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M Squared Lasers is a local firm with global ambitions

THERE is something about a laboratory creating lasers that brings to mind villains from classic James Bond films or the more recent warm-hearted pastiches from the Austin Powers series.

JET-SETTER: M Squared boss Graeme Malcolm spent 100 days 'on the road' last year but is happy at the prospect of further long-haul flights.
JET-SETTER: M Squared boss Graeme Malcolm spent 100 days 'on the road' last year but is happy at the prospect of further long-haul flights.

It is comforting then, that while Dr Graeme Malcolm does have global ambitions for his business, he does not display any Blofeld-esque tendencies.

The near 50-strong team assembled by M Squared Lasers -which is headquartered in a 10,000 square feet site in the West of Scotland Science Park - is expected to grow by about 50% over the next 18 months.

The highly educated group of scientists, researchers and commercial staff make and sell a range of laser and photonic devices, which are easily customised through in-house software, for use in cutting-edge science in academia and commercial research laboratories, as well as across a number of industries.

For example, Mr Malcolm says M Squared's products, which can cost from about £25,000 to more than £250,000, have been used by academics to demonstrate teleportation of atoms and suggest there is a colder temperature than absolute zero.

In industry the technology can detect invisible gas clouds in oil and gas installations, or explosive agents for the defence sector.

The products can also be put to work in areas such as monitoring chemical processes in food manufacturing, or microscopy in various strands of life sciences.

M Squared is regularly listed among the fastest-growing companies in the UK, with turnover likely to be somewhere north of £10 million in its next financial year.

With an office in Silicon Valley in the US plus customers across the world Mr Malcolm is no stranger to racking up air miles.

He spent around 100 days "on the road" in 2013 and is pencilling in a similar number for this year as he continues to try to double the size of the business annually.

Around half of sales go to North America, 30% to Asia and 20% to Europe.

Sales to the US have started strongly in 2014, while China is predicted to treble this year.

Sales in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan are also seeing major growth.

Fortunately Mr Malcolm is not yet suffering any kind of airport fatigue and still manages to smile at the prospect of another set of long-haul flights.

He said: "It is amazing how connected the world is. It is not much more difficult to spend three days in North America than it would be commuting to London.

"Location isn't an issue for us. It means we travel a lot but that is where our customers and markets are.

"We are making such strong traction and our customers are so happy to see us that it becomes self-generating in that we want to be out there seeing them.

"Travel is just part of who we are and what we do."

M Squared buys in many of its components - from Scottish suppliers wherever possible - but does the final assembly and set-up of the machines in Glasgow.

The software and internet connectivity of the machines lets the company monitor the devices in the field, which also feeds back into building new products and upgrades.

While Mr Malcolm admits finding the right talent to come into the business can be a problem, he believes that does not restrict companies of scale from being grown in Scotland.

Strong links to academia, a highly skilled manufacturing base and the relatively short distances between the large laboratories are among the positives he highlights.

He said: "You are a global citizen now. It doesn't matter so much which country you are from. If you have some great ideas and people then you can do something.

"What we do is incredibly technically detailed but on the engagement side of things you also want people with commercial skills.

"Getting that technical and commercial blend is a rarer beast.

"Getting the right people to come in and continue growing fast is perhaps one of our [biggest] challenges rather than our supply base."

However M Squared is managing to attract people from all over the world,as well as cherry picking graduates from Scottish universities.

Mr Malcolm is adamant that talent identification and retention is an issue for every company and while there may be more qualified people in Silicon Valley, he feels they are also more likely to change job more frequently.

In contrast he believes the team he is building at M Squared are in it for the long haul.

He said: "People might come in as technologists but everyone here wants to see our technology do something of value in the real world.

"For a lot of the staff it is more a cause than a job. We are desperate to grow, take on the world and do useful things with the technology we can create."

Mr Malcolm has a track record of success having spun-out opto-electronics business Microlase from Strathclyde University, with business partner Dr Gareth Maker, in 1992.

The pair grew that company to more than £3m of turnover before selling it to Nasdaq-listed US business Coherent. They both worked with Coherent for several years before deciding to start over again by setting up M Squared in May 2005, with Mr Malcolm now chief executive and Mr Maker managing director.

Mr Malcolm acknowledges the business landscape has changed in areas such as financing and the opportunities offered by online tools.

However he believes having already been around the block once the "rough route" to success is clearer.

He said: "Because of that experience we are growing faster this time. Our ambitions are higher so we would like to go faster and keep the growth pace up as we make market penetration.

"In the 90s it was a very closed environment. People wanted to do their own things, in their own labs, behind closed doors and keep it secret.

"Now people want to collaborate and we have a really open innovation and collaboration model.

"We own many more patents than we did last time round and are careful with our intellectual property but the confidence to work openly and go fast is a competitive advantage for the business."

The financing challenges for fast growing enterprises saw M Squared take £3.85m funding from the Business Growth Fund in April 2012. That was used to help it put in additional sales and marketing resources, as well as pursue contracts in the defence and medical sectors.

Mr Malcolm was impressed by the long-term view taken by the BGF compared to a typical three-to-five-year cycle favoured by many private equity or venture groups.

He said: "Business Growth Fund is about letting us scale. It is not about can we get from A to B and then get out at that stage?

"The investment we had from BGF has let us do what we needed to do to grow fast but with the vision that this is a chance for us to grow a global technology business of scale here in Scotland."

Although an experienced executive in his field Mr Malcolm admits to constantly looking to "learn, evolve and develop" as a business leader.

That includes asking advice from other board members and speaking with their networks, as well as attending events and seminars at home and abroad.

He said: "We have a really strong board with a great chairman and non-execs. B eyond them they lead you to a wider world of people they know.

"There are a lot of people in the Scottish business community who are from a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of the challenges can be very similar to ours."

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