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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 16, 2009
Technology
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Watching Dark Stars
September 16, 2009   
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Grzegorz Brona, D.Sc., a researcher at the University of Warsaw and co-owner of Creotech Ltd. company, talks to Piotr Bartosz.

Your company won a gold medal at the Innovation, Technology, Machines Poland 2009 trade fair in Poznań for the transfer of research results to business practice. What is it that you have transferred from the lab to the marketplace?

The award went to a string of innovation and implementation processes, from the K20 and K30 cameras to systems based on Armputer and Armcamera technology. The K20 camera, developed for application in astronomy, is used to watch large sections of the sky and survey them for flashes. It was designed and manufactured in Poland and has turned out to be the most sensitive camera of its kind in the world. It is capable of watching dark stars. Last year, the Polish telescope "Pi of the Sky," fitted with K20 cameras developed in collaboration with the Creotech company, recorded the brightest optical flash ever seen by man in space. The phenomenon was identified as a gamma-ray burst. The findings of the observation and its significance have been described in Nature magazine, which is a great success for the research team.

Who are the team?

The core of the Pi of the Sky team are graduate and postgraduate students and staff from the Andrzej Sołtan Institute for Nuclear Studies, the Center for Theoretical Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Experimental Physics of the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw, the Institute of Electronic Systems at the Faculty of Electronics and Information Technology of the Warsaw University of Technology, the Faculty of Physics of the Warsaw University of Technology, the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University, and the Space Research Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The team is led by Prof. Grzegorz Wrochna, Lech Mankiewicz, Ph.D., and Prof. Aleksander F. Żarnecki.

What role does Creotech play in the project?

Parts of the "scientific" camera are used in closed-circuit TV cameras manufactured by Creotech. It is a spin-off company established by researchers from the University of Warsaw and the Warsaw University of Technology. The CCTV cameras needed to be made less complicated, because scientific applications necessitate top parameters. The basic idea, however, remains the same.

Who uses these systems?

The Armcamera system is primarily used in surveillance. The camera houses a microcomputer that has been designed and manufactured in Poland. The microcomputer makes it possible to use Linux-type operating systems and so software for Armcamera can be easily written or replaced. The camera can count people passing in front of it, recognize faces and car license plates, and several cameras can work with one another. Think of a bank robbery where the first thing the robbers do is destroy surveillance cameras. That wouldn't do the trick with Armcamera, because the cameras are linked into a system and right before they were destroyed, they would send information on what they had just recorded to all other cameras in the bank. That protects the entire system from undesirable effects of external factors.

And what do astronomic cameras do in swimming pools?

It is not the cameras, but the microcomputers used in them. Our first idea was to take the microcomputers out of the cameras to try and put them on the market as separate products. We have been introducing them together with a large Dutch holding company. This type of computer can be converted into a time server and so it can be used for air traffic control at airports. The microcomputers can also be used to control different processes in industry. Creotech has been introducing one such product together with a company that designs swimming pool systems. The microcomputer is part of a controlling device in private pools equipped with temperature, pH and oxygen sensors. Data from the sensors is fed into a central unit fitted with a microcomputer and makes it possible to adjust the physical and chemical properties of the water.

Can a small company like yours successfully compete with business giants?

Our microcomputers are much cheaper and more advanced technologically than their Western counterparts. By carving out a market niche, we managed to avoid a situation in which we would have to compete with large businesses.

Do you consider yourselves to be scientists or businesspeople?

The founders of the company are teachers at the University of Warsaw and employees of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. We provide our services to research institutes and academic centers, including the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Institute for Nuclear Studies in ¦wierk, the University of Warsaw, and the Warsaw University of Technology. We also work with a number of hi-tech companies in Poland and the West. A year and a half ago we decided to establish a private company based on knowledge and scientific research. By now we have gathered some experience and have several designers working with us. The entire production process is outsourced, while the company is focusing on developing its know-how.

How do you protect your work?

There are two approaches to intellectual property management. The first approach is to be first on the market without patenting your designs, while the other approach is to patent your ideas and only then apply them in practice. During the initial phase, with start-up companies, money is always tight and patenting only makes sense if the patent is valid throughout Europe-which costs several thousand euros per patent-or even beyond Europe, in the United States, Japan and Russia, for example. We have chosen the first approach: to be first on the market without patenting our ideas. We do complicated things in small market niches-so complicated that copying our products simply does not pay off for large corporations that could potentially be tempted to do so. They are simply not interested in customers in these specialist markets. To a small company with limited funds, on the other hand, trying to copy systems of this kind would be too time-consuming.

Do you have any financial ties with the research centers you come from?

The company has no financial ties with the schools, but we maintain friendly relations with the research centers. After all, we are still academics and we support research institutions with our knowledge and skills. At the same time, we draw ideas from the research we conduct there and use these ideas in our business operations. This is not competition, but two jobs that complement each other perfectly.
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