Google buys student start-up | University of Oxford
OSB archive
OSB archive

Google buys student start-up

Pete Wilton

Oxford start-up Plink Search Ltd has become the first UK company to be purchased by Google Inc.

The firm was founded in 2009 by Mark Cummins and James Philbin, two graduate students from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, to commercialise technology stemming from their doctoral research.

‘Mark and I were both involved in developing visual search during our DPhils,’ James tells me. ‘Mark's research focused on visual place recognition for robot navigation, which culminated in the FabMap software. My own research looked at how visual search could be scaled robustly and efficiently to handle millions of consumer images crawled from sites such as Flickr.’

During their doctoral research, with supervisors Paul Newman and Andrew Zisserman, they realised that, although they were approaching visual search from different angles, their combined skills could reap dividends: making it possible to build a visual, rather than text, search engine that could power a mobile phone application.

James comments: ‘Our research really showed that large scale, accurate visual search was possible even with the poor imaging conditions of mobile phone cameras.’

‘By the end of our DPhils it was clear there was a great commercial opportunity,’ Mark explains. ‘The fact that there were two of us in the same lab with matching expertise and an interest in starting a company was pretty ideal.’

They decided to form a company to develop an application that could recognise art work from photos taken by mobile phones, using the FabMap code licensed from Isis Innovation as a starting point. Mark tells me: ‘It was a good baseline to start building Plink. The technology that a robot uses to recognise places versus how we do painting recognition on a mobile phone is really very similar.’

The start-up went from strength to strength with the PlinkArt application winning first prize in Google's Android Developer Competition, which identified the best applications for the Android phone operating system. It was announced today on the company blog that Plink Search is the first UK firm to be bought by Google.

‘We're both delighted with the acquisition and very pleased to be moving to Google,’ James reveals. ‘Being engineers at heart, working at Google will allow us to tackle some really interesting large scale vision problems with the computing power to back up our ambition!’

So how did their DPhil at the Department of Engineering Science prepare them for life as high-tech entrepreneurs?

Mark tells me: ‘I think doing a DPhil is actually a great route into starting a company. You get very deeply into some interesting technology, but at the same time you have the space to keep an eye on what's happening in the market.’

‘At heart we're engineers and absolutely did our DPhils for the love of it, but we were always aware of the commercial possibilities too. I think starting a company feels much more like a natural continuation of doing a DPhil than taking a job would be.’