FEATURE
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An eye for business

Warren Clark charts the history of Laser Quantum, a company that has always had the commercialisation of technology on its mind

Laser Quantum’s roots can be traced back to Manchester University in the early 1990s, where a trio of PhD students from the Laser Photonics Group – Lawrie Gloster, Steve Lane and Alan Cox – began to flesh out an idea to apply their academic theories to commercial practice. ‘We had all completed our degrees at Manchester,’ says Gloster. ‘But I was looking at other places for my PhD. It was very clear to me, though, that the Laser Photonics Group was a world-class institution, and independently, we all decided that we were already in the best place we could possibly be.’

Gloster, Lane and Cox were in different years and enjoyed a separate circle of friends, but it was a ‘similarity of minds’ that brought them together. ‘We all really enjoyed the research side, but none of us wanted to pursue an academic career; instead, we wanted to do something much more commercially oriented. I remember having a conversation with Steve in a coffee area, while we were doing our PhDs, where we made a pact that, if either of us stumbled across a technology that had commercial possibilities, we would involve the other. Alan became a natural partner too, because of his technical skills.’

Incorporated as a commercial entity in 1994, Laser Quantum only really began to take shape thanks to a small amount of seed capital (around £20k) that came with some specially-formulated crystals grown in the US. The team agreed to use these crystals as the basis for developing an experimental DPSS technique that would challenge the mid-power DPSS CW visible lasers of the day. The company were forced to move out of Manchester University, as the structure of the institution did not allow them to support companies that had attracted seed capital from an external source. Laser Quantum set up in Manchester Science Park in 1997, which was largely populated by companies developed from work carried out at the university – though, in this particular case, the university never had a shareholding itself.

During the early stages of the company, the emphasis was on product development, and this led to three DTI Smart Awards in four years, presented to UK companies in recognition of research and development achievements with commercial potential. ‘These awards were extremely important to us,’ says Gloster. ‘They made us focus on the commercialisation of the technology we were working on.’

At the core of the technology was achieving far greater power (300mW versus the 100mW achieved by competitors at the time) with a 532nm green DPSS CW laser – through clever, compact, optical design. ‘Many of the other larger players are still playing catch-up in this mid-power CW range – and the mid-power range has, of course, changed since we moved into this space in the mid-1990s,’ says Gloster. ‘Our expertise now is in achieving efficiency in small packages combined with great reliability.’

The company was to stay on the science park for a further five years, releasing its first product in 1998 based on this experimental technology. Laser Quantum’s products address three main markets: the biotech market (in which the lasers are used for geno-mapping and cell sorting); non-destructive testing (a broad term for applications such as industrial Raman uses); and aerospace (where systems are used in creating visual display applications). ‘Also, we never ignore the research market, and we do sell a lot of systems into blue sky research,’ says Gloster. ‘We tend to be quite far up the photon chain – that is, our systems are pumping something that’s pumping something else, and so on – but we can help ensure that our technology is in there at some point, so that we can remain involved in exciting research projects.’

The biotech market, in particular, is one that has developed in recent years: ‘It didn’t really exist at all when we first started,’ says Gloster. ‘And our involvement with aerospace only dates back to 2001, when we picked up BAE Systems as a major customer.

‘What has come to make up a much larger proportion of our business is the OEM market – at the expense of the research market. A lot of this is down to the development work we have done to meet the stringent requirements of the aerospace market, in which it is essential to be able to operate at extreme temperatures – and with extreme vibration. Most laser companies would look at the specifications we had to meet and just walk away. However, we saw them as a challenge, and we worked at it and came up with something that suited that market, which we’ve been able to flow across all of our products. All of our customers now benefit from our robust design; if you were to buy a benchtop pump source, it’s probably qualified to be used in a Lynx helicopter, for example.’

As a business, Laser Quantum has enjoyed consistent growth. ‘From the moment our first product was launched, we have enjoyed uninterrupted quarter-on-quarter growth,’ says Gloster, who now fulfils the role of managing director. ‘Back at the turn of the decade, two shareholders left the board, selling their shares to the GSI Group and generating some investment into the company. ‘Other than that injection, we’ve grown on cash generated by the company itself.’

All three founders are still the driving force behind the company, with Lane as operations director and Cox as technical director, leading a workforce of more than 50 – and still hiring. The three report to a board of directors and shareholders, but strategically and operationally, they remain the decision-makers. ‘Three is a good number,’ says Gloster. ‘It means we always get a resolution whenever there is a decision to be made, as majority rules.’

Lawrie Gloster.

To find the three founders still at the helm, 15 years on – and in charge of a 50-plus workforce – is unusual for an industry that often sees investors and ‘professional business managers’ brought in the moment profits start accumulating (or indeed, tumbling). Gloster believes that the reason Laser Quantum is different is down to the attitudes of the three of them. ‘One thing we all have in common is that all of our fathers were self-employed. We saw our fathers have good weeks and bad weeks, and none of us saw the financial security that, say, public sector careers bring. Also, we were all brought up during Thatcher’s recession, which saw some horrific times economically. As a result, we had a fairly ingrained commercial grounding.’

The three of them have had to adjust to the rigours of running a business. ‘When we started, we had three chairs touching each other,’ says Gloster. ‘There was no-one to answer to. However, there came a point when we had all this technology, but realised that nobody was selling it. I put my hand up at that point and said I’d take responsibility for the sales. From then on, we each started moving towards our natural home within the business. Steve moved on to deal with our supply chain, I dealt with customers, and Alan worked on the design and development processes. That’s how we remain.’

With a large workforce, there are internal management responsibilities too. ‘We take great care to employ very good in-line and middle managers,’ continues Gloster. ‘We make sure those people can address the needs of our employees and our customers alike.

‘One trap a lot of business owners fall into is to try to employ carbon copies of themselves. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for recruiting people who are not like yourself, as it brings extra skills to the business that you do not possess.

‘We would never rule out the possibility of changing the way the business is run by, for example, bringing in a chief executive, but that might only be brought about if there was a major contraction in our business. We’re working hard to avoid that happening.’

Indeed, the vigour with which Laser Quantum is fighting against the economic conditions should be admired by those just willing to raise their hands and admit defeat. ‘All industries have been shocked by the depth and severity of the downturn,’ says Gloster, ‘but we’re continuing to grow. Economic downturns can create opportunities for companies. If you’re going to survive, you have to play to your strengths – and, for us, that means working in an open information flow partnership with customers. We have open book pricing, open design policies and so on. Customers want to lower their risk base in these times, and by working in this way, we strengthen our case, as they have more trust in us.’

Looking forward, Gloster believes that the company will introduce different lasers with different powers and different wavelengths in the coming months and years, enabling them to address specific markets. In the immediate future, there are prospects of investing in a third building at their current location, an industrial park on the outskirts of Manchester. At a time when some photonic companies are slowing up, Laser Quantum seems to be gaining momentum.