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The Innovation Game: Crowdsurfer and the Cambridge Phenomenon

May 12, 2017 • By TAB team

Cambridge is a strange and potent mix of tradition and modernity. The magnificent architecture of the city and its world-renowned university play host to an army of talented academics, young and old, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and expertise.

Cambridge is a strange and potent mix of tradition and modernity.

The magnificent architecture of the city and its world-renowned university play host to an army of talented academics, young and old, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and expertise.

Cambridge has a long history of nurturing disruptive and imaginative problem solvers. The alma mater of Newton, Darwin, Oppenheimer and Hawking has always had a global reputation for intellectual rigour and academic excellence across subjects, but, in recent years, it has become a world leader in an exciting and quintessentially modern discipline: data science.

The University of Cambridge’s Computer Lab has been churning out notable technologists – and successful companies – for years. These include the likes of Andy Hopper, who co-founded Acorn Computer in 1979, and the co-founders of Raspberry Pi – a household name in the world of home computing with reach that extends across the globe and voted by CB Insights readership to be the most innovative product since the iPhone.

But it’s the deeper, more esoteric work of data science that’s driving the next wave of innovation.

“Data science” is a term we hear a lot, but what does it actually mean? Technology has given us the ability to collect huge volumes of data. Datasets are large, highly complex and unstructured. They can be heterogeneous and high-dimensional too, containing human language, image and video. Converting these data into actionable information is known as data science, rebranded to “Big Data” by technophiles.

The Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative aims to solve challenges created by access to huge volumes of data. What is unique about this project is that it spans all six schools of the university, from the underlying fundamentals in mathematics and computer science, to applications ranging from astronomy and bioinformatics, to medicine, social science and the humanities. This multi-disciplinary research also seeks to apply Big Data to solve challenging problems for society in the areas of law, ethics and economics.

The reason we can do data science on massive data sets is because we have the processing power to run algorithms that can go through each data point quickly and provide conclusions in a timely manner. Some call this AI, but really, hardcore AI is when algorithms are trained by humans – or shown examples of human judgement – so they can analyse data points is a similar way to humans.

World-renowned code breaker, computer scientist and Cambridge graduate Alan Turing once observed that: “A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human.”

We are still some way off this world-altering outcome, but Cambridge has become a hub for a new breed of startups seeking to add to our understanding of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Michael Lynch’s Big Data behemoth Autonomy began life in Cambridge back in 1996 and was later acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2011. And now Lynch is back with DarkTrace, a machine learning and AI company that lives just next door to Crowdsurfer in Cambridge’s St. John’s Innovation Park.

Improbable, the aptly-named virtual reality startup launched just five years ago and valued at more than $1 billion after funding from Japan’s Softbank, was founded by Herman Narula and Rob Whitehead who met while studying computer science at the University of Cambridge, along with Imperial College graduate Peter Lipka. And startup Geospock is another Big Data business based in Cambridge that seeks to “build tools that make it possible to interactively explore extreme datasets, illuminating the valuable insights hidden in the dark.” Less Imitation Game, more Innovation Game.

Cambridge is a small pond with large stocks of talent. Tech City UK’s Tech Nation report called the city a “leading digital tech cluster”, revealing that 30,219 people are employed there in technology with an average of 353 startups founded in the city per year from 2011. This is an ecosystem where investors and entrepreneurs get to know each other, share information and support each other to drive knowledge acquisition, business growth and real progress. This is aided by the presence of the Cambridge Network, which brings together business and academia to share ideas and encourage partnership.

Graduates of the Cambridge Computer Laboratory – Dr. Simon Fothergill, Crowdsurfer’s own Head of Data Analytics, among them – say the supportive and collegiate atmosphere at Cambridge is unique. The university has created a community of researchers and businesses with soft boundaries that transcend the short-term imperatives of competition to build value over the long-term. Part of the recipe for success is a willingness to be open and collaborative, eschewing the obsession with intellectual property that increasingly to define the US tech scene and getting on with building and testing cool stuff, quickly.

As Bill Gates has noted, “The phenomenon of Cambridge is an inspiring reminder of the great power of human ingenuity to make life better and more productive for all of us.” Year after a year, a new cohort of data scientists emerges to further the work of its predecessors and carry the torch forward. The university also organises meet-ups and data science tutorials, which Crowdsurfer plays an active role in attending.

Indeed, Crowdsurfer is very much a product of its environment – a place and a community of people where anything is possible. The company was founded in Cambridge in 2012 and continues to base itself in the city. The team – particularly the technological and data side of the operation – is dominated by Cambridge graduates. And the company is backed by Rockspring, a Cambridge-based investment fund run by David Gammon, an early investor in DeepMind (an Artificial General Intelligence company acquired by Google) and a man who understands the potential of technology to change and improve our everyday lives in profound and unexpected ways.

Alan Turing is, of course, a founding father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, formalising a range of concepts that ranged from algorithms to computation. He is a man who sought to create order from chaos – both intellectually in his career as an academic, and practically, in his role as a code breaker at Bletchley Park. This duality serves as a neat example of how intellectual rigour, academic excellence and real world application can come together to change the word for the better.

This is exactly what Crowdsurfer is striving to achieve with its approach to sourcing and refining data within crowd finance, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible by providing in-depth analysis of specific datasets in ways that have the potential to be transferable across domains.