GRAEME MALCOLM may have a PhD in laser physics, but when he set up his own business his strategy was elementary: “If the cost of making lasers was less than what we sold them for, that would make us profitable.”
In May 2006 he founded M Squared Lasers with Gareth Maker, a colleague from Strathclyde University, using advances in photonics — the science of light — to design and manufacture lasers for use in industry, defence, healthcare and energy. The company, based in Glasgow with offices in Silicon Valley, had revenues of £3.1m in the year to February 2013 and profits of £278,557 the year before (the most recent figure available).
Its lasers and photonic optical instruments are capable of performing cellular surgery, manufacturing microchips for laptops, iPhones and iPads, producing images of invisible gases and sensing chemical warfare agents and explosives.
“In comparison with other laser companies, M Squared is quite young,” said Malcolm. “We take a more open, collaborative approach that has not been widely adopted in our industry — not competing but working with experts wherever they are in the world.”
Malcolm, 44, was born in Edinburgh and raised in Glasgow. His mother was a medical secretary and his father a sales manager for HP Foods. “I guess it’s in my blood to go out and sell things,” he said. “But I had much to learn on the way.”
His passion for physics and technology was inspired by an enthusiastic teacher at Eastwood High School in Glasgow. By coincidence, the same teacher taught Bill Miller, the technical director of M Squared Lasers.
Malcolm went on to study physics for his BSc and PhD at Strathclyde University, where he met Maker. There the pair formed a laser research group and devised the skeleton of their first business, Microlase, which they set up soon after they graduated in 1992. “I learnt the ropes on that business,” said Malcolm.
In 2000 their portfolio of products was bought by one of the world’s largest laser companies, Coherent, based in California. Their business became Coherent Scotland and they stayed on until October 2005, when Malcolm and Maker decided to strike out on their own again. “We were keen to develop our own ideas. That is still our aim today — to invent technology for uses that haven’t existed until now.”
Malcolm heads a team of 40 laser physicists, scientists, mechanical designers, electronic and control system operators and software designers. “We make our lasers strong and very simple to use,” he said — so strong that to demonstrate to a customer the robustness of the standard lasers, his team once threw one from a second-floor window. “It crashed to the ground but we retrieved it, set it back up and it was operating again.”
M Squared Lasers’ products range in price from £25,000 to £250,000. “The low-cost lasers are often sold to university research labs,” said Malcolm. “The higher-end systems may be bought by blue-chip companies for more sophisticated manufacturing.”
Demand has not always been high, however. “When you are taking new technology to market, the real difficulty is facing huge global changes,” said Malcolm. “The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the credit crunch in 2008, even the ash cloud of 2010 can create real logistical problems . . . It becomes difficult to shift goods and obtain supplies. You have to be flexible and adjust your commercial plans.”
In April 2012 the Business Growth Fund, the government investment scheme for smaller firms, ploughed £3.8m into M Squared, taking a minority stake. Malcolm has used the funds for research and development as well as marketing. About 95% of M Squared’s sales are overseas, 50% in America, where the lasers go to research centres such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Stanford University. “America adopts technology early so it’s a very good market for us.”
M Squared is collaborating with technology companies, universities and government research labs across Europe. Its lasers also play a key role in medical research, being used in a range of optical techniques known as multi-photon microscopies. “In brain research and neurology, scientists are using our lasers to light up fluorescent proteins in the brain so we can begin to look at diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” said Malcolm. “Similarly with skin cancers — the same technique can be used to excite fluorescence and fluorescent markers to understand different forms of cancer processes.”
Malcolm lives in Perth with his wife, Kellie, a full-time mother to their three young children. He advises entrepreneurs to grab chances early: “The younger you start, the easier it is. There’s help available. So if you’re fresh out of university and have a technical idea, it’s worth the risk.”