Profile: A business offering species identification tools for PDAs

Russell Smith profiles a small business facing a big challenge
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The Independent Online

Dr Neil Bailey and Dr Stewart Thompson set up Oxford-based WildKey in 2004, offering species identification tools for PDAs (; 01865 483269).

"Undergraduates are more aware of the environment and climate change than ever before," says university lecturer Dr Stewart Thompson, "and yet they find it a challenge to identify species in their own backyard. If you want to save the planet, it's a good starting point to be able to recognise what lives on it."

And so Dr Thompson, 46, began a research project with his colleague, Dr Neil Bailey, 33, to address this shortfall in pre-university education. Their research evolved into "WildKey", a set of species identification tools that can be loaded onto a handheld Personal Digital Assistant and used easily by school students. The system was tested in 2005 with a butterfly pilot study and was an instant success. Not only were school students able to identify butterflies readily, the software allowed them to map species distribution against location through linkage to Global Positioning System satellites.

The pair realised quickly that there was a much wider public demand and a collaboration with the BBC TV's Springwatch series this year will enable their identification tools to reach a very broad audience. The only question was, how could they turn this into a real business?

Fortunately, commercial exploitation of academic research is now commonplace in universities and Dr Bailey was able to benefit from an "Enterprise Fellows" programme that links researchers with business expertise. And John Francis, Director of Research and Business Development at Oxford Brookes University, recognised the potential of what started as an educational exercise. "In this case, the idea was derived not only from basic research but also by identifying a need of our incoming students," says Francis.

With help from their university, Thompson and Bailey are now launching WildKey Ltd to commercialise their innovative products. And the market potential appears enormous, ranging from educational software to theme park visitor attractions with bespoke nature trails. "The ultimate dream," says Thompson, "is to be able to connect to a mobile phone from anywhere in the world and identify a species."