For one Australian scientific instrument specialist, tiny measurements have brought big success.
Detecting and measuring minute gravitational waves provided the starting point for an Australian company that has grown over the past five years to find international success.
That company, Canberra-based Liquid Instruments, has built a device that is finding favour with engineers and researchers in the complex and technical area of electrical test and measurement.
Their device combines the capabilities of multiple traditional instruments in a single box, streamlining the workflows of industrial designers and engineers and significantly reducing their need for multiple instruments.
The company’s founder and Chief Executive, Professor Daniel Shaddock, said the foundations of Liquid Instruments can be traced back to work its original team of experimental physicists completed involving observations of gravitational waves.
Such waves are incredibly faint and take considerable signal processing capabilities to detect and measure.
“During our work, we became frustrated with the measurement and processing instruments that had been a standard feature in laboratories around the world for decades,” Shaddock said.
“The traditional approach has required multiple instruments to cover a range of different tasks associated with gathering, processing and presenting data. We realised that, if we took a different approach, we could streamline this process and make researchers and engineers much more time-efficient.”
The Liquid Instruments team used its combined expertise in the area of field programmable gate array (FPGA) processors.
FPGAs are effectively hardware chips that can be rewired using software commands and perform thousands of operations simultaneously. A conventional personal computer CPU, by comparison, has a fixed design and performs up to 16 simultaneous operations.
Shaddock said the company’s first device, Moku:Lab, provides users with 12 powerful scientific instruments. Its software is stored on an iPad and is used to reprogram the FPGA, effectively transforming it from one instrument into another as required.
“We looked at all the steps a user has to take, from taking measurement data to presenting that data, and tried to cut out or combine as many of those steps as possible,” he said.
“Being able to switch between instruments while using a single device makes this as seamless as possible.”
The popularity of Moku:Lab has resulted in the company taking in annual revenues of more than $1 million. More than 80 per cent of sales are outside Australia, via a network of distributors in 20 different countries.
Liquid Instruments has also established relationships with a number of universities, leading to growing numbers of undergraduate students using the equipment.
David Rabeling, Vice President, Engineering, at Liquid Instruments moved from the Netherlands to join the company and has led hardware development efforts since the company’s founding.
“There is no doubt that the entire industry is at the cusp of a major transition,” Rabeling said.
“Combining precision hardware, advanced signal processing and versatile software can leverage the strengths of each technology. The result is a system that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Petr Adámek, CEO of the Canberra Innovation Network, calls Liquid Instruments a great example of the Canberra Innovation Ecosystem’s strengths.
“We have highly educated and ambitious entrepreneurs who develop niche opportunities in sophisticated markets, tap into local networks and capital to start, and later attract significant capital from overseas,” he said.
“They do this to deliver products and services globally but keep their core operations embedded here, leveraging the vast talent pools at Canberra’s world-class educational and research institutions.”
Shaddock is bullish about the future and sees huge potential to grow Liquid Instruments into a much larger organisation.
“We recently raised a Series A investment of $11 million,” he said.
“To get that, you make a lot of promises about how you are going to grow the business. We’ve passed the infant mortality danger zone for start-ups, which is five years, and now we are heads-down and working to make those promises a reality. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
Shaddock said that rather than finding it a challenge to grow a successful technology company in Canberra, being in the national capital is a distinct benefit.
“Australia is widely recognised for producing high-quality university graduates,” he said.
“And this is particularly the case in Canberra.
“Because we don’t have as large a technology industry here as exists in some other countries, it means we are really spoilt for choice when it comes to highly trained graduates who have the skills that we need.”
Shaddock said Canberra’s lifestyle also makes it easier to attract and retain staff.
“It’s the perfect size where it has all the facilities you need but without the downsides of large cities,” he said.