Dr Graeme Malcolm, co-founder and chief executive of M Squared Lasers, was awarded this year’s Swan Medal and Prize by the IOP for his role in founding the company and for “his contribution to the design and manufacture of transformative award-winning photonics products”.
Now acknowledged as a leading expert in the commercialisation of photonics, he co-founded his first company, opto-electronics firm Microlase, in 1992 when still in his early twenties. It was a spinout from Strathclyde University, where he had completed a first-class honours degree in laser physics and electronics followed by a PhD in compact solid-state laser sources.
Eight years later, Microlase was acquired by the global laser company Coherent Inc, and Malcolm ran the newly formed Coherent Scotland until 2005. The following year he co-founded M Squared Lasers, now a multimillion-pound company with more than 80 staff around the world who specialise in developing and manufacturing high-performance lasers that enable fundamental research and industrial applications. The company’s technology has been used in many areas of cutting-edge science, including the first demonstration of the teleportation of information and the first stable ultracold molecules.
Malcolm, who is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was awarded an OBE for services to science and innovation in 2015, answered some questions for the IOP about his career.
What first attracted you to physics as a child or young person?
It started with my physics schoolteacher, Mr Caughey. He was a genuine, down-to-earth man and he was hugely influential in sparking my lifelong passion for understanding the way the world works. Mr Caughey also taught M Squared’s technical director who feels the same way as I do. It goes to show how a good teacher can inspire generations. Later, around the age of 15, I took on a summer job at the pioneering optical engineering firm Barr and Stroud. Formed in Glasgow in 1913, Barr and Stroud played a leading role in the development of modern optics, including rangefinders for the Royal Navy and the British armed forces. During my time at the company, I gained lots of practical experience and insight into physics, optics, software, and engineering. So, I continued to work at Barr and Stroud while studying at university. They went on to sponsor my PhD in diode-pumped solid-state lasers.
What first motivated you to start a company to commercialise your research?
I was making good progress with my PhD research, so I started publishing papers on compact solid-state laser sources. During that time, I started receiving phone calls from scientists. They asked me where they could buy one of the lasers I’d been describing in my papers. I had to tell them they couldn’t buy one. I hadn’t made anything yet.
I guess the fact that people were genuinely interested in my ideas incentivised me to start building my first solid-state diode pumped laser. It was exciting, I wasn’t using traditional flash lamps and I’d started the process of miniaturisation. Not long after building that first laser, I made my first sale. The fact that I was turning ideas into physical products, making something that people wanted and making money – well, starting a company seemed like the logical next step.
You have to remember that this was the early 1990s. One could either stay in academia or move to the US. There were far fewer opportunities to work in laser technology in Europe at that time. Thankfully, it’s a totally different story these days.
I officially set up Microlase in 1992 with co-founder Dr Gareth Maker. It was a spin-out from Professor Allister Ferguson’s photonics group at the University of Strathclyde. Microlase was one of Scotland’s most successful optoelectronics start-ups and it had a major impact on the global market for solid-state lasers. We still have customers from back then – nearly 25 years on.
When you first started your own company, how confident did you feel about success, or was it a daunting thing to do?
I was excited about the prospect of starting a company. I remember thinking, we’ve got some good ideas, so we just need to buy some bits, do some stuff to those bits, and sell the end result. If I was a bit naive, it probably worked to my advantage. So, rather than feeling daunted, Gareth and I both took a scientific approach to starting the company. We were always trying to work out what problems we needed to solve, and we’d work on solving them one at a time.
What were the main things that you had to focus on in order to grow your companies?
It’s vital to make sure that a good idea has a practical end use. It’s not always the case. You need real market insights to help you figure out the value of an idea. Only then can you understand if you really are solving a problem for your customers, or for society.
I’m a firm believer in the “do one thing really well” approach. If you make something relevant, and you make it really well, then selling it should be relatively easy. Some companies make the mistake of focusing on the wrong thing. M Squared focused on the development of its narrow linewidth continuous wave laser platform, SolsTiS. It was the right decision. This technology has been our bedrock. It’s not only grown from a single product to an entire platform, it has won multiple awards, helped hundreds of scientists globally and even opened up new areas of research. A large team is still dedicated to its development, and we are continuing to innovate in this area.
This initial approach afforded us the ability to go on to develop new photonics products and in many cases entirely new light-based applications. I had no idea back in 2006 that we’d be building the UK’s first portable atom interferometer in 2016.
Did you find an outlet for your products by filling a gap in the market or by creating a market that had not previously existed?
When I started M Squared I had a really clear vision. I wanted to build a new, fully automated, miniaturised laser system. I wanted to make a step-change. I also saw quantum technology as an emerging market with significant untapped potential – as digital was to analogue, quantum could be to digital.
With the launch of any new product, or the emergence of any new market for that matter, education is key. We first designed and engineered SolsTiS in 2006, but we had to find and educate potential customers, build awareness of our new company – that part of the process shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s taken a while for the quantum technology market to gain momentum, but in 2014 I found myself campaigning to help get the UK government’s quantum hubs programme off the ground. Now universities and industries up and down the country (including M Squared) are working hard to develop next-generation technologies in this field. This programme also sparked a great deal of UK interest in M Squared’s SolsTiS laser platform.
Are you still involved in R&D on a day-to-day basis, or is most of your time now involved in running your companies?
I’d say it’s a 50:50 split. When I started the company I was very hands-on, but that’s not so much the case now. As the company has grown, as any company grows, one can afford to have dedicated multi-disciplinary teams focused on doing the important work, the work that requires absolute attention to detail.
I think the job of a CEO, my job, is to find the future for the business. And, for a scientific business like M Squared, the key is often finding the fit between its technology and real-world applications. It’s only through real market insights that I can figure out where to direct innovation that will have the biggest impact.
I spend much of my time engaging with customers, partners, governments, and industry, where I get to see the bigger picture, a view of what the future might look like – not just in the UK – globally. Being in a customer’s lab, seeing how they are working and what they are working on, well it gives me ideas for new features, new products, or entirely new applications. It’s how customers become collaboration partners too.
In 2012, I set up M Squared’s Innovation Group to focus exclusively on R&D in the fields of quantum technology, biophotonics, and chemical sensing. We work on our own projects and we also work in collaboration with others. For example, a partnership with the University of St Andrews is seeing us combine our knowledge and our resources. Together, we are developing biophotonics applications with the potential to help detect, diagnose and treat disease.
What advice would you give to a PhD student or early-career researcher who would like to follow a similar path to you in their career?
I’d say give it a go. You’re at that stage in your career when you can afford to try new things out – lots of people will be around to support you. The reality is, once you take the first few steps you’ll start to build momentum. If you like the feeling you’ll keep going. If you don’t like the feeling you’ll stop, but you’ll have learned something more about yourself along the way. Whatever you choose, that’s OK.
For me, starting a business was exciting. With my scientific head screwed on I could handle the uncertainty that comes with starting your own business. Over the years I’ve learned to identify obstacles and spot opportunities. I really enjoy it. Now, I not only get to build products, teams, relationships, and companies, I have a self-directing career too.
- The Institute’s annual awards dinner is on 29 November. Follow the evening’s proceedings on Twitter.
- Nominations for the 2017 IOP Awards – with an expanded portfolio of medals – are open until 31 January 2017.