Kicking off a series on how concentration of funding threatens innovative research, Olga Wojtas reports on a world-class Scottish entrepreneurial computer software unit
"Ever wondered what would happen if a confused but courageous kangaroo, a jazz-loving monkey, a bubbly French firefly, a megalomaniac squid and a deranged beaver (who has seen Braveheart too many times) ever got together and decided to take on the world?" We may soon find out because the computer game that this describes, Zoo Crew , designed by students at the University of Abertay Dundee, has just won the prize for "product with the greatest market potential" in the annual Dare to be Digital competition, a joint venture between Abertay, Scottish Enterprise Tayside and Dundee City Council.
The competition was launched in 2000 to help foster the future stars of Scotland's multimillion-pound digital economy. Ian Marshall, head of Abertay's School of Computing, says: "There are about 80 games development companies in the UK, and they're the shock troops for the software industry. It's the only area in software engineering in which the UK is punching well above its weight."
One of this year's judges, Richard Leinfellner of video games publisher Electronic Arts, thinks Dare to be Digital will have "a major impact on the global games industry in the near future". Student teams from across Scotland are supported for ten weeks over the summer as they develop working models for computer games, mobile phone games, CD-Roms and websites. Experts offer them technical, creative and business advice. "The teams couldn't get access to this talent anywhere else," Marshall says.
Abertay's links with the digital entertainment industry are unparalleled. Since the early 1980s, its courses have given many students careers in the games industry, and a lot of them retain close ties with the university.
David Jones, whose DMA Design created Grand Theft Auto , dropped out of his degree course six weeks before the end to meet the deadline for Lemmings , one of the UK's biggest-selling games. Another alumnus, Chris van der Kuyl, is chief executive of Vis Entertainment, which developed the blockbuster State of Emergency .
Six years ago, Abertay pioneered masters and undergraduate degrees in computing games technology in response to companies' complaints that computer science graduates needed up to two years to get up to speed in games production. Abertay is not a research university, but the success of its undergraduate and postgraduate teaching led it ask for money from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's research development grant to set up the world's first centre to look specifically at computer games technology.
"We were lucky enough to get £500,000, which we used to lever out of other sources a packet of money worth £1.8 million," Marshall says.
Shefc set up the grant scheme to strengthen research in areas that would help meet Scotland's long-term needs, but it got little or no funding through its main research grant on the basis of the research assessment exercise. The money went to help Abertay found the International Centre for Computer Arts and Virtual Entertainment (IC Cave). It was launched in March 2001 and has since raised £1 million from commercial contracts, European funding and Scottish Enterprise's innovative Proof of Concept Fund, which helps research ideas move towards commercialisation.
Although England is moving towards a two-tier research system, Jim Wallace, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, has ruled out a similar approach, pledging to maintain research funding for all Scottish institutions. He says: "Scotland wouldn't reap its full potential if you had a system that basically wrote off universities such as Abertay, given that it has the ability to be a world leader in its own field."
IC Cave could not exist in its current form had it not been for the Shefc seedcorn funding, Marshall says. "All the other sources of funding in UK higher education are conservative. If you focus on what already exists, where's the innovation going to come from? If we lock funding into what is currently good and world class, how are we going to get the success stories for tomorrow? No one will put their RAE rating at risk by doing something that takes them out on a limb." IC Cave does not fit the the RAE because much of its work is disseminated through products for industry not academic papers.
Paul Durrant, Abertay's director of business development, says IC Cave has a closer relationship with industry than a traditional research centre would. It draws on the "huge reservoir of talent" among its students, who are brought in to work on projects for industry, and get involved in research much earlier than those in other disciplines.
"(Industrialists) are very enthusiastic about giving their time for things such as masterclasses," he says. "The industry is very interested in our graduates. One of our tensions is that we have a local economic agenda trying to generate business start-ups, where the early stages are extremely tough, and there's a strong temptation to go and get a plum job with local companies."
The Dare to be Digital winners get not only a cash prize but also a place at Abertay's graduate business incubator. Durrant says this offers a "huge support network", including premises to work in and a chief executive in residence to help manage product development.
Six start-up companies have already emerged from the competition: three are still active, while the three other teams have moved into larger companies.
But the bottom line is that there are growing job opportunities, Marshall says. "In the next five to ten years, the one area we can confidently predict is going to grow is entertainment."