Proof of Concept: bridging the gap to the market

One of the ways to allow society to benefit from scientific research is to develop and market a specific product based on the researchers’ findings. In order to support this process, the European Research Council has installed the Proof of Concept fund- ing scheme for ERC Grant holders, comprising of up to 150.000 euros, allowing them to turn their research outputs into a com- mercial or socially valuable proposition. Here, we highlight a few start-up companies which are the result of earlier ERC grant projects of researchers at Laserlab institutions.

Sphere Ultrafast Photonics: Solu- tions for ultrafast pulsed lasers (LLC, with University of Porto)

Sphere Ultrafast Photonics was founded inSep- tember 2013 by a team involving people from Lund Laser Centre (LLC) and the University of Porto, Portugal. The company, based in Porto, was directly involved in a Proof of Concept (PoC) project led by LLC’s Anne L’Huillier which started in that same year.

The PoC project allowed the company to build and market a device for characterization and control of femtosecond pulses, called ‘d-scan’. The d- scan technique was invented by Miguel Miranda and co-workers in Lund and Porto while working towards his joint PhD degree from both universities, co-supervised by Anne L’Huillier, Cord Arnold (Lund) and Helder Crespo (Porto).

Recently, a second PoC project was proposed and accepted (2018), and is ongoing at the moment. It aims at developing single-shot d-scan set- ups able to characterize both few- and many-cycle laser pulses on a shot-to-shot basis.

Sphere Ultrafast Photonics is led by Rosa Romero, a member of the Laserlab-Europe Industrial Advisory Committee. The company offers compact, inline d-scan devices for the simultane- ous measurement and compression of ultrafast pulses down to single-cycle durations, the CEP- tag system for measuring the carrier envelope phase offset in single-shot operation, as well as custom solutions for few-cycle pulse control in various ultrafast applications.

NIREOS: Interferometric spectroscopy as an analytic tool (POLIMI)

NIREOS is a spin-off company from Politec-nico di Milano (POLIMI) located in Milan, Italy, which has grown out of two consecutive Proof of Concept projects of POLIMI researcher Dario Polli, called CHIMERA (2017-2018) and FLUO (started 2018). CHIMERA’s aim was to develop a device to identify the chirality of molecules; FLUO is an ongoing project that is bringing to the market a device to spectrally and temporally resolve fluorescence, which combines low costs, reduced footprint, and exceptional stability as well as high acquisition speed and sensitivity.

Both Proof of Concept projects are based on a patented interferometer. Based on this device, NIREOS offers a series of products for spectroscopy, in particular the ultra-broadband spectrometer SPECTRE (with a range of 0.8 – 4.2 micron), the ultra-stable interferometer GEMINI (providing 1 attosecond stabil- ity between two replicas of light) and is now launching the ultra-sensitive global-imaging hyperspectral camera HERA. NIREOS, which was established in 2018 and has a team of seven people, aims at cus-tomers from scientific research labs as well as R&D and quality control departments of companies that use spectroscopic analysis to monitor the quality of their processes and the properties of their products.

Quside Technologies: Quantum random number generators for data security (ICFO)

Quside Technologies was established in Barcelona in September 2017. The company’s technology was partially funded and pushed towards the market through two ERC Proof of Concept projects, which both involved ICFO researchers Antonio Acín, Morgan Mitchell, and Valerio Pruneri: MAMBO (2012) and ERIDIAN (2016). These projects led to the development of a market-ready quantum random number generator for next-generation cybersecurity technologies.

Quside’s proprietary technology permits the generation of fully unpredictable random digits at high rates and in a chip-size form fac-tor, thereby satisfying key requirements for next generation security technologies as well as high-performance computing platforms. The start-up, which currently employs 10 people, is led by Carlos Abellan, who obtained his PhD at ICFO working on the quantum technology now marketed by Quside. “Understanding the quantum world and finding efficient ways to use these concepts to tackle industry problems was an exciting research and development programme that combined fundamental physics and engineering”, he says. “From here, hand in hand with the Knowledge and Technology Transfer unit at ICFO, we are now tremendously excited to be able to bring quantum technologies from the lab to people.”

Among many other ERC grantees working at Laserlab-Europe partners, Frank Koppens, together with Gerasimos Konstantatos, and Gijs Wuite, from Laserlab-Europe partners ICFO (Barcelona) and LLAMS (Amsterdam), respectively, received Proof of Concept grants to further develop products related to their Starting Grants.

DNA manipulated

Impression of the Amsterdam apparatus to manipulate DNA.
A single DNA molecule is held between two optically trapped
beads (left and right). In green we see proteins moving along
the DNA. The comet-like traces represent the position over
time of fluorescent proteins on the DNA.

Low-cost and extremely sensitive photodetector

Sensing and imaging in the short-wave infrared is used in such different areas as automotive vision systems for driver safety, food and pharmaceutical inspection, civil and military surveillance, night vision applications and environmental monitoring. The market is currently only limited by the high cost associated with the existing technology.
Frank Koppens’ and Gerasimos Konstantatos’ Proof of Concept project aims to develop a new type of cheap and extremely sensitive photodetector platform based on graphene and colloidal quantum dots. Graphene is a novel, Nobel Prize winning two-dimensional material with a wide palette of unique properties, including extremely high electronic conductivity. Colloidal quantum dots offer high absorption and bandgap tunability from ultraviolet to short-wavelength infrared. Combined, these two materials form a hybrid photosensitive system with high sensitivity and high gain, which can be integrated on thin, transparent, and flexible substrates – thereby strongly reducing its production costs.

Manipulation of single strands of DNA

The team of Gijs Wuite at LaserlaB Amsterdam has pioneered an experimental technique in which a single molecule of DNA can be manipulated and stretched while individual proteins interacting on it can be filmed in real-time under physiological conditions. For this purpose, a combination of microfluidics, optical tweezers (where micrometre- sized beads are captured and moved by laser beams) and fluorescence microscopy are combined in a single apparatus. The technique allows researchers to study the interaction of proteins with DNA in detail, which can help us increase our understanding of the genetic basis of diseases.
With the Proof of Concept grant, the team will establish a venture to market the apparatus and know-how. In this project, market research, intellectual property, possible establishment of a spin-off company and development of prototypes for launching customers will be investigated. Andrea Candelli, who recently obtained his PhD in this area of research, will take on the challenge to move the venture forward and render this technology commercially available to life scientists.