Annual Review 2021

Highlighting the activities of spinouts, startups, and social enterprises from Oxford University Innovation

One of the rare upsides of the past 18 months has been the gift of time, particularly in a professional context. The hours saved on commuting to work, travelling to meetings and a more flexible schedule have translated into opportunities to explore new projects, work and passions. It has been a different story however for Consulting Services at OUI, which has been inundated under lockdown with a massive spike in interest in consulting from Oxford’s academic body, translating to its busiest period on record.

Demand for the team’s services, which include contract negotiation, admin and financial support for consulting, has not only increased because of academics having more free time, but recognition from Oxford’s academic base of the quality of Consulting Services.

“The team are outstandingly professional,” said Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at Oxford University. “Consulting Services is a well-oiled machine, is always open to us, and is pushing us all to think broadly about the possibilities. In my opinion, it is one of the best parts of Oxford.”

Prof Marginson has been consulting throughout his career in higher education, which spans three decades, and utilising Consulting Services since arriving at Oxford in 2018.

“Many of my recent consultancies have been with Irish Higher Education institutions. In particular, I’ve been advising institutes of technology on how they can upgrade to university status through specialising in research and technology areas, bolstering their relationships with research users and building out their student bodies.”

Simon has been working with both the Athlone Institute of Technology and the Limerick Institute of Technology, which announced a merger in 2021 supported by consultancy Simon provided. The merger has allowed the two to reach university status, an achievement for which both institutions have personally thanked Simon.

Beyond Athlone and Limerick, Simon has also provided advice to Sligo, Carlow, and Galway Mayo institutes of technology, as well as providing consultancy to Monash University in his home country of Australia on strategies to capitalise on the rapidly changing global environment.

“When I come across an empirical case like Ireland, it informs me as an expert and I stand to learn a lot from every instance. The more you learn, the better, and how much you learn about how things vary, the better,” said Prof Marginson. “Consultancy gives me a certain inspiration where I’m confronted with unique, interesting problems. Those problems in turn give me incentive to expand my own thinking, and that fundamental work then helps inform and develop my public work.”

Another academic leveraging impact from his consultancy work is Steven Reece, a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Pattern Analysis and Machine Learning Research Group. Dr Reece’s primary focus is the use of satellite imagery in disaster response, and consults in related fields as well as the wider area of applied statistics and machine learning.

Some of Steven’s research has been taken into the field thanks to funding from the Alan Turing Institute and Ministry of Defence, which in turn led to him picking up more consultancy in nature recovery, his latest being with HR Wallingford, a non-profit research and consultancy group aimed at resolving water-related challenges.

“They [HR Wallingford] wanted to identify the damage to settlements from flooding in India using satellite imagery. I previously did some work with the Satellite Applications Catapult identifying kilns in India, and we were able to use that to identify crops in areas that had been flooded and would be in need of assistance.”

“What’s novel about consultancy is that there’s a lot of short term funding sloshing about for universities that can cover some work for less than a year, but typically isn’t enough for a post-doc,” said Steven. “Consultancy can help us make that work for us.”

In turn, Steven’s expertise has assisted his clients in building up their own capabilities.

“HR Wallingford has some great in-house geospacer experts, and I’ve worked with them to help develop their machine learning capabilities. Meanwhile with the Catapults, we’re developing R&D capabilities for AI and satellite imagery to be used around the planet.”

Steven notes that it’s also been a two-way street. His relationship with the Catapult has allowed him to access resources from Google X, Google’s “moonshot factory”, which he’s been using to train his neural nets on. Previously, Steven would develop code for them and spend all night getting through one and a half training cycles. With Google’s support, he can get through 100 cycles in 20 minutes.

“It’s actually all been a bit ironic as I voted against Brexit, yet over the past year, I ended up getting loads out of it,” said Steven. “The Government has been throwing money at satellites and AI, which has led to problems I can solve. I’ve had four consultancies in 2021, and three last year.”

I previously did some work with the Satellite Applications Catapult identifying kilns in India, and we were able to use that to identify crops in areas that had been flooded and would be in need of assistance.