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Quantum Leap: Inspiring the future of imaging and sensing

The 10 Quantum Leap researchers Quantic took to Photonics West

Clockwise from top left: Gabriel Araneda, University of Oxford; Saraswati Behera, University of Glasgow; Matthew Jordan, Cardiff University; Eleni Margariti, University of Strathclyde; Grant MacGruer, University of Glasgow; Osian Wolley, University of Glasgow; Abhinav Prasad, University of Glasgow; Mark Cunningham, University of Glasgow; Robert Graham, University of Glasgow; and Peter Mekhail, University of Glasgow

The context is familiar enough: skills gaps across the photonics sector compounded by a concern that the supply of trained staff can’t meet the demands of a buoyant market... and the more universal issue that academia doesn’t always offer a natural pathway into business application. QuantIC, as one of the pillars of the National Quantum Technology Programme, addresses this issue through Quantum Leap, an entrepreneurship and innovation training programme, delivered by Anchored In. This programme has been created to inspire and accelerate the successful commercialisation of quantum imaging and sensing technologies. 

Funded by QuantIC, the UK quantum technology hub in quantum enhanced imaging led by 2023 Photonics100 honoree Miles Padgett, the bespoke training for PhD and postdoctoral researchers aims to provide participants with essential skills to enhance their research career and elevate their understanding of commercialisation and entrepreneurship. The ambition? To equip them with business and innovation skills, enhancing their engagement with possible industry partners within a supportive training environment. Teaser sessions in September and October in late 2023 saw more than 30 applicants filtered through a bootcamp process in the final two months of the year, with the final 10 gaining the opportunity to travel to Photonics West, the world’s largest quantum tech conference, to pitch business ventures to VCs. 

Starting a quantum imaging and sensing business

Ian Tracey, the lead trainer and CEO of Anchored In, has been delivering UK and international SME growth funding and financing workshops for more than 12 years. He has delivered a series of regional and sector investment showcase events for institutions, including the EU, the UK government, CERN, universities and accelerators, and says the purpose of the original workshops was to show applicants what the whole programme was about.

“We went into a lot of detail during the sessions about the realities of starting a business,” he said. “We originally thought we would only take about six people through to travel to San Francisco, but the field was so strong and we were able to bring on more people than we had planned. Three of the group were chosen to deliver their technology pitches to a panel of investors during the Start-up Challenge event, where they shared their experiences of their entrepreneurial journeys in the quantum tech landscape.

“If I look back at the start, not everyone’s skills and specific enthusiasms were obvious, so that has been interesting to see develop. It’s an iterative process.”

He admits the team has had to work hard with its wider industry network, and singles out the fact that the group was able to visit SRI International during the West Coast trip and benefit from the British Consulate’s support in San Francisco, which made a strong impact on the cohort.

Dr Kirsty Annand, Program Manager for QuantIC, also joined the trip. She coordinates the operational and business development team of the Glasgow-led UK hub, contributing to the development and implementation of strategy. She interacts with a wide range of stakeholders to work collaboratively with both internal and external organisations within academic, governmental and industry sectors to bring projects such as this to life.  

A group of people standing outside a building

The Quantum Leap team visits SRI

“Whilst I don’t believe that the success of Quantum Leap will necessarily be measured via the imminent development of 10 new spin-out companies, we should not underestimate the significant benefits participants have gained just by closely working with, and developing entrepreneurial skills alongside, like-minded colleagues. I am very excited to see what the cohort goes on to do, together and individually, in the coming years.”

Still buzzing with the show, we met each of the 10 students to evaluate their impressions of the support they have received, and what they made of the biggest photonics show on the planet.

Gabriel Araneda, University of Oxford

I’m a physicist with extensive experience in trapped ion systems. My research focuses on leveraging light-matter interactions at the quantum scale. I am currently based at University of Oxford, a global hub for quantum information science, and my recent efforts have centred on refining the entanglement of remote atoms using emitted photons. The breakthroughs achieved not only demonstrate high fidelity and speed, but also signal a transformative phase in quantum capabilities.

I have attended some other courses in the past, but this one stands out. It is a huge differentiator that this course is focused on quantum and photonics. You can share the same language – that has made all the difference.

I have learned a lot from the trip – I believe that I can approach companies without the same naivety that I did before. I have a better grasp of what the value of my research is, and that extends beyond the pure academic interest.

The Photonics West show is absolutely overwhelming – it’s off the scale! In some of the sciences that we see, we tend to rely on the same vendors, so seeing this sort of range at a show of this size has been very positive. I would also say that I was rather cynical about quantum computing, but being here at Photonics West has reassured me that, although we don’t have the ultimate product, it will be coming. The applications are much broader than I thought.

Saraswati Behera, University of Glasgow

My research work and interests are in several fields of micro- and nanoscale light matter interactions and applications related to photonic integration to semiconductor optoelectronics; optical system design and fabrications.

Photonics West has been great to meet contacts from industry and it has given me inspiration to talk about my research confidently and independently. As well as enjoying the technical programme of the conference, I have explored a lot of collaborations at the exhibition. I found that people from the industry are very keen to work with us. I even managed to speak to someone from the US government! The Quantum Leap programme has been really fascinating. I have had a great learning experience and have enjoyed the support given by QuantIC, Anchored In and my colleagues on the course.

Mark Cunningham, University of Glasgow

As a third-year PhD candidate, I specialise in anisotropic hyperbolic natural crystals, particularly crystal quartz, using attenuated total reflection (ATR) techniques. My research aims to pioneer applications in advanced sensing and control of light, bridging the gap between photonics and practical technological solutions. Parallel to my academic pursuits, I am honing my entrepreneurial skills through a Level 7 CMI course in Strategic Leadership and Entrepreneurial Practice. This is sharpening my abilities in leadership, strategic thinking, and innovative problem-solving, essential for my goal of founding a deep-tech venture. When I first started the programme, I believed a start-up might have been a future path for me, but taking part in Quantum Leap has had a bigger impact on my immediate plans than I imagined. I was one of three of the group that pitched to the panel here at Photonics West. That was a very helpful process to go through. The other thing that strikes me is how much just networking and meeting people can impact your work. We met representatives from the British Consulate over here who were really insightful.

Getting to meet other like-minded people on the programme has been incredibly useful. All of these people are really driven and intelligent – I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, I end up working with some of them!

Robert Graham, University of Glasgow

I am a research associate in Glasgow’s Quantum Circuits group, specialising in cryogenic engineering and superconducting electronics. My expertise encompasses a variety of dry HE cooling systems, extending down to millikelvin temperatures. Throughout my research journey, I have taken part in diverse projects, including superconducting single photon detectors and quantum computing using superconductors. Currently, I am focused on advancing CryoCMOS technology to enhance and scale-up low-temperature applications.

What was interesting about the programme? It was so focused... in contrast to other training I have taken part in, this has been very hands-on. Having us engage with our technologies and receiving constructive criticism was really useful to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our business proposition.

What will I take away from the programme? Just how many jobs are connected to science. Quantum Leap has enabled me to rethink my future and consider a breadth of opportunities.

Matthew Jordan, Cardiff University

I am a graduate researcher studying towards a PhD in engineering. Although physics is my focus, my skill set and interests span a very broad spectrum – from Python, coding to graphic design and languages. I have enjoyed Quantum Leap, as a lot of the structural work in the programme was focused on working out our value proposition. That was very useful to give me an idea of where to start a pitch.
I echo many of my colleagues on their thoughts of the benefits of the programme and Photonics West in general. I have been glad to have worked on my networking skills and I have had a lot of opportunities to practise that during the trip. I have even been able to send my CV around! 

I am coming to the end of my PhD, but had never discussed spin-out opportunities and now have my eyes open to that. It has helped a lot. One thing that has impacted me is the applicability of photonics. It’s seeing the applications in-situ, as you can do at a show such as this. That was really interesting to me and has really shaped my thinking.

Eleni Margariti, University of Strathclyde

I am a research associate at the university’s Institute of Photonics, where I have been actively involved in the commercialisation of large-scale integrated devices since 2019. My PhD was focused on the development of a high-yield micro-assembly technique for wafer-scale opto-electronic systems manufacturing. The innovative approach I have led involves continuous roller transfer-printing, enabling the parallel integration of semiconductor devices onto functional systems, particularly targeting applications such as micro-LED displays.

My main focus on this course and at the show is sensing the commercialisation opportunities. It’s very exciting, as what I am working on is an emerging technology. It can have many applications, covering a huge market.

The programme has been fascinating. The challenge, I have found, is communicating what you do. How can you explain your research in simple terms? The main skill I have developed is around networking. I feel more confident in presenting now. We all have different backgrounds, so that has been inspiring and has helped me.

Coming to Photonics West was the first time I have been to an event that is so big. It was very exciting! Apart from the talks and panels I attended, I found talking to the companies exhibiting here really useful. When you come to a conference such as this, you can see the opportunity gap. 

Grant MacGruer, University of Glasgow

I am developing new gas imaging systems based on quantum technology. I’m working on a real-time methane imaging camera, and motion stabilisation for drone-mounted devices. I’m now getting ready to trial my research in the field. I joined Quantum Leap to explore the commercial opportunities of my current project and to learn more about what it really takes to make it as an entrepreneur.

What has resonated is the importance of other people – a science approach will get you so far, but you need someone with business focus to help you, so developing those skills has been critical. 

I have been to smaller exhibitions, but Photonics West is something else. I have got a few ideas to go back with and a clearer view of what jobs are available, but some of the more interesting conversations I had were at the Consulate. My technology development is getting close to being a product, so I need to stop fretting about some of the details and just get on with it!

Peter Mekhail, University of Glasgow

My research area focuses on novel optics for emerging healthcare markets. I have found the programme insightful, accessible and it has enabled an understanding of the training objectives from an early stage. Learning about patents and the step-by-step process to commercialisation has been incredibly useful. I now realise you can go to market a lot sooner than you think – you don’t have to perfect everything before you start seeking investment. Previously, the steps in between the stages of development were completely opaque to me, and these are now far more defined.

Photonics West is the place to be. It brings together all the key contributors to address the challenges of today’s society and it’s been rewarding to meet so many people interested in my area of research.  

I particularly benefited from visiting the SRI International research institute during our visit, learning about commercialisation and technology development, and I have definitely been inspired to apply new approaches to my own research.

Abhinav Prasad, University of Glasgow

I’m an applied physicist developing affordable gravity sensing solutions. For the past six years, I have been developing ‘Wee-g’, the world’s most sensitive MEMS gravimeter. I have taken the sensor from the lab all the way to Mount Etna, where an array of Wee-gs are now tracking volcanic activity. Working with a range of collaborators, our team has used the sensor to monitor the water table and to find buried tunnels. 

I joined the Quantum Leap programme to develop my entrepreneurial skills, and the next step for me is to bring the sensor to market. I have just secured a £500,000 grant focused on Wee-g’s commercialisation, targeting the seismic and gravity market, so watch this space for more updates! The programme has been a rewarding experience. One thing I realise is now important is focusing on the IP strategy very early on. 

How have I found Photonics West? My field is MEMs – a smaller field than optics – but there’s a lot of interest and overlap between the two fields. 

I was able to talk to a lot of companies about the stabilisation of cameras. I am planning to visit the show again next year, as a lot of people who invest in these technologies come here. I got some interesting ideas and met a couple of US investors, so I will follow that up when I get home. I have spent all my life in research but, after taking part in this programme, I now feel I am more skilled at presenting my work to different audiences.

Osian Wolley, University of Glasgow

I’m a PhD student working in quantum imaging. I am interested in how quantum sources and holography can be applied to reduce noise in images. The goal? To develop some of the world’s most sensitive microscopes. 

I came into this course with zero knowledge of business, but I now know more about how to go about the process of starting up a company. One of the most useful parts of the course was learning to pitch. If you had asked us what we do previously, we would have given 10-minute academic answers. We can now pitch our technologies more engagingly and that is really useful. What has been rewarding about coming to the show has been helping to find a use case – I have a pretty good idea now. I met researchers doing similar work and it has been great for me to learn how to network more effectively. I feel I now have a lot more confidence and have made connections that will really benefit my career going forward.

QuantIC brings together academia and industry to collaborate on the next generation of imaging technologies. More information: 

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