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16 January, 2014 - 18:18 By Tony Quested

Ward Hills, CEO at ionscope

Ward Hills

ionscope manufactures Scanning Ion Conductance Microscopes (SICMs) for imaging living cells. SICMs are used by neurological and cardiac scientists to understand fundamental processes associated with diseases and therapeutics, because of the unique combination of nano-scale topographical and physiological information they provide.

“ionscope has built a user base in laboratories around the world, and we are committed to building on this base as we expand into new areas,” says ionscope chairman Dr David Cleevely.

Material scientists are also using Ionscope’s products to see nano-scale changes in battery electrodes during charging and discharging. Understanding this charging cycle is highly important for increasing the battery capacity and lifetime in mobile phones and electric vehicles.

1. ionscope was founded in 2004. Why the fortification of senior management now?ionscope has been preparing for expansion for some time as both our products and the market’s awareness of our capabilities have gown. Publications citing Scanning Ion Conductance Microscopy (SICM) are up 30 per cent year-on-year, meaning our microscopes are becoming part of established practice so it is now time to scale up operations and fortify senior management. We now have Andy Richardson growing our operational capabilities and Giovanna De Filippi applying her experience to expanding our application domain.

2. As a 20-year veteran of nanotech and instrumentation how highly do you rate the prospects for the company?The last decade has seen significant leaps in our ability to control materials at the molecular level. Phenomenal nanoscale manipulations have become commonplace; single molecule biochemical analysis and materials allowing powerful computers to be carried in our pockets. ionscope’s technology enables the next generation of research in life sciences and surface chemistry. For example SICM is currently being used in studies of neurological and cardiological diseases as well as understanding how rechargeable batteries can be made longer lasting. As the need for more advanced materials increases so will the need for instruments that can help us understand how and why they work. I rate the prospects for the company highly.

3. What aspect of its technology most excites you and how can material scientists best leverage Ionscope?ionscope’s technology is fundamentally elegant. It images a surface by placing a small probe next to, but not quite touching, a surface and then moving back and forth across that surface to create a picture. As the sample is never touched, it is very gentle and allows living cells to be imaged without damage. This ability to accurately position a probe and observe without disturbing the environment has several advantages; first it allows close observations of cells acting and reacting overtime, second it means additional techniques can be used alongside ionscope’s imaging functionality.

Using different measurement techniques simultaneously means chemical properties can be related to specific physical structures on a surface. The implications of this are very exciting. For example, one of the greatest limitations batteries have is internal surfaces degrading after multiple rechargings - this is why the battery in your phone loses charge more quickly as it ages. Engineers are using our instruments to observe changes in electrode surfaces as they charge and discharge. Understanding these changes are key to understand how to build longer lasting batteries.

4. Do you foresee expansion into other vertical markets?Yes. Our aim is to become the standard for positioning and imaging of nanoscale surfaces in complex environments. To do this we will continue building the community-wide familiarity in the industrial nanomaterial sector as has happened in the life sciences sector. These industrial applications include the quality control, manufacturing, energy, medical devices and biotechnology.

5. The technology has clear potential internationally. Do you anticipate accelerating exports and which territories are likely to be among the first that you target?Most of our revenue is from exports and most of our growth will come from overseas sales. The US and China are our biggest markets at the moment and we have very active distributors there. But we can see potential in the rest of Europe, Japan, Canada and India as these countries have substantial life sciences and materials science research.

6. Do you foresee having to open additional facilities globally?Our manufacturing partners are local to Cambridge and the Intellectual Property is UK-based, so our development base will always have roots here. But the network of application partners is inherently international. We have several demonstration and training units to deploy in the next year these will be based with our partners in North America initially.

7. Nanotechnology seems at last to be receiving its dues as a game-changing technology. Are you surprised it has taken so long for industries to realise the potential of nanotech?No it does not surprise me – it is a natural progression which takes time. Novel technology will always be ahead of mainstream customer demand by a few product development cycles. Beyond the relatively few early adopters, most users need to see that something works reliably and adds value before they can be persuaded to buy. Nanotechnologies have been and still are novel and unproven, and potential customers need to be shown specific practical applications. But nanotechnology is approaching that point where there are many more demonstrations of practical value and where there is sufficient critical mass of.

8. Can you put a value on the global market?I wish I could. It is not a single market and our part is novel and growing. I think it might be sufficient to say that we have more than enough customer prospects and those customers are working in markets worth several billion dollars.

9. How many people does the company employ and do you foresee having to recruit further? If so on what kind of scale?Naturally as the company grows we will bring in further resources but we are in a good position just now. The company has a solid foundation of in-house knowhow and intellectual property. We have achieved considerable flexibility by outsourcing manufacture. As we expand we will always be looking to engage people who know the customer’s challenges and can communicate. 10. How is ionscope funded and do you foresee having to raise further capital to underpin future expansion? ionscope has had a long history of support from angels, universities and industrial partners and we have just completed a small round in which we have seen considerable support with current investors. In 2013 the company won a €900k five-year EU and as we expand and identify new markets and applications we anticipate there will be some modest requirements to support our growth.

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