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Oxford Nanopore's MinION is the only portable, real time device for DNA and RNA sequencing and analyses.

Nine tech terms to know in 2017

Lanisha Butterfield | 19 Jan 2017

For those new to tech culture, or even just interested in how the industry and its many inventions work, the associated terminology can sometimes feel like an unknown, foreign language. But, like most things in life, when you remove the jargon and insert short, simple explanations for what things really mean, they become immediately less intimidating and more accessible to all.

 The ScienceBlog tech nine is designed to give the less scientifically inclined a basic introduction to some of the industry’s more commonly used terms. This glossary will not guarantee that the reader speaks fluent techie overnight, but it is a useful conversation aid and gateway into the industry.

1)    Startup company

The name given to a fast growing, new or emerging company that has launched a product in response to a marketplace need or opportunity - think AirBnB, borrowmydoggy.com and Uber. Startup companies tend to rely on the backing of other more established businesses or investors to fuel early development.

2)    Unicorn

Forget fantastical mystical horned horses, in the land of technology, the word is used to describe a startup company valued at over $1 billion. How do the two connect, you might ask? Well, one’s a mythical and much-sought after beast which countless authors have written extensively about, and the other’s a horse with a cone on its head. But, when you join the dots and think of them symbolically as rare (so rare, many see them as too good to be true), wonderful things, a picture emerges. For investors, unicorns are the ultimate business opportunity. Mention one in passing to a tech insider, and watch their eyes light up.

 While more often spotted in the tech forests of Silicon Valley, Oxford University has its own unicorn in the shape of handheld DNA sequencer developer Oxford Nanopore, which was valued at £1.25bn after its recent £100m investment.

3)    Tech cluster / innovation community

The ultimate power gathering, a tech cluster is the name given to a group of thriving tech companies, situated in close proximity to both each other and surrounding a renowned research university. The most famous example is California’s Silicon Valley, home to tech trailblazers’ eBay, Google, Facebook and Pixar, to name a few. Slightly lesser known and unfortunately named by comparison, the UK’s Silicon Roundabout, also known as Old Street Roundabout in East London, is growing rapidly and includes CrowdCube and Deliveroo.

Home to the top ranked university in the world, it is little surprise that Oxford is one of the most active tech clusters in Europe. The region is buzzing with innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors, with a rapidly increasing level of activity.

4)    Spinouts

In the world of university innovation, a spinout is a company that has university research underpinning its core product of service. Markedly different to a regular startup, spinouts require a strong bond with the academic community to succeed and significantly more resources and time to get to market, but the overall chance of success is much higher and the impact of such companies can be literally world-changing. A great example of a successful spinout is Oxford University’s very own Oxbotica, who develop next generation autonomous vehicles.

 Oxford University Innovation (OUI), the university’s research commercialisation company, is one of the most impactful offices of its kind, worldwide. In 2016, it set a European record for spinout generation, and will this year celebrate 30 years of operation, during which it has helped launch over 150 companies based on Oxford research.

5)    Incubator

In the same way that hospital incubators protect babies, business incubators offer emerging entrepreneurs a safe space to grow, develop and test their abilities, until they are strong enough to fly solo.  In the tech world, the term describes a flourishing business that supports the development of new enterprises by providing services and outreach support that make them stronger. Examples include, training, office space and resource.

Incubators, such as the one situated at OUI, play an increasing role in university life. At the start-up incubator, rising entrepreneurs receive bespoke support in a protected environment, where they can then benefit from learned experience, expert training and even financial support.

6)    Venture Capital (VC)

Not to be confused with the other, university-specific VC, venture capital describes a type of enterprise funding given to new or developing companies by more established, financially fluid organisations. Investors look at a chosen business and weigh up its potential, in terms of the number of employees and revenue generation, in return for financial equity. For a lot of emerging and startup businesses, venture capital is essential to their survival in the early stages of operation.

7)    Patient Capital

Although many dream of getting rich overnight, mindful investors know that in business, sustainability is the key to success. A counter balance to the short term outlook of VC, patient capital plays the long game and has a much longer view on returns from investments. This sort of investment has become crucial to supporting spinouts, which have a much longer development cycle than a traditional startup.

 An example of patient capital is Oxford Sciences Innovation (OSI), which manages the university venture fund of Oxford University. Focused entirely on supporting spinouts, it is the largest such fund in the world. 

8)    Seed Funding

As the name implies, seed funding is financial support provided right at the start of a company’s lifecycle, to help them grow. Increasingly seen as a way to get companies off the ground, seed investors are typically high-net worth individuals (also known as angel investors) or small, dynamic funds focused on this pivotal early stage.

9)    Stealth Mode

Keeping a secret, a secret, is not always easy, and a business in “stealth mode,” is essentially working to protect a big one of its own. The term is often used when a company wants to withhold information from competitors or to avoid sharing details about a new development. It is particularly common for startup companies to work this way, ahead of launch, while they test the water and build their brand and product identity.




Machine Learning

“Siri, will it rain today?”, “Facebook, tag my friend in this photo.” These are just two examples of the incredible things that we ask computers to do for us. But, have you ever asked yourself how computers know how to do these things?

Machine learning is not a new concept but it is constantly evolving and the potential benefits of its capability are increasing by the second. A form of artificial intelligence, it provides computers with the ability to learn through experience, without being explicitly programmed to perform a task. As the computer receives more data, its algorithms become more finely tuned and over time it begins to recognise patterns and solve problems on its own - without the use of a programme. The more finely tuned the algorithm, the more accurate the computer can be in its predictions.

 In their latest animation, Oxford Sparks, the University of Oxford’s digital science portal, outline how researchers have combined the power of statistics and computer science, to build algorithms capable of solving complex problems more efficiently while using less computer power.

 Using machine learning this way is already informing medical diagnosis and strengthening the speed and capability of smartphones and social media, but its scope to revolutionise the world seems limitless.

View the video and learn more about the power of machine learning here:

Photo shows Early Jurassic lake sediments (black shales) formed in the Tarim Basin, China

Geochemical and biological research offers academics a window into earth history, enabling them to piece together events that occurred before records began. Much of our understanding of past climate change is based on geology, in particular the study of sedimentary rocks deposited in the oceans.

The paper that first recognised and defined Oceanic Anoxic Events (OAEs), written by Oxford professor Hugh Jenkyns and an American colleague, is considered a seminal contribution to geological history, that led the way to numerous studies on the effects of oxygen starvation in the oceans.

The discovery of organic-rich sediments, often described as black shales, at numerous deep-sea drilling sites during the early 1970s, led to the wider acknowledgement of the oceanic impact of climate change. At certain intervals during the Jurassic era, huge bouts of volcanic activity triggered increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This then caused a knock-on greenhouse effect, raising the sea-surface temperature and reducing oxygen levels in large parts of the ocean.

At the same, oceans benefited from increased nutrient levels, and as a result marine algae and bacteria bloomed. As they died, these organisms were preserved in sediments that formed on the sea floor and over time changed into source rocks for oil. It is these phenomena that illustrate the causes and effects of OAEs.

New research, published in Nature Geoscience, has for the first time examined the impact of this type of sediment deposition in lakes. The study demonstrates that lake environments responded in a similar way to climate change, developing the same anoxic conditions as in the oceans.

Led by Earth Sciences post-graduate student Weimu Xu, the work offers insight into how environmental factors have affected lake formation throughout the ages. Weimu and the  team studied sediments from one of the largest lakes in Earth history - double the size of England and three times the size of Lake Superior - the largest lake (in surface area) in the world today. This ancient lake formed rapidly in the Sichuan Basin, China, as a result of Toarcian (Early Jurassic) climate change, about 183 million years ago.

Weimu spoke with Science Blog about the study’s key findings and what they can tell us about climate change today.

What is the key finding that you would like people to take from this study?

The extreme effects of past climatic changes are not limited exclusively to oceans. By dating the lake sediments to the Early Jurassic (Toarcian) period, we were able to show that large lakes formed and were affected in the same way as oceans during an OAE.

As the climate warmed, the continents experienced increased rainfall, creating lake reservoirs, which essentially acted like mini-oceans. Lake organisms became more abundant, drawing-down massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which was eventually deposited into sediments. Overtime, these sediments became source rocks for oil.

Lake environments represent their own unique challenges. Did you encounter any specifically?

The biggest challenge for us was establishing the age of the sediments found in the Sichaun Basin, and proving that they were of similar age to those that formed in the oceans during the Toarcian OAE. The wealth of organic matter found in marine environments makes it quite easy to date an event, by basing it on a fossil’s geological age. But lakes do not have such fossils, which makes it much harder to determine the age of the sediments found.

A study of this nature involves a massive amount of work. How did you manage such an extensive undertaking?

Fortunately I worked with a great team. This work was led by myself, co-designed by M. Ruhl, H.C. Jenkyns and S.P. Hesselbo and involved a total of 11 people. The project is a great example of collaborative research.

We used three distinct methodologies, which would be impossible for any one researcher to master. Colleagues from the University of Durham applied radio-isotopic dating to establish the age of the sediments and colleagues from the British Geological Survey studied the pollen, spores and algae preserved in the sediments. Finally, to give us even more detail to support the age of the sediments, together with colleagues from the University of Bristol and at Shell Global Solutions International B.V., we applied stable carbon-isotope to analyse the sediments, plant and algae remains. These varied techniques convincingly showed that the sediments found, had formed at the same time as the Toarcian OAE.

We were fortunate to be able to partner with experts in these three fields, and of course our industrial partner Shell.

How long did the research take to conduct?

The study lasted from the first sampling trip in November 2013 to completion of this manuscript in September 2016. We also had to factor in time to get permission to publish the findings, from the oil companies providing the data.

Are there any long-term impacts associated with your findings?

There are definite links between the climatic event identified in the Toarcian and present-day global warming. A better understanding of past climate systems could help predict environmental and ecological changes in a future greenhouse world. While the lake we studied existed in the Early Jurassic period, there are lakes today in African and British Columbia for example, that have been affected by global warming. They are becoming more and more anoxic and some are losing fishery stocks as a result. People fixate on warmth, but anoxia goes hand in hand with warmth.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the conditions which created oil and gas deposits millions of years ago are being recreated much more rapidly by burning of these fossil fuels.

How would you like to see this work used in the future?

Our study directly links lake formation and sediment deposition to the Toarcian OAE. By studying other lake sediments that were around at that time, researchers could establish if they also link to this event. For a better understanding of major climatic change in other intervals of the Earth’s history, people can also look and see if there were other major lake reservoirs that acted similarly. 

It would also be useful to understand the impact, not only of carbon deposition, but carbon burial, during times of major climatic change, and how that impacted coal formation. This is something I am very keen to focus on next.

The paper, Carbon sequestration in an expanded lake system during the Toarcian oceanic anoxic event, can be viewed here.

Boy and telescope at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

The sky’s the limit for Stargazing Oxford

Lanisha Butterfield | 11 Jan 2017

Stargazing Oxford, the annual, calendar highlight for would-be astronomers of all ages, returns on Saturday 28 January 2017.

Featuring helpful tips on how to star-gaze at home, bite-sized flash talks covering the latest in astronomy and astrophysics research and the chance to take in the delights of the night sky with a range of telescopes, the event is a science lover’s dream.

Last year more than 1,200 people turned out to take in the wonders of the universe and learn first-hand, from the University of Oxford’s leading astronomers.

Workshops run by the University’s physics department and local experts from Oxfordshire’s amateur astronomy groups will take place throughout the day, and will answer questions that range from; ‘what constellations can you see in the night sky this month?’ to ‘why do stars explode’ and ‘is there life on other planets?’

Younger budding astronomers can participate in gravity defying experiments and road test their presenting skills, by hosting a space weather broadcast. The more leisurely inclined can take a tour of the night sky in an inflatable planetarium, or learn the art of AstroCrafts (age 6+).

Mark Richardson, a postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics at Oxford University, said: ‘It’s a free, fun packed day out for all the family, with a great purpose. Astronomy is a great gateway to science, for people of all ages. Children are naturally inquisitive and interested in the unknown, particularly understanding space and the world above them. It’s important to keep feeding this curiosity, otherwise our next, great astronomer may not choose a career in science.’

Stargazing Oxford will take place on Saturday 28 January 2017 at Denys Wilkinson Building, Department of Physics, University of Oxford, Keble Road, Oxford OX1 3RH. Doors open at 2:00pm and close at 10:00pm (last entry is 9:30pm).

Booking: This is a drop-in festival style event. No booking is required but we ask groups of 10+ to contact us in advance. Talks, workshops and the planetarium will be taking place every hour. Observing will take place after dark only.

*As in previous years, the number of guests we can accommodate in the building at any given time is limited, so you may have to queue outside on our covered walkway. You won’t be bored as there will be plenty of scientists outside too, entertaining you while you wait.*

Disabled visitors: There is limited access for disabled visitors. Please contact us.

Refreshments: Light refreshments will be available to buy from the canteen.

Parking: There is no parking available on site. There may be some pay and display parking on Keble Road and Norham Gardens, but we recommend you use Oxford Park and Ride if you are travelling from outside Oxford.


A conservation DPhil student at Oxford University has won the student section of the 2016 British Ecological Society Photographic Competition.

Leejiah Dorward's winning picture, You are old, Father William, features a reflectively spotty Gynanisa minettii caterpillar emerging from a thorny bush in Tanzania.

CaterpillarA reflectively spotty Gynanisa minettii caterpillar emerges from a bush in Tanzania.

Image credit: Leejiah Dorward

Leejiah is a DPhil student in Oxford's Department of Zoology conducting research into human-wildlife conflict in Tanzania. His research tries to understand some of the factors that contribute to conflict between large carnivores and pastoralists – for instance, understanding in which seasons and habitat types livestock are most at risk of being attacked by lions or hyenas.

He said: 'This picture was taken at my field site around Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. I frequently search for animals around my camp at night, as there are a number of slightly more unusual creatures that are more active and visible at night. This moth caterpillar's almost reflective skin was hard to miss under torchlight, and it obliged me with some interesting poses while I photographed it.

'I enjoy using photography to share aspects of the natural world that I find beautiful or unusual, so it's great to have a picture recognised by the British Ecological Society. Hopefully, along with the other photographs, my photography will help in some small way by inspiring interest in the natural world and action to help conserve it.'

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