Afropreneur in Bristol: Can you do big things from such a small place?
The highlight of my week was visiting the University of West England (UWE-Bristol), and seeing how such a business-facing university is able to do big things, especially around research into Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Health Technologies, and Enterprise. It is even more heartwarming knowing that there are lots of brilliant Nigerian scientists driving a large part of this along with their counterparts from around the world.
Started the day at the Big Data Enterprise and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (Big-DEAL) founded in 2016 by Professor Lukumon Oyedele, who is also the Assistant Vice-Chancellor of the University and Director of the Lab. The lab is 100% externally funded with 33 strong active researchers and has supported the growth of many businesses and generated more than £18 million in project funding.
Very interesting work being done around Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning, Immersive Technologies: Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, Simulation, Internet of Things (IoT), Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Cyber-physical Security.
To develop (a) a world-leading cross-disciplinary research laboratory that leverages novel digital technologies to address current needs and future challenges;
(b) commercially sound digital solutions that drive up commercial competitiveness and productivity, and that improve the quality of life and well-being of the society at large.
The exciting thing is that it is all applied, market-facing research that is sponsored by government and industry, and carried out in collaboration with top UK companies and SMEs. Every project has a requirement that it must have an industry partner. So not a surprise that Big-DEAL has attracted more than £18 million in funding from Innovate UK, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS), and EPSRC.
A Big-DEAL indeed seeing that I came across a few of my OAU lecturers leading the research, and the amount is probably more than OAU, my alma mater, currently has budgeted for research!
Sidebar- I also ran into an @Andela alumnus in the Lab (yes, we are everywhere), and she is working on some very interesting research in conversational AI -see below.
I particularly found a few of their ongoing work particularly interesting and applicable to some of our challenges in Africa;
- a) The work they are doing around advanced Natural Language Processing and conversational AI for enabling on-site frontline workers to verbally communicate with BIM systems can find easy applications in our work @TORAAfrica) with semi-educated artisans. If you can allow artisans to ask questions/get trained/learn about their field by interacting with machines/tools/processes in their natural, local languages, rather than being limited to reading foreign manuals, you can speed up on the job training, improve productivity, and ensure fewer mistakes are made on construction sites, in factories, etc.
- b) AI Monitoring system for Safer Driving behaviors can easily be adapted for monitoring the truck fleet drivers across Nigeria, Kenya, etc. and driving safer behaviors.
There was also the IoT-enabled Platform for Rail Assets Monitoring and Predictive Maintenance (i-RAMP) which leverages techniques in Artiﬁcial Intelligence (AI), IoT and Augmented Reality (AR) to enable predictive and preventive maintenance.
And of course, lots of publications (over 47 journal publications, with high citations since 2016) and so on….
Then with the kind help of my friend @otukogbe, I moved on to explore the UWE Bristol’s University Enterprise Zone which also houses Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the largest robotics complex in the UK (where Silas Adekunle incubated Reach Robotics), the Future Space incubator for high-tech start-ups, and the Launch Space innovation incubator for graduate tech start-ups.
The Enterprise Zone is a business ‘hatchery’, incubation and grow on space for businesses specializing in robotics, biosciences, biomedicine and other high tech areas. The idea is to promote university-business collaboration, provide space for new and growing businesses, access to specialist facilities and expertise, and business support. The £16.5m project is supported by £4m from the government with match-funding from the Local Enterprise Partnership, business and UWE Bristol itself. The Zone is expected to generate over 500 new jobs, and generate more than £50m for the local economy.
All things Health!
My first stop was at the Health Tech Hub, a new £5 million centre just next to the Bristol Robotics. After being introduced to the Director, Prof Luxton, and Dr Attwood, the Director of Industrial Partnerships, I was shown around by an amazing Nigerian research scientist, Dr Ibidapo Williams, who incidentally had done his first degree in Microbiology at OAU again!
The Hub is focused on advancing technology that enables people to live independently and manage their own health and well-being, thereby ensuring they spend the least possible time in hospital, and I spent time in a live-testing apartment within the facility. The fully furnished one-bedroom flat enables engineers to measure the functionality of their products and, using cameras, monitor how people might interact with them while at home. The space will also allow them to evaluate the use of new home diagnostics, for example smart toilets, and new systems for treatment monitoring, as well as activity monitoring and prompting of everyday tasks. Splendid!
I was also shown around the genomic laboratory where companies can develop technologies for personalized medicine, which are tailored to the patient according to their genetic make-up. Other products included next-generation diagnostic wearable biochemical sensors able to detect diseases and monitor patients’ long-term health conditions.
I was also introduced to Auwal Musa @AuwalMusamuhd, a brilliant PhD student and electrochemist, from Usman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto, who is working on new advances in polymer engineering with the latest tools.
Anyways, I finished the tour and discussions at the office of the Pro Vice Chancellor ＆ Executive Dean, Faculty of Environment and Technology (FET), Prof Paul Olomolaiye, who, wait for it, is a 1981 alumnus of the University of Ife! The Faculty spans Architecture, Engineering, Computer Science and the Environment
He explained how the Launchpad and Enterprise Center wasn’t a separate part of the university, but deeply embedded in the student experience from the first year on campus, such that students graduated with not just their degrees, but fully launched startups ( It reminded me of the TENT program PIN and Gbenga Sesan had started a while back.)And how it complimented the West of England’s plan to be seen more and more as a leader in a number of areas, including robotics, high tech, creative and digital innovation
Well, every great tour had to end with food as you know……..and lots of takeaway lessons!