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A composite image showing some of the winning and commended projects

From Professor Dermot O’Hare, MPLS Associate Head (Industrial Liaison and Innovation)

As Chair of the MPLS Impact Awards judging panel, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to oversee our annual MPLS Impact Award competition. Our Impact Awards are open to MPLS researchers at all career stages – from DPhil students to senior academics. In a small way these Awards try to recognise their exceptional efforts and achievements in ensuring our research benefits society and the economy.

Our competition ran slightly later this year partly due to the disruption by the pandemic and in part due to the focus on the REF2021. We met at the end of May to review nominations across four impact categories: commercial, social, early career and public engagement with research. The awards committee would like me to highlight that we were very pleased with the high quality of nominations received this year. Of course, this meant that it was a very competitive year. We all agreed on four category winners, and decided on four commendations recognising achievements in the commercial and social impact categories.

This year, the panel was very keen to recognise achievements under a fifth impact category – Covid-19, for two exceptional Early Career Researchers who have made a difference, contributing to wider efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Sam Howison, Head of MPLS Division, adds: 'I spent quite some time reading the draft REF impact case studies from all our departments. They show an astonishing range of impacts arising from our research. These awards show that this range is even greater and more impressive than I had imagined. Many congratulations to all the winners!'

Winners

Commercial Impact Award category: Kasper Rasmussen (Computer Science)

Resolution of Multiple Critical Design Flaws in Bluetooth Standard

Bluetooth logoResearch led by Kasper Rasmussen on weaknesses in wireless protocols uncovered critical flaws in multiple parts of the Bluetooth standard (as implemented in billions of devices worldwide), demonstrating how both the Bluetooth session key establishment and the authentication procedures can be completely compromised. The research team coordinated with key industry bodies to disclose each vulnerability, allowing them to be remedied before they could be abused. The work led to changes to the Bluetooth Core Specification, and to mitigations applied by major manufacturers (Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Google, Huawei, etc.), protecting vulnerable Bluetooth-enabled devices, and preventing significant harm to manufacturers and consumers.

Professor Michael Wooldridge, Head of the Department of Computer Science, said: “Kasper and his colleagues discovered a jaw dropping bug in the Bluetooth protocol, used by hundreds of millions of people every day. Their discovery necessitated a change to the protocol, and firmware updates for billions of devices. It is wonderful work, and one of the clearest and most direct examples of impact I have seen in my department during my seven years as head.”

Social Impact Award category: Christl Donnelly (Statistics)

Epidemiological analysis and modelling to understand the transmission and control of COVID-19

Figure showing the local transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 in Hong KongFigure showing the local transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 in Hong KongChristl Donnelly, a senior member of multiple large COVID-19 response teams, played key roles in the design, conduct and interpretation of dozens of studies which transformed our understanding of the epidemiology of COVID-19 and the measures required to protect public health. For example, Donnelly was a key architect of the REACT study, whose results inform evolving UK Government COVID-19 policy. The results of these studies have been considered by SAGE (the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and informed policy decisions, including the March 2020 national lockdown and decisions on when to allow in-person schooling. The results have informed policymakers internationally.

Professor Alison Etheridge, Head of the Department of Statistics, said: “As the lead statistician for the ‘Imperial team’, Christl’s work has profoundly influenced Government from the onset of the pandemic. Who knows how much more brutal it would have been without the input of teams like those to which Christl has given so much time over the last eighteen months.”

Figure taken from Deciphering early-warning signals of the elimination and resurgence potential of SARS-CoV-2 from limited data at multiple scales | medRxiv

Early Career Impact Award category: Ramy Aboushelbaya (Physics)

Quantum Dice – the commercialization of innovation from physics

After leading the winning team of the Oxford StEP competition, Ramy co-founded a new spinout, Quantum Dice, from the Department of Physics. As the company’s CEO, he is overseeing the technical and business roadmap aimed at commercializing a newly developed technology that uses quantum processes to generate secure truly random numbers. This innovative piece of hardware has the potential for a wide impact, ranging from securing digital infrastructure and telecommunications networks to managing the encryption of consumer devices and increasing the accuracy of computer simulations.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics, said: “Ramy is an exceptionally talented individual who has contributed to high energy density physics, machine learning and hyperspectral imaging, as well as quantum optics. In the process, he has led the creation of “Quantum Dice”; this, along with his outstanding outreach work, is testament to Ramy thriving in Oxford’s vibrant culture of attracting and retaining the very best international talent.”

Public Engagement with Research Impact Award category: Peter Hatfield (Physics)

Enhancing Physics Education with Research in Schools

Peter Hatfield is a champion for young people undertaking real research to deepen their physics engagement. He provides mentorship and access to data to allow students to develop their own research ideas (leading to a peer-reviewed paper) and plays a leading role in the scientific and educational aspects of a project that enables school students (over 7,000 since 2016) to explore space science through authentic research with cosmic ray detectors. Peter’s work has influenced the creation and strategic direction of the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS, founded in 2016) which facilitates research opportunities for over 200 schools.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of the Department of Physics, said: “Peter’s dedication and expertise in providing opportunities and building capacity for ‘research in schools’ is outstanding. Peter’s work with IRIS has inspired the Department’s own strategic goal of ‘supporting PER which enables school students to engage with and carry out current physics research’, and I believe the impact of Peter’s pioneering work will continue long into the future.”

COVID-19 Impact Award category: joint winners Boon Lim (Engineering Science) and Matthew Raybould (Statistics)

Boon Lim: COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test currently used in multiple UK airports

An Oxsed/Prenetics test centreAn Oxsed/Prenetics test centreIn February 2020, a team from the Department of Engineering Science and the OSCAR Centre in Suzhou, China, initiated a project that aimed to control the spread of COVID-19 at national borders. Within four months, the team managed to conceptualise and develop a testing method which has a short turn-around time, great sensitivity and specificity, and can be operated without specialised training or analytical equipment. The test was quickly approved by the regulatory bodies and adopted by the UK’s first pre-departure airport rapid testing facility at Heathrow Airport in November 2020. Currently, the test is being used at multiple testing sites at different countries, including six international airports within the UK.

Professor Ronald Roy, Head of the Department of Engineering Science, said: “The impact of this optimised RT-LAMP assay is clearly indicated by its adoption as a rapid screening test by major airports in the UK and Hong Kong. It is further bolstered by the fact it is the underpinning technology for a spinout (Oxsed) that has since been bought out by a large corporation (Prenetics); to date, Oxsed is the university’s fastest conception-to-exit social venture. I would also like to stress the significance of having a postgraduate student run with this challenge.”

Matthew Raybould: CoV-AbDab – the Coronavirus Antibody Database

Coronavirus Antibody Database logoMatt Raybould led the efforts of the Oxford Protein Informatics Group (OPIG) early in the pandemic to build the Coronavirus Antibody Database (CoV-AbDab). By combing academic and patent literature, the database contains information on all antibodies and nanobodies reported to bind coronavirus antigens. He continues to maintain and update the database to reflect the latest community knowledge, now totalling over 2,500 complementary antibodies and nanobodies. This collated knowledge is useful to researchers developing COVID-19 antibody tests, antibody drug therapies, and to those seeking to understand COVID-19 both natural and vaccine antibody responses. To date, CoV-AbDab has been accessed by 5,604 users from 83 countries and has been referenced in 37 academic articles.

Professor Alison Etheridge, Head of the Department of Statistics, said: “It would be easy to dismiss something that sounds as unglamorous as creating a database, but this provides a key resource in the fight against COVID-19. It’s a game changing piece of work, selfless and tireless, achieved in Matt’s last few months as a graduate student.”

Commendations

Commercial Impact Award category: Georg Gottlob; Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Ian Horrocks and Boris Motik; Niki Trigoni (all Computer Science)

Georg Gottlob: Efficient Web Data Extraction and Knowledge Processing via Datalog

Georg Gottlob’s research at Oxford has led to fundamental advances in efficient reasoning languages and their application to web data extraction and management. Systems developed as part of this research led to two spinout companies, Wrapidity and DeepReason.ai. Wrapidity and the underlying IP were acquired in 2016 by the global media intelligence company Meltwater. Wrapidity is a core component of information services provided to Meltwater’s 35,000 corporate customers worldwide. DeepReason.ai was founded in 2018 to commercialize the state-of-the-art Vadalog language and system. Customers include Bank of Italy, Meltwater, and Sberbank.

Professor Michael Wooldridge, Head of the Department of Computer Science, said: “This is a wonderful example of how deep theoretical research (in the computational foundations of mathematical logic & model theory) can go on to have useful practical real-world applications. It represents a body of work that Georg has been developing for decades, which has been successfully commercialised to the point of being acquired by a company.”

Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Ian Horrocks, Boris Motik: Enabling Applications of Ontologies in Healthcare and in Industry via Reasoning Systems

The researchers have developed state-of-the-art reasoning systems that represent important advances in exploiting the potential of semantic technologies for complex data and knowledge applications. Their open source reasoning tools are enabling applications of ontologies in areas as diverse as global healthcare IT (in the internationally-used SNOMED clinical terminology) and large-scale infrastructure design (at the Norwegian multinational Aibel). They have also developed and commercialized RDFox, a high-performance knowledge graph and semantic reasoning engine, through the spinout company Oxford Semantic Technologies (OST), formed in 2017. OST is backed by Samsung Ventures, with customers including Samsung and Festo, a German multinational.

Professor Michael Wooldridge said: “The group of Horrocks have led the way in the theory and practice of ontologies for the past 2 decades. It represents a beautiful example of work that started with pure theory (description logics: logical languages for expressing ontologies), which were disseminated first in academia and which have now found many applications in industry, and led to several Oxford spinoff companies.”

Niki Trigoni: Improving Workforce Efficiency in Hospitals via Infrastructure-Free Indoor Localisation

Graphic showing the applications of Navenio's technologyTrigoni’s research group developed a frictionless infrastructure-free indoor positioning solution based on smartphones, which avoids the significant cost and effort required to deploy existing indoor location-tracking solutions. The patented technology underpins the spinout Navenio, founded by Trigoni in 2015. Navenio employs over 65 people, and has applied the technology in multiple NHS trusts to build a workforce tracking and tasking solution for porters and other hospital staff. The new positioning technology, and the enhanced analytics that it makes possible, have helped NHS hospitals to reduce costs, use resources more efficiently, improve patient experience and compliance outcomes, and transform management practices.

Professor Michael Wooldridge said: “The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of making optimal use of healthcare resources, and that is the primary application of Navenio’s indoor localisation technology. In a relatively short period of time Navenio have already demonstrated impact, and have a bright future.”

Social Impact Award category: Erin Saupe (Earth Sciences)

Building capacity for biodiversity management in sub-Saharan Africa

Erin Saupe with participants on the biodiversity trainingErin Saupe with participants on the biodiversity trainingBiodiversity is the foundation of life on Earth, and yet it is increasingly at risk. The threat to biodiversity is particularly acute in developing nations across Africa. However, lower levels of development in these nations reduces capacity for effective conservation. To combat this significant capacity gap, Erin Saupe implemented training courses in sub-Saharan Africa in Sept 2019. The outcome of this training was the de-colonisation of biodiversity data; increased capacity to make effective conservation decisions in more than ten African nations; conservation of biological diversity across seven African nations; and an influence on public policy in three African countries.

Professor Chris Ballentine, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, said: “The impact momentum of Erin’s project has been building considerably over the past year or so, continues to grow, and is a great example of how engagement of our best researchers with impact activities can influence and change attitudes and impact policy where it matters.”

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