“High resolution measuring technology is the basis for photonics”
21 years ago, Rainer Erdmann was one of the founders of the Berlin-based company PicoQuant GmbH. Nowadays, the company is the world leader in pulsed diode lasers and time-resolved optical measuring systems. It is also a leading provider of time-resolved fluorescence spectrometers and microscopes. In the interview, Erdmann talks about the importance of measuring systems in bio-photonics, the role of high-resolution imaging in research and the perspectives for optical quantum technologies.
Mr. Erdmann, could you give us a brief introduction to PicoQuant?
Rainer Erdmann: Our roots can be traced back to the top-level research that was being carried out at the Academy of Sciences in East Germany. At the time, radioactive marking was standard when analyzing DNA. We had the idea of replacing this with quicker and safer optical methods and developing the optoelectronic components needed for this. The reunification then caused a great deal of upheaval for many years. In 1996, we were working as a team with people from various disciplines and we decided to realize our ideas ourselves. Since then, we have grown organically without venture capital into an innovative medium-sized company with 80 highly qualified employees from various disciplines. We are now the world leader in pulsed diode lasers and time-resolved optical measuring systems. We are also a leading provider of time-resolved fluorescence spectrometers and high-resolution fluorescence microscopes.
In what areas are your systems and components used?
Erdmann: The majority of our customers are from the academic sector and the field of basic industrial research. Key areas are life sciences and, increasingly, materials research where our spectrometers and microscopes are very much in demand. Examples include photovoltaics research or folding mobile phone displays on the basis of organic LEDs or quantum dots. The basic ideas on the materials side are investigated using time-resolved methods. We also provide lasers and measuring systems for synchrotron systems such as BESSY and for aerospace companies such as NASA that use them to align satellites accurately and carry out research into optical methods of communication. Other applications include LIDAR systems which allow distances to be measured accurately, even under water and through clouds.
What allows them to be used in such a wide range of applications?
Erdmann: Firstly, our products have a universal design. Secondly, we have always seen ourselves as promoters of science. For example, we have just held our 23rd workshop on single molecule spectroscopy. The event is attended by top researchers from all over the world and regularly features Nobel Prize winners as speakers. We also organize hands-on training courses with top external speakers in order to train our customers when it comes to using microscope and spectroscopy systems from PicoQuant and devices from our rivals. We are keen to ensure that our customers only buy a product from us if it will really help them with their work. We employ physicists, biologists and chemists from the field of research for this and understand what matters to our customers, which technology promises success and help and advise them in the event of any problems. We want to make complex systems simple.
How important are measuring systems for technological progress in bio-photonics?
Erdmann: Measuring systems are the basis. We develop electronics that measure several million events per second with picosecond precision. In many cases, high-frequency, high-precision pulsed lasers are essential here. And suitable software for preparing data is needed too. We benefit greatly from progress in the field of semiconductor technology, as a result of which we can develop ever more powerful diode lasers with many new wavelengths. We also develop high-end ASICs as a basis for increasingly fast and precise measuring methods. Where “routine” microscopy reaches its limits, it can be helpful to add time resolution to spatial resolution. However, the basis is always exact measurability in the order of nanometers and picoseconds.
Technological development is particularly fast in the area of imaging procedures. Is this reflected in the demand for high-resolution microscopes?
Erdmann: Yes. Demand for microscopes with high time and spatial resolution is increasing. And super-resolution microscopy is still not routine. This has less to do with the optical aspect of the technology than with the very demanding preparation of samples. Microscopes with high time resolution are in demand because they allow the actual signal to be separated from the background. This can be crucial when looking at individual molecules. At the same time, suitably intelligent and quick data evaluation is needed.
When you founded the company, did you ever think that researchers would one day be able to look inside living cells using high-resolution fluorescence lifetime imaging?
Erdmann: As far as time is concerned, i.e. systems with resolutions in the order of picoseconds, it was conceivable. Back then, we carried out research into room-filling laser machines. The challenge of reducing their dimensions to today’s shoe box size and achieving the necessary level of reliability did not seem impossible. However, I never thought that we could build even microscopes with such a high time and spatial resolution. At some point though we noticed that scientists believed that we could produce these systems and so we got started. Today, hardware development has progressed significantly. In the coming years, we will be focusing more on software – both for evaluation and user guidance. Doctors and biologists are not physicists. They need guidance to help them cope with the complex equipment and the various measuring programs.
Optical quantum technology is showing great promise. PicoQuant is active in this area too. Is it just a market for you or more of an investment in the future?
Erdmann: This is a very exciting area! There is a good reason why our name is made up of Pico and Quant. Two decades ago, we started measuring single molecules – this is nothing else than a single quantum state. Through our practical work, we are very familiar with this way of thinking and as a company we can bring a great deal of experience to this new market. It will certainly be another 10 to 15 years before this business becomes established on a wider basis. Initially, this will be in security-related areas of data transmission. Later on, it will be in high-performance computers for research. In Germany and Europe, a movement is slowly gathering pace as can be seen from the symposiums, the position papers from research and industry and the funding announcements. For PicoQuant, it is both a current market and an investment in the future. The market suits us. After all, it is essentially a question of making complex technology easy to operate and use. We develop and sell enabling technologies, especially time measuring systems and lasers, which allow universities and research institutions to do basic research – and generate a significant part of our turnover with these.
Image source: PicoQuant