Nine tech terms to know in 2017 | University of Oxford
Oxford Nanopore's MinION is the only portable, real time device for DNA and RNA sequencing and analyses.
Oxford Nanopore Technologies develop products like MinION, to support DNA analyses and sequencing

Nine tech terms to know in 2017

Lanisha Butterfield

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.