Accelerating the impact of research
Professor John McCanny, School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
As the seagull flies, the new iconic Titanic Belfast is only a few hundred yards from ECIT, Queen’s University’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology, yet Professor John McCanny, ECIT’s Director, thinks the two buildings are closer in other ways. They may represent achievements in engineering that are separated by 100 years, but he says, ‘When you look at Titanic and think of what those guys were accomplishing in that era – they were at the forefront of the world. They were pushing the envelope of innovation with everything they were doing. And that’s what we’re trying to do. The engineering may be different but the drive is the same.’
ECIT was built for impact. In the surroundings of the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Professor McCanny had found himself riding a wave of fast-flowing new digital technology, working on developments such as audio compression, which would be used to create the quality of sound in Jurassic Park and is still being used widely, such as in the iPhone and the iPad.
‘InvestNI would bring companies to see us, companies looking for solutions, but we couldn’t provide results within their timescale in a research lab with a PhD student. We needed professional engineers.’ So to achieve what they wanted, they set up two companies - Audio Processing Technology Ltd and Amphion Semiconductor Ltd, now part of NXP, working in video compression. Amphion’s video chip designs have since been used in an estimated one third of all the world’s Set-Tox boxes and are also the video hardware acceleration engines used in the Intel C2100 Media Processor chips used extensively in PCs and laptop computers.
‘After that, we started to think.... in Taiwan, in Silicon Valley, they have their own science parks. Could we not do that?’ And so the idea was born of a research and enterprise park which would attract and develop hi-tech business, ‘taking the research out of the ivory tower and putting it in a much more business orientatated environment.’
With initial funding from EPSRC, TSB, InvestNI and the Department of Education, ECIT opened in 2004 and became the anchor tenant in the new Northern Ireland Science Park. ‘Eight years on from that, when the new building next to us is filled, there will be about 2,000 people working here – involving about 110 companies, including global giants like IBM and Microsoft, and around £80m-£100m a year just in salaries alone for the local economy.’
On top of that there is space and encouragement at ECIT for ‘spin-out’ and ‘spin-in’ companies (high tech companies created outside the University). ‘You might have three or four people who meet in a coffee shop and have this great idea but they don’t have a whole lot of money and they certainly can’t afford to sign ten-year leases. So we facilitate people like that as well.’
The year 2009 saw another exciting development. ‘EPSRC and the Technology Strategy Board created an initiative to form innovation knowledge centres. We saw an opportunity here so we bid to become a centre for cyber security and won.’ And so CSIT, the Centre for Secure Information Technologies, came into being with initial five-year funding of £30m. It has rapidly achieved a global reputation for innovation and expertise in this important field. It hosts an annual World Cyber Security Technology Summit and is now being recognised as an Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Research by GCHQ in partnership with Research Councils UK and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
Professor McCanny says, ‘Our vision is to be a world leader in cyber security technologies by linking with industry, academia and government to combat emerging cyber threats. The wellbeing of the individual and society as a whole is at the heart of all of this.’
He adds, ‘We have our challenges. We keep growing. We need to replenish the funding. We may not be in this game as long as some institutions but we’ve established a reputation as a place where things get done. Hi-tech companies are always nervous about working with universities but they realise they have to because of the access they get to bright young people. However some universities are not very businesssavvy.
‘There are 175 people in ECIT – it’s a sizeable operation –and we’ve overlaid the research base with a business layer. Traditionally, universities have researchers and PhD students on three-year contracts and they end up leaving when things are getting to a crucial point. We created a new type of contract, based on the hi-tech business model, to employ engineering staff with extensive industry experience, with well-defined career paths and salary scales. We want to create the sort of environment you have in Silicon Valley. We recruit can-do, will-do people. Can’t-do, won’t-do? Forget it.’