In the world’s most accurate clock, which lives in Boulder, Colorado and can count 0.0000000000000001 seconds at a time, there is an M Squared laser. “It might not seem important, but timing is really vital,” says Graeme Malcolm, founder of the Glasgow-based laser company. “When the markets crashed in 2008, people went to work out what happened but, because the time stamps weren’t accurate enough, they couldn’t learn anything. Was it a trade in Chicago or London? The more accurate you can make the clock, the less latency there is in the system.”
Malcolm goes on to explain how a way round the time lag problem, also laser-enabled, is the teleportation of information. M Squared has been working with the University of Japan to teleport information – i.e. transmit it from one place to another faster than the speed of light. “Einstein did all the maths to show it was possible a century ago, but it’s only now that the science has caught up to make it possible.”
Malcolm calls Squared Lasers a startup. It’s 11 years old, has 75 employees and two main strands to its business: product manufacturing and the innovation side of things. It’s an impressive startup. Already, its sales growth rate has topped 40 per cent annually, and employee numbers are doubling every year. “Our run rate is £20m. Things are growing very fast. The standard laser part of the business alone taps into a £10bn market. The quantum side of things is harder to quantify. There are just a few of us participating globally and it could quickly become a £100bn market.”
The firm has hubs in Boston and Germany, plus presences further south in the UK, and works with and supplies world-leading institutions from MIT and Oxford to big hospitals and some of the globe’s largest manufacturers.
Malcolm says he chose to study Laser Physics in 1987 because it “seemed like the future then”. Almost two decades later, he and co-founder Gareth Maker were still thinking big: “we wanted to work out how laser tech could have a wider reach. How could we solve some of society’s problems using light technology?”
Having already set up a business and sold it to Silicon Valley laser firm Coherent, they were well-placed to find out. “The first lasers are just over 50 years old now. They were the tools for pioneering surgery, they provided the backbone of the internet and the digital economy we take for granted. But now we’re concentrating on what will come in the future.”
This means, Malcolm explains, heavy focus on quantum technologies. “The way to think about it is analogue, digital, quantum. We’re just entering this third stage.” Quantum systems will mean computers that are exponentially more powerful than their predecessors, perfectly modelled biological processes, and financial modelling systems that can conceive of entire global markets.
Currently, M Squared is involved in a UK initiative to measure gravity – and thus the mass of objects – which means you could measure a wall and through that wall. It means you can look “into” a floor and see what cables are where – and do the same for oil and minerals.
The firm is also spearheading work on chemical sensing – “eyes are good, but they can’t pick out chemicals. A laser can tune in on explosive chemicals, warfare agents, a leak in a petrochemical plant”. Using a similar process, M Squared is working with whisky firms at the moment to authenticate products.
Malcolm’s third area of focus is in biophotonics, which refers to the overlap between light and life sciences. “As well as our help in identifying cancer in a non-obtrusive way and very early on, we’re using new forms of laser-based instruments to look at how the brain works. The way neuroscience is done now is like looking at individual transistors within an operating system. We need to know how the operating system that is our brains works.” He points out that one in three children born last year will suffer a degenerative brain disease later in life. “We really need to understand it – the societal costs of not doing so are huge.”
M Squared exports 95 per cent of its products overseas – around 60 per cent to the US and 25 per cent to Europe, with the remainder going to countries like Japan, China, Korea and Australia. I ask Malcolm about Brexit. “How should I answer this? Science was really the world’s first global industry, so we’ve all grown up being our own global community. Philosophically, and I say this as a Scot in the UK, the EU provides a good framework. There are always issues for a business, like red tape and legislation, but my personal view is that there are enough challenges in life without changing the way our country is constituted. We’d be better off spending the time and effort elsewhere.”
Malcolm says the government’s £270m injection in quantum has boosted the industry considerably. “It means a 10-15 year pipeline is secured, and that the UK can lead the move beyond digital.”
Based in Glasgow, he says London is “a key hub for us as well. The UK has the second best science in the world after the US, and London is at the centre of that. Combine it with its financial excellence – our funders and bank are there – and you’ve got a jewel. We see ourselves as very networked to the whole of the country.”
But Glasgow has an enduring science ecosystem, albeit lesser-known – and in laser technology in particular. During the First World War, the Admiralty advertised for someone to help ensure dreadnoughts could fire shells over the horizon and actually hit Bismarcks. The challenge was answered by two university professors, Barr and Stroud, both laser specialists. “That business grew from two to 2,500 during the World Wars, and it’s where I interned.”
Unable to hold back, I ask Malcolm if we’ll soon be able to teleport inanimate objects. “We’re nearly there with information. Individual atoms are a lot further away. But then some of the things happening now are happening so fast that they even amaze people in the field. At Heriot Watt University, they’ve got a camera that can see round corners. We’ll see the practical applications of quantum, then the science will catch up.”
Malcolm says the first quantum devices deployed will be in the highly commercial semi-conductor manufacturing industry. Chips that currently have around 300m transistors on them could have 1.2bn, but it would require a knife to trim the stencil that was just an atom thick. “The way you can do that is to create ions that can create the knife. People often read these things and think it sounds familiar, because they’ve come across similar in science fiction. That’s because the fiction draws on the theory. Now, increasing numbers of those theories are becoming fact.”