Many quantum technologies rely on confining and controlling atoms. When atoms are cooled to temperatures just above absolute-zero, it allows their quantum states to be manipulated and measured with extraordinary precision. These measurements can form the basis of clocks and sensors with unrivalled performance.
To support the next generation of quantum sensing and computing, Aquark, a quantum technology start-up, is developing the world's most compact cold atom trap; a device capable of operating at low power, and robust enough to leave the confines of the laboratory environment.
However, the market for such technology is relatively new and not well understood. There is some scepticism amongst potential buyers and, thus, a need to show the market that cold-atom devices can be practical. To achieve this, Aquark wanted to develop an atomic clock demonstrator to showcase their cold atom system.
As a start-up trying to access the quantum tech market, acceleration was key for Aquark. The company needed to rapidly develop its low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) demonstrator on a small budget. Knowing this, Aquark enlisted NPL’s timing expertise as part of the M4Q scheme. This was the new company’s first formal collaboration.
Much of the research that Aquark drew upon was around the miniaturisation of the cold atom trap. The company’s application knowledge, for example in timing, was limited. As Aquark’s technology is based on a different set of physics parameters to regular cold atom systems, it posed some core integration questions around building an atomic clock.
NPL drew on its world-leading timing expertise to help Aquark develop its demonstrator clock. Our team of experts provided supervision and guidance, reviewing the schematic for Aquark’s prototype and providing recommendations to accelerate development. These included advice on what architecture and rubidium isotope would be best for the clock, along with information about specific components that the system required. NPL advised on how to deal with certain operating challenges, such as unwanted magnetic field effects. NPL also provided background information on competing clock designs, along with a literature review of other ways to build such a system.
The clock demonstrator will allow Aquark to show the practical potential of its technology to partners, customers and investors. Aquark anticipates it will also help them to find collaborators and establish how their cold-atom technology can be used in different ways.
Aquark found that working with NPL has boosted the company’s credibility, through association with recognised expertise, best practices and validation that could significantly help grow market trust. The demonstrator is a major first step towards the commercialisation of Aquark’s technology and could even form the basis of its first product.
Working with NPL saved the company at least 6 months of full-time research into atomic clocks. The NPL guidance on tailoring a clock system for this particular cold atom system was of significant importance and allowed Aquark to gather the required information to accelerate development. As a result of this M4Q project, Aquark have developed a larger project internally, and atomic clocks now represent the primary market that they will target.
From this M4Q project, Aquark have developed a business strategy and roadmap that now sits at the core of their fundraising. They are actively raising a seed round and the collaboration with NPL plays an important role towards underlining the advancements of the company and the validation of their roadmap.
M4Q was ideal for us. Though most of us are scientists, we didn't have the expertise of building an atomic clock. M4Q was absolutely perfect, because it effectively accelerated the process… this acceleration has increased our chances of commercialising this technology… being able to work with NPL definitely increases our chances of success.
Andrei Dragomir, CEO