Applied Quantum Technologies
May 2013 | By Karyn Hede
Q & A with founders David Brady and Jungsang Kim, professors of ECE
Founded in 2006 by:
- Jungsang Kim, associate professor, ECE
- Felix Lu
Merged 2008 with Blue Angel Optics, founded in 2006 by:
- David Brady, Michael J. Fitzpatrick Professor, ECE
- Scott McCain, ECE PhD’07
- Robert Guenther and Robert Lontz
What it does: Provide order-of-magnitude improvements in cost, size, performance or power consumption for optical sensing systems.
Dr. Brady, what is AQT?
Applied Quantum Technologies is a translational research company. There’s a chain of research--from the basic research that we do at the university to translational research to product development. Companies often approach our laboratories asking for prototypes of the instrumentation we’ve developed at Duke or wanting to do more applied research around one of our technologies. AQT is the vehicle we use to develop those technologies that are too applied to do at the university. Eventually, as the research matures, it may be a vehicle for spinning off product-oriented companies. For example, we have recently launched Aqueti [pronounced “acuity,”] to commercialize our gigapixel camera. [AQT principal and ECE grad Scott McCain is leading business development for Aqueti.]
Dr. Kim, how did your research help seed the research pipeline at AQT?
We have developed reconfigurable optical systems based on tiny mirrors that are made out of silicon through a process called micro-machining technology. We build very small optical components, about the width of a few strands of hair, and make them move through electrical signals to precisely steer laser beams. There were demands for this technology to enable new research directions in the area of quantum information processing, and we received an initial grant from the government to transition this technology to a wider community of researchers.
What are the applications for this technology?
Kim: There are applications where I’d like to take a laser beam and move it around very quickly, much faster than a conventional mechanical system can move it. We can also build a system that handles a large number of laser beams in parallel. We can make hundreds of these mirrors on a single silicon chip. This has applications in cutting-edge quantum information processing research, as well as in optical switching for communications and advanced imaging systems.
Give me another example of an AQT-developed technology?
Kim: We have successfully developed prototypes of coded-aperture hyper-spectral imagers that operate at various wavelength ranges. We licensed that suite of technology to Centice, a coded-aperture spectroscopy company, for commercialization.
How has your experience as an entrepreneur informed your approach to teaching and mentoring students?
Kim: One thing students need to understand is that cool technology doesn’t translate directly to business opportunities. It sells when it provides a solution to your customers’ problems. Great opportunities arise when fundamental technologies are transformed into practical solutions through innovation. The three elements of success are strength in fundamental technology, sound understanding of the opportunity, and innovation that will bridge the gap.
What has being involved in AQT taught you about commercializing technology?
Kim: There’s a huge gap between what you can demonstrate in a lab and what you can ship to a customer. In a lab, you can make 100 devices publish the results from the one that works. On the commercial side, you have to make 99 of 100 of that product work without a flaw, and you’ve got to fix the last one. Helping students to understand this challenge and training them to design and construct robust prototype systems is a valuable asset.
What is the future of AQT?
Kim: We would like to develop AQT into a startup incubator in its fullest form. It has the infrastructure to manage government contracts and to help fully manage the infrastructure in a company’s youth. People with an idea for a company can become AQT employees, and leverage the support we have to demonstrate prototypes and develop business plans. When they identify commercial opportunities that can be served by the technology vetted through the prototypes, we can launch a new company focusing on the identified opportunities. We can keep the venture small and lean until they can start generating revenue and they are ready to grow. When they are ready to fly, then they leave. AQT will continue to participate as a stakeholder in these new ventures, ensuring a successful launch of the business.
In order to sustain this model, we have to have a pipeline of ideas, technologies and people coming in. We are in the process of launching our very first venture, and have numerous projects either currently in development or in the plans to sustain the process. When some of our ventures become very successful, we will be able to reinvest some of those gains to provide stronger support for new ventures and improve their opportunities for success. That really becomes a self-sustaining model of business incubation.