“Quantum technology has the potential to completely transform everything”

Since its foundation in 2006, M Squared from Glasgow has risen to become a leading supplier of lasers and instruments for quantum technology, biophotonics and chemical analysis with 120 employees. In our interview, CEO Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE talks about technical and economic potentials of quantum technology, the struggle for ever more precise lasers and their influence on imaging and analytics in biophotonics and life sciences.

Dr Malcolm OBE, would you please introduce M Squared? And for all our non-UK readers: What does “OBE” stand for?

Dr. Graeme Malcolm: M Squared is a photonics and quantum company based in Glasgow, Scotland and founded in 2006. The company produces and harnesses the world's purest light to advance science and industry, and our particular focus is on tackling the most significant global challenges humanity faces. This includes halting climate change, furthering medical science and realising exponential computing power through quantum technologies. And „OBE” stands for Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. I was awarded one by Her Majesty the Queen for services to science and innovation in 2015. My accolade came in recognition of leading the search for scientific solutions to some of society's largest issues and the role that M Squared's technology has played in several world-firsts. It was a great surprise when I found out, as you know absolutely nothing about it until the letter comes through the door!

Currently, a hard brexit is emerging. M Squared has always worked in networks. How do you react to the changed conditions?

Malcolm: We have been supporting European customers and partners since 2006, and I have seen first-hand the benefits and power of these interactions. These relationships and this way of working are integral to M Squared's company DNA—working together, with people and business around the world, for the greater good. As scientists, our instinct is to assess situations and create innovative and practical solutions, then to test and monitor the outputs and to make changes accordingly. We can adopt the same approach to the business—we will find the innovative answers to the questions that do emerge from Brexit. We recently established a German subsidiary office in Berlin—something I feel symbolises a conscious commitment to our European network. This new facility represents M Squared getting out in front and making our full range of technologies and services available to pioneers across the German-speaking region. From a technology standpoint, Germany is a fantastic place to be expanding to.

…in addition, COVID-19 currently cuts many connections.

Malcolm: One of the most significant impacts of the Brexit vote has been the ongoing uncertainty. Businesses are having to navigate a very cloudy landscape, and it isn't easy to plan—we're watching deadlines pushed back and shifting dynamics. We, as a business, have been very focused on making sure we have the right systems and materials in place ahead of the moving deadlines, by investing in the people, materials, stock and lasers for our mainstream as well as emerging markets. There are many parallels to the current situation. I am proud of our company's agility in navigating the COVID crisis. We've continued to operate, albeit under new circumstances such as shift-based working in the factory and home working and we've continued to serve our customers via our ability to dial in to oversee and guide installations remotely. We've also launched a new range of quantum products including a quantum gravimeter, accelerometer and clock, and we've increased our headcount by 10 per cent taking on staff in USA, Germany and the UK. I have continued faith that through ambition, agility and perseverance, we will continue to make a positive difference to our customers and partners throughout the world.

You provide components and integrated quantum systems. For which applications?

Malcolm: M Squared has been actively involved in developing integrated quantum systems since 2014. Notable commercial firsts include the company's work towards modular cold atom sensing platforms which has seen the UK's first industrial: magneto-optical trap; atom interferometer; gravimeter; and accelerometer. Recent trials on moving platforms are highlighting the increasing practicality of such devices and enabling more extensive engagement with potential users. Since founding the company, we've been selling lasers directly to early adopters, researchers and integrators. Still, now that we have made notable progress in quantum sensing and metrology through work on gravimeters, accelerometers and clocks we can address target markets in navigation, advanced surveying and earth observation technology and time standards. Besides that, in quantum computing, our advanced laser systems have been widely used in the leading photonics-based quantum computing and simulation approaches. Currently, the fundamental limits of targeted quantum computing approaches are limited by performance parameters such as laser power and stability. Only highly engineered systems can meet the extraordinarily stringent demands of the target users. We do our best to meet them. Focus application areas include drug simulation, cryptography, communications, traffic optimisation, climate change, and artificial intelligence.

Billions in subsidies flow into quantum technology. How do you assess its market perspectives?

Malcolm: Quantum technology has the potential to completely transform everything we do from a societal and scientific perspective—it will open up entirely new possibilities and ways of working. The first way I think about it—is that we want to be part of, and we want to enable this transformation. There is clearly growing interest in quantum technologies with investors, governments and now end-users around the world beginning to understand the transformative potential of quantum technologies.

Looking at Scotland specifically, commercialising research through partnerships between entrepreneurs, universities, and the government has meant that many photonics and quantum firms based here now have a global presence. Still, the critical factor is the ability of each to come together and share knowledge, experience and understanding, working together as a new industry is vital.

In your view, what are the key enablers for progress in this area?

Malcolm: As we begin to see more commercial applications of quantum technology and to improve our ability to coherently control quantum states to harness the power of exotic phenomena such as entanglement and superposition, the focus is on commercialising these technologies. This means building the supply chains necessary and to form close partnerships between academic institutions and the commercial sector. International collaboration is equally a critical enabler of progress. The questions that remain in quantum require expert knowledge and resources of the world's most prominent players to work together and to take on these challenges. There has undoubtedly been a significant increase in funding heading into quantum, globally, and both from governments and investors. Fundamental to the development of quantum technology will be ensuring that those projects that require early-stage, and scale-up funding have access to growth capital.

To what extent are there synergies between your microscope and instrument development and the quantum-engineering field?

Malcolm: Both of these areas are fundamentally predicated on utilising the world's purest light to enable increased scientific understanding and then to develop commercial applications designed with the end-user in mind. From our award-winning 'SolsTiS' CW Ti:Sapphire laser platform that boasts the world's purest light, to our award-winning airy-beam light-sheet microscope 'Aurora' that is fine enough to capture neurons, onto our highly sensitive quantum gravimeter that can detect underground objects, we always apply the same engineering principals. We find innovative solutions for real problems, we only develop products with a true understanding of our customer's needs, and we develop commercial systems in conjunction with our potential customers. We are concentrated on ensuring our technology is viable, fit for purpose and robust, and we keep re-iterating and keep improving. Our quantum products are amongst the first of their kind, so we focus on working with early adopters of the technology, as we did with our microscope development, to refine and develop the end solution.

Last question: Being a Scottish photonics company, what is your relationship with whiskey?

Malcolm: As a Scottish company, working with the whiskey industry is a bonus. Through our chemical sensing work for the security and defense and oil and gas industries respectively, we developed technology that we can use to fingerprint and authenticate liquids. Counterfeiting represents a significant problem for drinks brands globally causing huge financial loses to companies but more importantly can have lethal consequences for the public, for example, where methanol is substituted for ethanol. We have also been able to detect angel share losses, which gives distillers a new view of whiskey leaks from the cask over time. This technology was born out of our work on an active hyperspectral imaging platform using M Squared's broadly tunable laser sources.

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