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Diamonds help create precise images
On the fourth floor of the Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute has a new neighbor. Qnami, a start-up led by Dr. Mathieu Munsch and the Georg H. Endress Professor Patrick Maletinsky, has moved in opposite the SNI’s general manager, Claudia Wirth. In this portrait, we introduce the young company, which manufactures quantum sensors and supports customers with all aspects of their use.
Fresh impetus in Arosa
Start-up company Qnami began its short history at the General Meeting of the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) QSIT in Arosa in February 2016. An inspiring talk about entrepreneurship was followed by a journey home together for Patrick Maletinsky and Mathieu Munsch – and the idea of founding a company was born.
It was soon to become more than just an idea. In March 2016, the two young physicists began setting up Qnami with support from the NCCR QSIT. Mathieu Munsch, then a postdoc in Professor Richard Warburton’s group at the Department of Physics, was to take on the role of CEO and would be in charge of running the business. Patrick Maletinsky, as a professor and leader of the “quantum sensing” group, was to provide the scientific input. Qnami’s business model is to use diamonds as precise and sensitive quantum sensors and to supply these sensors as probes for analyses using atomic force microscopes.
The tiny diamonds used for this have defects in their crystal lattice, where a carbon atom has been swapped for a nitrogen atom and there is a vacant site immediately alongside. These defects are known as nitrogen-vacancy centers (NV centers) and can also occur in natural diamonds, where they impart a reddish color to the precious stones. At Qnami, the team produces these defects in their diamonds deliberately, taking advantage of the fact that the NV centers host individual electrons that can be excited and manipulated. The intrinsic angular momentum (spin) of these electrons, and their electric dipole, are extremely sensitive to tiny magnetic and electric fields. If the diamond sensor is exposed to a magnetic or electric field, this results in a measurable change in the NV center luminescence, which can be detected using a standard optical device.
Each Qnami diamond is just a few micrometers long and contains a single quantum sensor of this kind. The diamonds are attached to a tiny cantilever probe and incorporated into an atomic force microscope, allowing images to be generated with nanometer resolution. Furthermore, since the sensors operate just as well at room temperature as they do at temperatures close to absolute zero, they can be used to analyze a wide range of materials and create precise images of electric or magnetic fields. As diamonds do not interact with the examined material, they are also suitable for analyzing biological samples.
Inside a tiny diamond, electrons in nitrogen-vacancy centers are excited so that they emit a light signal. Qnami uses this optical signal to generate high-resolution images of electric and magnetic fields.
Over the past few years, Patrick Maletinsky and his group have been working on the development of these quantum sensors, which take advantage of the highly distinct laws of the quantum world. Now, the technology has matured to such an extent that more and more colleagues are persuaded both of the quality of the data, as well as the broad applications. They also wish to involve the sensors in their work. “It was foreseeable that there would soon be so much demand, so founding a start-up actually seemed like an obvious step,” Patrick Maletinsky says in the interview. Thanks to Qnami, all interested parties now have the support of a small, dedicated team that is not only able to supply quantum sensors but also plans to offer a complete microscope in the future. Above all, however, what customers receive is individual advice. The team searches for solutions to a wide variety of problems and tests ideas proposed by users.
Expanding the network
CEO Mathieu Munsch is currently focusing on developing a network of potential customers, investors, and other start-ups. “We’re entering a completely new market for quantum products,” he says. “This is uncharted territory for almost everyone involved, so finding investors isn’t easy.” Qnami has been supported by the NCCR QSIT up to now, but it will need further financial backers if it wants to expand its range to include a complete microscope.
Patrick and Mathieu have already notched up a series of milestones. They have identified a number of academic partners, with whom they are now collaborating during this initial phase. “We’re pleased that these partners also include working groups that we weren’t in contact with before and that will examine completely new applications,” Patrick Maletinsky tells us. On 1 June, Felipe Favaro joined the team as Qnami’s first employee. In the past, he has worked with NV centers in diamonds – and their production – as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Stuttgart, and he is now responsible for fabrication and further research and development in his role as CTO. He is currently manufacturing the first sensors for existing partners and customers – a technique that begins with the production, testing, and characterization of a whole series of these tiny diamonds. Every single diamond tip must then be manipulated in a process that takes about a day per tip. By the end of 2017, it is expected that all customers who have already expressed an interest will have received their quantum sensors and put them to use. By the end of the year, progress is also expected in the development of a complete microscope, so this will also be available to customers in the near future.
Mathieu, Felipe, and Patrick tackle the challenges they face with enthusiasm, and they are convinced that founding a company was the right move. “I can recommend taking this step to anybody, provided that the idea is good,” Patrick Maletinsky confirms. “You actually only stand to win.” Mathieu Munsch adds: “In some ways, the work is no different from any other job, but we’re able to have a much more direct impact on society.” The Qnami team still have a lot of work to do. The SNI wishes them the best of luck and will keep its fingers crossed for the exciting months ahead, as well as keeping a close eye on and supporting the development of both the quantum sensors and Qnami.