Start-up stories: Lynkeos
Seeing past the ordinary
Margaret Harris catches up with founder Ralf Kaiser and director David Mahon o f Lynkeos Technology, a company that develops muon tomography systems for applications in the nuclear industry and beyond r r i s
H a t r e r g a
Muons – elementary particles produced via high-energy cosmic ray showers in the atmosphere – make up much of the cosmic radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. At sea level, every square metre receives some 100 muons per second, and the muons’ high energies mean that they pass easily through material that would stop some other particles, such as electrons.
For physicist Ralf Kaiser, these heavyh i t t i n g p a r t i c l e s s p a r k e d t h e i d e a f o r an i maging innovation. In 2016 he founded Lynkeos Technology, a start-up that develops 3Dimaging systems that use muons to “see” inside complex, shielded structures, such as drums containing nuclear waste. I visited Ralf Kaiser and his colleague David Mahon in their Glasgow lab to learn more about how they set up their company.
What was your career like before you started Lynkeos? Ralf Kaiser: I did a PhD in par ticle physics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and after that I went to the DESYZeuthen laboratory, near Berlin, Germany, f o r my po s t doc . I ’d be en a po s t doc f o r t h r e e and a half years and was starting to consider a move into something else when I go t an appoin tment as a l ec t u r e r a t t he University of Glasgow, UK. I did basic nuclear physics research for many years, working on accelerator-based experiments and designing and constructing new detectors.
Then, in 2010 I got the opportunity to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency
Deep view Ral f Kais e r and David Mahon r un a company t hat use s muons t o l ook f o r s t r ay nuclear waste.
(IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. It started out as a sabbatical, but I ended up spending seven years there as head of physics, doing things like flying drones over Fukushima, Japan, and getting involved in science politics and representing the IAEA on international councils s u c h a s t h e o n e s t ha t o v e r s e e t h e I T E R f u s i o n reactor and the SESAME synchrotron. This entirely changed my view of what science and t echnolog y can do. At t he IAE A , t he centre of attention is on the impact that science has on our lives, rather than the knowledge you gain from it. I’m now particularly interested in doing things that solve problems and improve people’s lives, and our product at Lynkeos def initely falls into this categor y.
How did Lynkeos get star ted? RK: It began in 2009 as a research project with support from the University of Glasgow, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the National Nuclear Laboratory. Having conducted a feasibility study, and a Mon t e C a r l o s i mu l a t i o n , w h i c h s h owe d t h a t , i n principle, we could do something useful with muon imaging, we got funding to build first a small-scale prototype and then a full-scale one. That was a seven-year, £4.8m research programme funded by the NDA, and at the end of i t we had a sys t em t hat worked on f ul l sized drums of intermediate-level waste.
Then, in the aftermath of a reorganization at Sellafield, our funding was cut, and instead of supporting us directly, the NDA offered us the intellectual property rights to those seven years of research if we started a company to commercialize our technology. Starting a company was something we’d planned to do at some point. My colleague Dav i d Mahon, who wo r k e d w i t h me c l o s e l y o n the research project and is now a director at Lynkeos, had received business training as part of a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Enterprise Fellowship, and I did a diploma course for non-executive directors run by the Financial Times newspaper. We weren’t completely unprepared, so losing our funding, which at first looked pretty negative, actually turned out well.
Can you say more about your training? David Mahon: I did my PhD at Glasgow with Ralf as my supervisor, and I worked on the software side of the project, developing imaging algorithms. During the RSE fellowship, I was placed in a cohort with
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