‘We have this little phrase, that we like to use light for good. There are a lot of big problems in the world: where can we use light to make it better?” Graeme Malcolm, co-founder and chief executive of photonics and quantum technology firm M Squared Lasers, wants to make the world a brighter place.
His Glasgow company – producer of the world’s purest light – supplies technology with such wide-ranging applications that it can see inside human cells to detect disease or allow satellites to map planet-threatening pollution from space. Turning over in excess of £20 million a year, and having roughly doubled in size every three years since its creation, the company reinvests more than 10 per cent of revenues into research and development to power its innovation.
It recently provided earth observation technology for the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P satellite, which has become, says Malcolm, “the source of the best data that we have on the environmental health of the planet”. The system produces something akin to a weather map, illustrating the various types of pollution in different countries and measuring where the primary climate change gas carbon dioxide is produced.
“The underpinning scientific problem you need to solve in order to do that is to create very pure light. M Squared has a small but really important job there to make sure that the precision of the light carried through so that the mission could actually see the gases it was looking at,” he says.
Sentinel 5P is the first in a series of missions, with future launches kitted out to provide continuous 24-hour coverage. Displaying clear, traceable evidence of pollutants will be a key weapon in the fight against climate change, says Malcolm, with around 50 out of the 100 key gases affecting climate change only able to be seen from space, and verification of the emissions remaining the biggest hurdle to progress in terms of eco-friendly legislation.
Extending further into this field is a key focus for M Squared, where Malcolm sees a growing business opportunity in the global market as the space industry skyrockets. Climate change is just one of multiple real-world issues he’s keen to make a difference in. Early stage clinical testing is also under way using M Squared’s photonics technology to unlock the biochemistry behind diseases, as the light and matter interact to map the detail within individual human cells.
Does Malcolm spend significant amounts of his time trying to explain the company’s tech to interested parties? Fortunately, he feels “you don’t have to understand what the technology inside is in order to understand its applications”. He cites the example of quantum tech: “Quantum is something that everyone’s heard of a bit, probably from sci-fi films, but before science fiction there was science fact. A lot of the things you get in sci-fi films are based on Einstein, Heisenberg, some of the great scientists of 100 years ago, who were breaking through our understanding of what makes up matter, the universe, everything. We’ve had analogue, we’ve now got digital and quantum’s really what comes next. It’s where we start to make machines that are not just made of atoms, we use the processes inside the atoms to make the machines.”
M Squared last week unveiled the launch of a dedicated quantum research centre in Glasgow City Innovation District to boost commercialisation of its quantum offering in the global market, with 90 per cent of its products already exported overseas. It also has bases on either side of the US. The new facility, in the University of Strathclyde’s Inovo building, will focus on commercialising technologies including quantum sensors for measuring gravity and acceleration; quantum clocks, the most accurate timekeepers known to man; and quantum computers, which are “exponentially more powerful than the current generation”.
The company describes its SolsTiS system as “the ideal tool for quantum experimentation” as we teeter on the verge of the second quantum revolution. A scientist by trade, with a PhD from the University of Strathclyde, even Malcolm admits to having to pinch himself at times, reflecting on how far technology has come. “You go through these journeys of discovery and you’re doing things that are so new, often when you get them working for the first time you can still be amazed by them. What would have been considered a supercomputer 30 years ago is something each of us now carries around in our pocket.”
In collaboration with Imperial College London, M Squared last year unveiled a tool hailed as the quantum breakthrough of 2018: a transportable, standalone quantum accelerometer, designed to aid navigation without reliance on satellites. To support its £7m project to accelerate this kind of research and create dozens of jobs, the business received a £2.9m grant from Scottish Enterprise in July.
Malcolm established M Squared in 2006 with fellow physicist Gareth Maker, choosing the name as a reference to the pair’s surnames as well as a formula linked to the propagation of a laser beam. The duo had previously founded Microlase Optical Systems, a Strathclyde spin-out, in 1992, which was later bought by its 25 per cent shareholder California-based Coherent, a world leader in the laser industry. The acquisition resulted in the creation of Coherent Scotland, led by Malcolm until 2005.
M Squared has grown to employ around 120 people – almost half of them PhD-level scientists – with the aim of harnessing cutting-edge science to create useful tools. This is firstly for research but ultimately for industrial applications; tools with the power to change the world which also fill a gap in the commercial market. Examples includes means for detecting harmful chemical, oil or gas leaks at great distances, spotting bio-molecules in human breath that could hold the key to diagnosing conditions from cancer to liver failure and building the first quantum computer.
“The focus is on the precision of the light. Each of these sectors sounds very different but the technology does similar things, just to very different ends once we’ve got the right light. The key thing [Scottish software entrepreneur] Ian Ritchie told me once was just be really good at one thing and it will make it easier to sell. I think that’s true because we’ve become very good at precision light and its helped with commercialisation,” says Malcolm. Demonstrating traction and scalability across industries such as the oil and gas sector and life sciences sectors is one of Malcolm’s major strategic targets.
The company’s customer base includes at least five Nobel prize winners, with whom the team often collaborate, tailoring innovations to fall in line with their research goals. “To do truly new and innovative things like this you intrinsically need collaboration now because these types of things often involve specialisms that are very diverse,” says Malcolm. “We have this idea of open innovation. It started as a bit of an experiment and it’s just been successful time and time again.”
Tie-ups have seen M Squared work with some of the most prestigious research institutes around the world, including Harvard Business School. It has also been part of the London Stock Exchange elite programme and earlier this year was named as the only non-English addition to the Tech Nation Future Fifty, which aims to support the fastest growing tech firms in the UK.
The niche nature of M Squared’s research and development means recruitment can be a key challenge. The talent pool for certain fields, such as its programme to develop quantum computers, are among the smallest in the world. “The New York Times estimated that there’s around 1,000 people in the world who are competent researchers in that area,” says Malcolm. “For something like artificial intelligence – which we all still see as a rare area – it’s around 25,000.”
To inspire the next generation of scientists, Malcolm holds a role as a visiting professor at his former stomping ground in Strathclyde, a relationship he describes as a two-way street, supporting learning alongside building a network with a budding ecosystem of potential future employees. He extols the UK as boasting “arguably the second best higher education system and scientific base in the world behind America” and commends the UK government target to boost innovation from 1.9 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.4 per cent.
In honour of his services to science and innovation, Malcolm was awarded an OBE in 2015, an accolade that seems to surprise him to this day. “The amazing thing is you know absolutely nothing about it until the letter comes through the door. My wife read it out as we were travelling down to London at the time – I told her she’d read it wrong!”