Every step of the way

Sally Croft

Much of today’s most innovative software is created by academics, pushing the boundaries of computer simulation to explore, for example, ever more detailed models of scientific and medical phenomena. Often during this academic journey, potential commercial applications become apparent. Helping a client meet the many and varied challenges of commercialisation is a key role for OCC’s Innovation Delivery Team.

‘The process of commercialising research software is very broad,’ says Dr Reynold Greenlaw, Director of the Innovation Delivery Team. ‘Some research software has evolved meanderingly over a number of years as different research students, postdocs and academics have worked on it – the Economist dubbed that “spaghetti code” when it published an article on the subject in March 2016, but it’s not a term I like. It’s certainly a core part of our job to unscramble, restructure and update the software when it’s messy, but many academics write very good code. The expertise we offer is much more than that: we’re here to help our clients work out what the next most important steps are on the path to commercialisation and support them through the process.’

Often, the next vital step is ‘proof of concept’ to secure investment – a demonstration that the research software can be successfully developed into a robust and flexible app or product that could operate in a commercial environment. ‘We work closely with our clients to understand their needs and their potential market,’ explains Dr Greenlaw. ‘OCC has a diverse range of skills in addition to software development: we can, for example, offer product development, business planning and design expertise to create a first-rate user experience. We can also help with all those legal areas like protecting your idea, using licensed software and data security – including applications where medical data need to be handled in compliance with strict standards. It’s all about building a great relationship with the client and collaborating step by step to identify how the potential product needs to develop.’

It’s also about looking ahead, he adds. ‘If the software falls over once the number of users soars, for instance, it’s not good for the client’s reputation. We write code with maintainability in mind, both assuming that the person who revisits the code at some future date will be somebody different, and that the code we write now could one day be running on things that don’t even exist yet.’ OCC has both a testing team to check the rigour of products under development and a technical support team that can authoritatively answer user questions and look after products in the field.

That can lead to some very successful long-term relationships. National Grid, for example, uses software tools developed by OCC to allow its engineers to accurately model the thermal stresses in Grid components and optimise its transmission capacity. ‘OCC has been providing software to National Grid since 1999,’ says David Payne of National Grid’s Electricity Transmission Asset Management group. ‘They have always been strong on communication and reliably solved the problems we put their way within the timescales we require.’ Today, OCC is applying newer methodologies such as domain-driven design – an alternative style of software architecture that places business needs at its core – to revise some of the tools developed for National Grid.

This kind of ongoing support is something OCC prides itself on. The Virtual Assay software package, which models the impact of drugs on the electrical behaviour of heart cells in order to speed the development of new drugs, is currently being refined in the light of more sophisticated research techniques and OCC is once again on board. ‘We see ourselves as relationship focused, rather than product focused,’ says Dr Greenlaw. ‘Even after we’ve completed your project, we aim to stay in touch and be on hand if you need, say, to scale things up or deal with a new cyber threat. OCC is there for the whole journey.’