Entrepreneurship and Science – An interview with Robert Scholten

We talk to atom optician Professor Robert Scholten from the University of Melbourne School of Physics about conciliating his work in the Optical Physics group and his career as MOGLabs entrepreneur, being himself a co-founder of the laser manufacturer company.

Professor Robert ScholtenQ: Which research projects are you and your group currently working on?

My interest is laser-atom interactions, and particularly how they can be applied: both to understanding fundamental quantum ​physics questions, and to potential technological uses.  For example we are using laser interactions with nitrogen-vacancy centres in diamond – a convenient pseudo-atom – to measure Berry phase, a quantum topological phase.  The Berry phase is a purely quantum effect which arises from motion around a closed path, but instead of returning to your starting state, there can be a quantum phase shift. It’s a bit like walking around a round-a-bout, but when you get back to your starting position you find yourself inexplicably facing backwards.  Although we’re pursuing this from fundamental interest, it may have application for sensing rotation of very small objects, for example tiny beads suspended in fluid, so we could measure the onset of turbulence through rotation of those spheres.

The other project is generating cold electrons and ions for high-coherence imaging.  We laser cool and trap atoms to temperatures below 100uK, and then ionise those atoms to release very cold electrons and ions.  The bunches are then used for diffraction (as in our recent paper in JPhysB) and diffractive imaging.  The transverse coherence of the electrons is sufficient at the source, without coherence enhancement through van Cittert-Zernike expansion, for imaging atomic structure.  With future enhancements we hope to demonstrate ultrafast (picosecond timescale) imaging with atomic resolution.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this field of research?

​It’s so much fun!  You can do interesting things in your lab – you don’t have to rely on someone else’s particle accelerator or telescope, you can manipulate the things you are studying (the atoms, or the lasers), you can design new widgets, you can investigate the heart of quantum physics at the same time as you investigate potential commercial applications. It’s a blend of experiment, theory, and computation.  On any given day I might be tinkering with an instrument in the lab, acquiring and analysing data using code I wrote in python, and modelling with pen and paper or symbolic mathematics on the computer.  Best of all, lots of other people find it fun, so I get to work with a bunch of great people who enjoy coming to work every day.

Q: Tell us about your business. What is it that you do? 

​In my earliest research, I used an expensive tunable commercial dye laser to excite atoms into a well-defined quantum state.  That laser was $300k.  When I started my own group, we switched to lower-cost tunable diode lasers costing one tenth as much.  But those commercial lasers, while fantastic for their time, were awful: unreliable, expensive, time-consuming.  We started to build our own, and in particular our own electronics to control them.  We were fortunate to have an outstanding electronics engineer for a while, and with his help turned physicists’ home-made electronics into something of commercial quality.  We made a few sets for ourselves, and a few spares we let colleagues borrow.  They wouldn’t give them back, so we made some more, and then started selling a few.  We started a company (MOGLabs) to separate that from our university responsibilities, and that company sold hundreds of laser controllers.  But customers wanted the lasers too, so we started making lasers.  After a few design iterations, in conjunction with a few scientific papers, we achieved a design that was competitive with commercial alternatives.  Aside from tunable diode laser systems, MOGLabs is developing and selling other electronics driven by the needs of research labs like my own.

Q: Between thinking of starting a business and actually doing it there is a huge gap.  What was the deciding factor that made you take this step?

We first tried to sell the design for our electronics, but it was such a niche product there wasn’t much interest from laser companies.  At the same time, researchers were extremely keen to get their hands on them, because their performance was so much better than they could buy or build.  So in a sense, our colleagues within our research community forced our hand.  But there were other drivers; for example, we wanted to see all our effort in designing the electronics go to some good use, not just to a few labs amongst friends.  In the same way that when we do good research, we want to share that through peer-reviewed publication.  And I like to provide scientists and engineers with interesting job opportunities where they can design and manufacture good products for labs around the world.

Q: What would you say are the top 4 qualities required for someone to succeed as an entrepreneur?

​The first thing is probably a small disconnect with reality: you have to be a bit of a dreamer, to be an optimist.  That’s also a fundamental requirement of a scientist: we spend so much of our time working hard on the next big thing, with so many set-backs, so much struggle to get funding and find good people and make things work, that underlying optimism is critical.

You have to enjoy interacting with people, to enjoy helping others achieve their own goals.  That can be your staff and students, but also if you are selling things to others, the point is to help customers achieve what they want.  They have to pay for that, otherwise the enterprise will fail, but the point is not being focussed on making money, but on “doing good stuff”.  I have yet to meet an entrepreneur that does what they do for money – they want to create good things, be that successful enterprises that change the way we do things (Google, Apple) or widgets that help others do their science (MOGLabs!).

Forward-looking is another key.  In scientific research, we often think really hard about some immediate problem (how do I keep my laser under control), but being entrepreneurial involves looking at what comes after: once I learn how to control my laser, I will need to put that controller in a better box, and buy a bunch of parts, and have those ready for some new staff to assemble and test them, and then they will need a building to do that in, and we’ll need some marketing, and some distributors.  While we were still testing our prototype electronics and planning to sell the design, I’d registered a business name and a website, “just in case”.  We didn’t need them for a couple of years, but when we did, they were ready.

Finally, I come back to the reality disconnect.  You have to be foolish enough to mortgage your house to come up with the funds to make it work, and ignore the prospect that you could be sending your family to the poor house.  Normally that would be described as being willing to take risks, but it’s a sliding scale between a foolish risk-taker and a successful entrepreneurial risk-taker.  The risks will of course be different for every potential startup, but “entrepreneur” and “absolutely safe” don’t go together.

Q: Which advice would give to young scientists – either in academia or business?

Opportunities do exist.  They might look very small and not worth the trouble or the risk, but it’s a big planet and there is enormous capacity.  Push a little and see how far you can take things.  If you see even the glimmerings of a possibility, try it out.  Build your widget/smartphone-app/financial model/whatever in your spare time, let some people try it out, revise and reinvent.  If the prospects don’t seem to improve, look for the next opportunity.

Professor Robert Scholten

Q: Being an academic is already more than a full time job – how do you reconcile your research and teaching duties with running a business? 

Sleep less.

Q: Business wise, what’s next?

The business is growing steadily as we become known more widely, hopefully on the basis of good word-of-mouth recommendations (if you’re a customer and you’re not happy – please let us know!  We hate to have unhappy customers). We put everything back into the business, to improve our products and develop new ones.  Those are the things that we most love doing: improving existing products and developing new ones, and particularly with the latter it is frustrating how long it takes, but our R&D is funded organically: we have to sell stuff to have the money to develop new things.  So we don’t expect to become a huge company any time soon, but we do hope to become well regarded, for caring for our customers and making sure that we help them to do their research most effectively.

Q: If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?

Sleeping more.  I’ve also heard that there are sometimes good programmes on TV nowadays.

On behalf of JPhysB I would like to thank Professor Scholten for answering our questions and for recently publishing “Single-shot electron diffraction using a cold atom electron source” in our journal.

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Images 1 & 2: copyright Robert Scholten; used with permission.

Categories: Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics

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