Start-up stories: M Squared
Using light for good r e d
S q u a
Graeme Malcolm, co-founder of M Squared, describes how his company started by making robust, narrow-linewidth lasers for the scientific market and is now branching out into new fields and applications Signpost f or t he f utur e Gr aeme Malcolm bel i eve s t hat M Squar ed’s s c i en t i f i c cus t omer base has he lp ed t he company i dent i f y emerg i ng mar ke t s f o r l aser t echnolog i e s .
What was your career like before you star ted M Squared? I wa t c h e d t h e f i r s t s p a c e s hu t t l e l aun c h whe n I was at school, and I remember sitting there thinking, “Geez, I don’t know what I want to do in life, but I want to do something like that.” I went on to study laser physics and optoelectronics as an undergraduate at the University of Strathclyde, UK, and my main motivation for choosing that course was that it looked like the industry of the future. It turned out that this was at least partly true, in lots of exciting ways that people might not have imagined back in the late 1980s.
I stayed at Strathclyde to do a PhD in solid-state lasers, and that’s when I met my co-founder and business partner, Gareth Maker. Our first business was a company called Microlase that spun out of Strathclyde in the early 1990s. We made short-pulse lasers for multiphoton excitation spectroscopy and deep-UV lasers for applications in things like optical data storage or semiconductor manufacturing.
I n 1997 M i c r o l a s e p a r t n e r e d w i t h C o h e r e n t , which was the largest public company in laser technology at the time. Then, in 2000 Coheren t ac qu i r ed our bus i ne s s – i t ’s now k nown as Coherent Scotland – and Gareth and I s t ayed on to grow it as part of a bigger multinational. This was before the telecoms bubble burst, when the optical backbone for the modern Internet was being developed, and there was a lot of innovation going on. The data rates we’ve now come to expect just wouldn’t have happened wi t hout t hat prog r es s in laser s and f i b r e op t i c s . Be i ng i ns i de a S i l i c on Va l l ey c ompany was also interesting, and we learned a lot about how they sold and marketed their products across multiple sector s.
How did M Squared get star ted? By the mid-2000s, it was time to do something new. In going from Microlase to Coherent, we’d gone f r om being a couple of guys in a r o om w i t h n o w i nd ow s t o b e i n g a s ub s t an t i a l part of a big corporation. I’m not quite sure h ow t o d e s c r i b e i t , b u t s ome o n e o n c e t o l d me that in life you get people who are “finders”, coming up with ideas for new things; people who are “g r inder s”, working out the details to make those new things happen; and people who a r e “m i nd e r s ”, k e e p i n g t h e p r o c e s s g o i n g once i t ’s s t ar ted. For us, working at Coherent had become more of a minding than a finding or grinding job. We were doing more of the same things, but we weren’t getting the c han c e t o e x p l o r e an d d e v e l o p n ew o n e s . I f I ’d wan t e d t o g o f u r t h e r i n my c a r e e r a t C o h e r e n t , I would have needed to relocate to Silicon Va l l e y, an d t ha t j u s t wa s n ’ t me. S o i n s t e ad , we established M Squared to develop new ways of using light for good, opening up applications that have strong commercial potential while also addressing problems in areas that are important for society.
How did you decide what to focus on? When Gareth and I left Coherent, we had a clean sheet of paper. That gave us the chance to step back and ask, “What does this industry need? What’s likely to be important in the future? And how is that different from what’s available now?” One of the answers we came up with was that lasers needed to be more reliable, so that customers could get them into their applications right away. That led us to focus on improving optomechanical stability and developing robust control systems. Those are big challenges, so we decided to tackle them using narrow linewidth lasers and to start with the scientific research community as our customer base.
Science is like a signpost to the future. Having scientists for customers has given us the direction we need to understand where laser technologies will be important. For example, the first people we sold our lasers to were doing research in what’s now called quantum technologies. At the time, it was known as atomic, molecular and optical physics, and it seemed like a very niche part of the science base, but it’s now an important emerging field that’s making its way into very large commercial markets. So we picked an area that let us build on our core competencies, while also adding a couple of elements that we thought would be important for the company’s future. That’s helped
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