time, Professor Wilson was supervising PhD student Adam Bowen who had demonstrated a particular aptitude for implementing complex algorithms within the field of image processing. During his PhD, Adam helped to build an image capture room that combined with his own custom software was able to convert 2D images into 3D models. This innovative system at the department of computer science is almost unique in the UK and after rendering the images, allows the viewer to completely rotate 360 degrees around the scene. Adam initially joined the group as a consultant and using C++, developed a simple prototype used to prove the underlying technology in a test phase involving 500 participants from around the world. With his aptitude for implementing the groups ideas firmly established, Dr Wang did not hesitate in bringing Adam on board full time as the new venture took its first tentative steps into the corporate world.
Former DCS PhD student Adam Bowen demonstrates the fingerprint recognition system
Assistance from Warwick VenturesFrom the very beginning, Dr Ederyn Williams from Warwick Ventures greatly assisted the group in managing all of the legal and funding issues associated with spinning out a company from the university department. Bringing a wealth of experience to the table, Ederyn advised the group on matters of marketing and business development and was able to introduce key individuals that might provide the required seed capital. In July 2008 the new company secured financial backing from a number of sources and moved into its current home in the Barclays Venture Center at the University Science Park.
DCS supplies the development teamLike any technology company, Warwick Warp relies extensively on the expertise of its staff which is even more acute when the team is small and the product complex. Asked about how the company has been able to convince PhD students from the department of computer science to give up lucrative graduate jobs in the city of London to take a leap of faith with his new venture, Dr Wang pointed to the opportunity his staff have to re-create the environment they enjoyed during their PhD. Individuals are given significant responsibility which improves their capabilities since they don’t have to worry about the bureaucracy often found in large corporations.
The Warwick Warp team made up of several DCS Phd Students
In addition, Warwick Warp also jointly sponsors two PhD students who divide their time between the department of computer science and the laboratory at Warwick Warp. Part of the funding for this collaboration comes from the great exhibition 1851 charity whose mission statement includes the desire to encourage industry driven research.
Advice to others thinking of spinning out their research
Concluding the interview I asked both Dr Wang and Adam what advice they had for other academics thinking of following in their footsteps. Both agreed that it is important to have a passion for what you are doing; you will become engrossed in the work which will typically extend beyond the usual 9-5 regime. What is also very important is that you have significant support from the department that you are spinning the technology out of.
Warwick Warp benefited immensely from the computer science department and received first class support from Warwick Ventures. Adam also noted that because the initial team is often very small, everyone in the team must pull its weight as the success of the venture very much depends on the commitment made by the individuals involved.
DCS News would like to thank Dr Li Wang and his team for taking the time out to help contribute to this article. Click here to find out more about Warwick Warp.