Research gone Googlish

Universities can be exceptional drivers of innovation, of fresh ideas that can change the world. Great companies like Google, Time Magazine, Facebook, Dell, reddit.com, FedEx and Microsoft were all conceived while their founders were still studying, in several cases by a pair of varsity friends. Yet it seems as if universities can just as easily be sinks of knowledge, where brilliant research and fresh ideas stay captive between thesis covers, gathering dust on library shelves. Why do some universities become such fertile ground for innovators and entrepreneurs? Does it have to do with a culture of challenging the norms, of risking the unorthodox? If so, is it possible to nurture this culture, and to bridge the gap between research excellence and commercial success?
 
These questions were on our minds when we launched the Electronic Media Laboratory at Stellenbosch University some three years ago. The challenge was to create an environment where postgraduate students of various disciplines (initially electronic engineering, computer science and applied mathematics) could work together on research projects related to cutting-edge communications media: social networking, next-generation networks, peer-to-peer TV streaming, augmented reality, to name a few examples. The Media Lab would not just be a place to sit down and work on your thesis – our hypothesis was that, if exceptionally bright students from diverse backgrounds were hand-picked to also form a tightly-knit team, it might just be possible to create a critical mass of minds that can innovate beyond good research.
 
Developing the concept

Our objectives were the following:

  1. Firstly, to develop specialist software engineers in the field of web and mobile technologies. There is currently a strong demand from industry for specialist graduates in this sector, but still too little focus on this at South African universities. Our first metric of the project’s success would be the percentage of Media Lab graduates that could move directly into specialist careers in this sector.
  2. Secondly, to generate commercially useful intellectual property. Our second metric of success would be the value of IP transferred or licensed to our industry partner.
  3. Thirdly, to encourage tech entrepreneurship as a career option for young graduates. Our third metric of success would be the net worth of startups founded by Media Lab graduates.
  4. Lastly (but very importantly), to maintain only the highest academic standards of research. Our final metric of success would be graduates’ academic achievement and publication rate.

The Media Lab’s culture differs markedly from other research spaces. Thanks to generous sponsorship from industry, we could outfit the lab to feel more like a hi-tech startup with excellent computing resources and a comfortable, offbeat working environment. Although our students mostly come from technical backgrounds (and do technology-related research), we give them strong exposure to business: all students have regular contact with business executives who discuss their research and its commercial application with them; we organise talks by and meetings with successful entrepreneurs; eight of our students have been sponsored to attend four-day Harvard Business School workshops on technology businesses.

What’s also unusual about the Media Lab is that we encourage our students to not just work on their research: we’ve taken a leaf out of Google’s book, who give their employees “20% time” to work on pet projects unrelated to their official job, as a way of encouraging innovation. Any person who has done full-time postgraduate would likely agree that this is a phase of one’s life when you have the most discretion on how you spend your time – and much of it goes into pursuits unrelated to your research. We believe that, with a little encouragement, such non-research pursuits can become fertile ground for tech innovation.

A hand-picked team

Although every effort is made to make the Media Lab a stimulating and pleasant research environment, it is also a demanding one: students have to balance the academic relevance of their research with the potential commercial application, and they have to be able to justify their approach and results to their supervisors, the lab’s management, and to the corporate sponsors – all of whom have very high expectations. Not all students will flourish in such an environment, and applicants for Media Lab bursaries are carefully screened, not just for academic ability, but also for their aptitude to be part of such a team.

The students’ research topics are quite diverse, and explore the media of interaction between people, computers and reality. Some of the current projects include a new platform for peer-to-peer television, augmented reality on smartphones, social network growth modelling, computer vision and online gaming. More details on the various projects can be found on the lab’s website at www.sun.ac.za/medialab.

Bearing fruit

The Electronic Media Lab is in itself an experiment in research management, and like any well-constructed experiment, it should have an objective measure of success. Has the concept started to bear fruit since the first students joined the lab in 2008?

The team has quickly grown from an initial four students to be nineteen students strong right now. Next year we intend to expand to a total of thirty students. The first group of four students have graduated so far, and the first theses and other publications are appearing. All four initial students have accepted specialist positions at sponsor companies (although one has since moved back into the lab to start with his PhD). This indicates that the project is already starting to address the shortage of specialists in this field. The lab’s research outputs are strong, and five papers have already been presented at international peer-reviewed conferences.

The next year or two will show whether the laboratory succeeds in its goal of fostering tech innovation. The second group of students is graduating soon, and we may soon see our first startups emerging. Watch the Media Lab closely!

EngineerIT

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Research gone Googlish