Bridging the Gulf

It has always struck me as ironic that businesses often have technical problems without principled solutions whilst academics often have principled solutions without real applications. My own background was an academic one (I did a PhD with Professor Cipolla in the Computer Vision and Robotics Group at the University of Cambridge). But having worked with a wide variety of business to help them to exploit cutting edge academic research commercially, I have always seen my role as something like that of a missionary… I am passionate about bridging the gulf between business and academia. Sometimes this process presents significant management challenges – there can be something of an expectation barrier to overcome on both sides! – but some companies do this very well already. For example, I’ve been fortunate to spend several years working with Microsoft Research in Cambridge, collaborating with some brilliant people (like Antonio Criminisi, Jamie Shotton, Andrew Fitzgibbon, Toby Sharp, to name but a few!) on technology that forms part of real commercial products like Kinect and Microsoft’s new (and equally exciting if slightly lower profile) healthcare product called Amalga. For me nothing beats combining real-world problems with leading-edge solutions (and bringing together the people who can turn technological ideas into business opportunities)!

I think this was one of the reasons why Me_tail caught my imagination. I think Tom was the about the third or fourth person to approach me with the idea of using technology to help people buy clothes and accessories online, but, for various reasons, he was the person I chose to work with. For one thing, he was a very credible CEO. But for another, he presented this idea at exactly the right time. Technology for building models of human body shape and evaluating and visualizing garment fit has been around for many years, but two or three changes in particular have finally made it possible to bring it into people’s homes. Obviously, the growth of the internet and the accessibility of high bandwidth domestic internet connections has been very important. But some great work in the academic community in the area of probabilistic modelling of shape has also played a key part. The idea of using learned priors to facilitate  interpretation of evidence (particularly evidence in the form of images) has finally reached maturity. It is exciting (both for me, and our academic collaborators from Cambridge and Basel universities) to think that Me_tail will provide a channel by which we can bring some of the fruits of our research into the public consciousness. In this regard, the next year or so promises to be a hugely exciting one for Me_tail’s whole technical team.

Finally, there’s one more reason why I liked Tom’s pitch… Like many guys, (i) I absolutely hate traipsing round the shops at the weekend and (ii) I struggle to know which shirt goes with which jeans. I realised that I really wanted to have this product (in my book absolutely the best reason to try and sell it!).  Whilst a large proportion of our customers will be women (and they are welcome!), some of them may have to wait in line behind me!

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