10 July 2008

Inspiring the rising stars in universities

Filed under: collaboration, Essay contest, universities — David Wood @ 11:28 pm

One of the goals I set myself for 2008 involves influencing university research departments around the world to become more active in the areas of smartphones and Symbian OS.

With that goal in my mind, I decided to accept an invite to the “Wireless 2.0” conference organised by Silicon South West, here in Bristol, where I’ve travelled for the event. I decided to attend because of the mix of both industry and university attendees.

The event hosted a “Rising Star Awards Dinner” this evening, where six university students studying electrical engineering (or a related degree) received special awards – a plaque and a handy amount of spending money. There was one winner from each of the six universities in the area covered by Silicon South West: Bath, Bournemouth, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, and West of England. It was heart warming to hear the personal testimonies of the winners (and their university tutors).

But links between commercial research departments and university research departments aren’t always so rosy. Universities and industry have many overlapping interests, but also some conflicting cultures. I see Symbian as having had mixed success, historically, in relations with universities:

  • On the clearly positive side, we’ve run good graduate recruitment and induction programs, every year since 1993 (that was in the Psion days, pre-Symbian); these have gone from strength to strength.
  • On the increasingly positive side, 58 universities have enrolled into the Symbian Academy program, in which Symbian supports university lecturers to deliver academic courses on Symbian OS software development.
  • On the “could do better” side, there are still only a small number of truly productive ongoing research collaborations between Symbian and individual universities, in which findings from university research projects regularly feed into Symbian’s roadmap (and vice versa).

It turns out that it’s not just Symbian that feels somewhat uncomfortable about the limited benefits realised from attempted collaboration with universities. Other commercial companies have noted similar concerns. And this has even become a field of academic study in its own right, known as (amongst other names) UIC, meaning University-Industry Collaboration. My friend Joel West of San Jose State University recently attended a two-conference on UIC at University of California, Irvine, and wrote up his observations. There’s lots to ponder there. For example, Joel described three pieces of advice on successful UIC negotiations, as given in a presentation by UIDP executive director Anthony Boccanfuso:

  1. A successful UI collaboration should support the mission of each partner. Any effort in conflict with the mission of either partner will fail. (Joel’s translation: all deals must be win-win)
  2. Institutional practices and national resources should focus on fostering appropriate long term partnerships between universities and industry. (It’s more than just the money)
  3. Universities and industry should focus on the benefits to each party that will result from collaborations by streamlining negotiations to ensure timely conduct of the research and the development of the research findings. (There is a finite window for commercialization)

With Symbian research projects, one additional hiccup has been the difficulties in allowing universities access to Symbian OS source code. Time and again we’ve been discussing an attractive-sounding joint research project with a university, when we’ve realised that the project would need more visibility of Symbian source code than was possible under the existing licensing rules. And that’s constrained the kinds of projects we can consider. (This realisation was just one of many that led to an increasing desire inside the Symbian ecosystem to find ways to liberalise access to our source code – and thus helped to set the scene for the mega-decision to embrace open source principles.)

However, not all research requires close access to source code. With that thought in mind, Symbian Research decided a few weeks back to launch the Symbian Student Essay Contest. This involves students writing an essay of no more than eight pages on the general topic “The next wave of smartphone innovation – issues and opportunities with smartphone technologies“. Up to ten students will receive a prize of UKP 1000. (See here for the contest rules.)

This prize contest has some common principles with the Silicon South West “Rising Star Awards”:

  • We’re seeking to encourage and reward individual students who show particular insight into this ever-more important set of ideas
  • We’re also seeking to inspire individual universities to give a higher priority to this domain of study.

High quality essays from a university will indicate to Symbian that there is good smartphone expertise in that university. That’s something we’re particularly interested to find out, since Symbian Research needs to decide which universities worldwide should receive higher priority attention for future collaborative research projects. That’s a tough decision to make.

Footnote: At tonight’s dinner, Prof Joe McGeehan of the University of Bristol mentioned that wise heads had been advising him, ever since 1973, that “there’s no future in research in wireless communications”. Thankfully, he persistently ignored these skeptics, and the field has indeed grown and grown. There’s now an impressive list of local south-west companies that have world-beating wireless technologies. I’m looking forward to hearing, tomorrow, what they have to say. The future of smartphones is, of course, a big part in “wireless 2.0”, but there’s lots more going on at the same time.

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