An interview with an application engineer

Ryan Warburton

Photon Force
Application Engineer

Ryan joined the UK Quantum Technology Programme in 2004 when he joined Professor Gerald Buller’s Single Photon Group at Heriot Watt University to conduct a fully funded PhD from UKRI on infrared single-photon counting. Following this Ryan spent the next 8 years as a Research Associate working on various single-photon detector design, and quantum imaging projects with the QuantIC team between the University of Glasgow and Heriot Watt.  He was approached by Dr Richard Walker (CEO of Photon Force) at a quantum technology event in London in 2016 to join the University of Edinburgh start-up company to expand their customer base and identify new applications for their unique single-photon camera.

Founded in 2015 as a start-up from Professor Robert Henderson’s CMOS Sensors and Systems Group at the University of Edinburgh, Photon Force has won the Institute of Physics (IOP) accolade for the development of its ground-breaking sensors that enable ultrafast, single-photon sensitive imaging.  Photon Force sensors are used worldwide and facilitate progress in applications including quantum physics, communications and biomedical imaging.

Tell us about your role at Photon Force.  What is your focus and what does a typical day look like for you?

In an SME, I’m not sure there really is such a thing as a ‘typical day’. Sometimes there’ll be weeks where every day is more or less the same, but usually there are many plates to keep spinning – that’s the fun and the challenge of working for a spin-out.  My main roles are in product building, testing, development, and customer support.  Going to events, when they were a thing, was also a big part of the job – meeting new people, engaging with customers, understanding their needs and planning for future products. I am also a part-time photographer, so I’ve done all the product photography for the website, as well as build the website – no job is too little or too much; I love the variety!

Was it a hard decision to move from the laboratory to working for industry?

I guess it was to a certain extent, but perhaps that was more because I was comfortable in the position I was in.  It was about time I gave myself a new challenge. I didn’t really want to pursue the “normal” academic line of PhD, post-Doc, get a fellowship, get your own funding.  Looking at my friends and colleagues who had, they seemed to have a lot less time doing the things they actually enjoyed – being hands-on in the lab.  By saying that, of course, I am in no way detracting from that path – I admire those around me who have followed it, but for me, I wanted something different.

What has been your greatest moment whilst working for Photon Force?

I’m not sure there has been one specific “moment”, but watching the team grow, watching the application space that our products fit into grow as well is all very satisfying.  I think sitting down with customers who have taken your product and used it for something you never even imagined is probably up there as a good moment and certainly inspiring.

How does the experience you gained from QuantIC support your current role?

Having been in the quantum/photon-counting world for many years now, there are many close collaborators with who we still work.  It’s great to have that network, and to continue to build on projects, solutions, and friendships.  I think the additional key skills I gained whilst working with QuantIC were within outreach and engagement – we spoke to people of all ages, in so many different venues.  QuantIC was also more focused on getting technology out of the lab and towards the marketplace – which is exactly what spinouts continue.

The National Quantum Technology programme is funded by UKRI, how important has this been to your career?

Throughout the last few years as a post-doc, the funding within QuantIC enabled some really important and exciting work. Most notably with Jonathan Leach and Sikorsky in the Alps conducting field tests on imaging through obscurants, and with Daniele Faccio and DSTL extending the range (both distance and wavelength) of the “looking around corners” experiments.

Photon Force has completed two Innovate UK projects and is involved in two further projects at the moment.  These projects enable close collaborations with other SMEs, large businesses, and academia, all with the aim of making the UK a frontrunner in Quantum technologies.

How has COVID-19 affected your role over the last year?

To be honest, I think the team has become more like family to me.  It’s been difficult not being able to meet up with friends and actually family, but I’m very grateful for the support from colleagues day in, day out.  Working remotely was challenging at first, but we’re very well set up.  Luckily, we were still able to use our offices when we needed to (I can’t build our cameras in my flat), so there was some variety.  I think, like most of us, there is a tendency to get “zoomed-out”, but we got better at being more efficient with our screen-time and made sure we had time to get out and about.  During the winter months, we were given some flexibility to take an extended lunchbreak so we could get out in the sun (OK, it’s Scotland, so let’s say daylight) and then work a little later in the evening.  This made the work-life balance much better and really helped with my mental health at a time when nothing was normal.  All in all, I think we’ve coped really well during the last year and the team has grown which is a testament to our continued success.

What inspired you to become a scientist and study quantum physics?

When deciding what to do at Uni, I struggled to make a choice.  I’ve always really enjoyed the practical/experimental side of science, so I eventually chose to do optoelectronics and laser engineering at Heriot-Watt University.  I probably shouldn’t mention this, but the only time I almost failed an exam was Quantum Theory in 3rd year!  So why am I still in that area now? Well, my PhD with Prof. Gerald Buller was lab-based and surprisingly varied – working on device design and characterization, right the way through to applications.  One of my post-doc roles included work with Prof. Miles Padgett and Prof. Jonathan Leach at the University of Glasgow on quantum imaging.  I still don’t profess to be the best at doing the maths or the theory, but the challenges of putting the experiments together and making them work was always what spurred me on. Now I am working towards bringing new products to these labs to accelerate their research progress; it just feels like the next logical step for me.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be considering studying or working within quantum imaging or quantum technologies?

Make sure you get outside on your lunchbreak, because 90% of the time you’re going to be working in a very, very dark lab!

Seriously though, it’s such an exciting field to enter – the application space is widening year after year, and the investment from the big players is increasing.  Quantum is a key enabling technology for so many other applications and it’s still early days in terms of commercialisation, so it’s a great field to be in!