M Squared is operating at the cutting edge of scientific research and is turning the results of its work into commercial success…
M Squared is a photonics and quantum technology company, whose laser systems are pushing the boundaries of quantum science, to improve healthcare and the scientific understanding to halt climate change.
The Glasgow company has been recognised by the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 and Sunday Times Fast Track 100 and Export Track 100 and been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation and International Trade.
In its new quantum centre in Glasgow, the company is building quantum sensors, clocks and computers.
It was set up in 2006 by Dr Graeme Malcolm and fellow physicist Dr Gareth Maker, the name referring to the pair’s surnames as well as a formula linked to the propagation of a laser beam. The pair had previously founded Microlase Optical Systems, a Strathclyde spin-out, in 1992, which was later bought by its 25% shareholder California-based Coherent, a world leader in the laser industry. The acquisition resulted in the creation of Coherent Scotland, led by Dr Malcolm until 2005.
Now, M Squared employs around 120 people – almost half of them PhD level scientists – and has offices throughout the UK, Europe and the US. It has an annual turnover of more than £20m, 90% of which comes from exports around the world and the company has been doubling in size every two to three years.
The company has worked closely with some of the world’s leading research institutes, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 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.
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. It has the potential to entirely replace GPS. 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.
The company is at the cutting edge of developments in quantum technology, and it’s now looking at potential applications for its quantum gravimeter and accelerometer technology. Measuring gravity provides the ability to understand geology, volcanology and earthquakes and reveal locations of interest from space.
Dr Malcolm says: “The whole area of quantum technology is where we start to get quantum mechanical effects that we get in the likes of atoms and ions to make machines. Up until now, mankind has made machines using atoms as building blocks. These machines use quantum mechanical effects inside atoms as part of the making of the machines which typically means that you can create technology, whether that’s for timekeeping, sensing or computing, it is much more capable than the current state-of-the-art. In fact, often the first thing you do in quantum, is the best thing that has ever been done. It’s almost like the move from analogue to digital.
“The theory has been known for about 85 to 100 years. You can go back to Einstein and Heisenberg when it was described as the quantum leap when people were looking at it. But turning that into practice has been a lot more difficult. In some ways you can say that semiconductors and lasers are quantum devices with quantum effects going on but it’s not really the kind of pure quantum that sits inside of atoms.’’
Clearly, at this level, R&D is of crucial importance and M Squared ploughs about 20% of its revenues back into R&D every year. This autumn it unveiled the launch of a dedicated quantum research centre in Glasgow City Innovation District. 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.
“We have chosen to situate alongside the University of Strathclyde because it’s historically been a pioneer in this area,’’ says Malcom. “But also, from a company perspective, we’ve become a pioneer and we’re recognised as one of the first companies globally to pull this technology through to market. But you need this interplay with – almost like an entire university research base – to access different problems.
“We have got to bring new technology like this on. It’s almost like having a university inside our company and the university probably thinks of us like having a company inside the university. The purpose is to get this out into the world. We are looking at the commercial front end of that and the university is really a great partner to take everything from fundamental maths and quantum physics, through to computer science, through to sensing technologies. Strathclyde has been a real thought leader in this whole area and they have created this Glasgow innovation district.’’
R&D creates the IP, which gives the business its strength and value and Dr Malcolm and Maker learned the value of IP when they sold their previous business to a Silicon Valley company.
Dr Malcolm explains: “We saw that one of the best things that a tech company can do in terms of technology development and market access involves IP. One of the things that fascinated me was the way that some of the biggest semiconductor guys approached IP. If you can get a couple of points of IP, maybe one at a device level and one in the application area, that’s where you see some of the best companies in the world, such as Intel and their supply chain and like Apple and their supply chain. That’s where those guys are really good at building the barriers to entry for others.
But IP is a very multi-dimensional thing, it goes way beyond patents.
“When we set up M Squared we wanted to take that learning of how powerful IP can be but also look at open innovation, because a lot of people were talking about it. There is this slight schizophrenia, or two sides to the coin on IP. But, you can come up with partners, if you’re careful about IP, and what we have been trying to do is build up a strong and valuable portfolio of formal IP and also the informal stuff, the capacity, the capability, the know- how, the stuff that just makes you different from the rest and is a big part of our company.’’
M Squared is fast approaching 450 patents, many of which come from both inside the company and others which are as a result of its collaborations.
“As a medium-sized company, if we can access IP that is generated by governments or blue-chip companies or universities, that’s really powerful for us,’’ says Dr Malcolm.
He adds: “Our balance is that about 80% of what we do is product and product growth and IP around that, but 20% of it is innovation and running programs that are about where the technology might go in the future and also establishing substantially valuable IP further down the track. The innovation bit is looking five or even 10 years ahead.’’ As a business that takes IP seriously, M Squared gives its wholehearted support to IP100.
Dr Malcolm says: “I think the IP100 is great. It gets right to the point, which is, that for tech companies, IP is at the centre of what they do, and IP100 has been the first IP-centric thinking that the UK has looked at. To me IP is beginning with an end in mind and thinking about where things are going and, for the UK to have a community approach is fantastic. It’s always nice to be in good company and when you see the different companies that go and try to enter the IP 100 and you also see how it’s been turned into a kind of ecosystem with lots of events and talks and sharing, it’s a wonderful kind of balance.