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business models, strategies and technologies

Marketing a fifth state of matter

ColdQuanta In Colorado works with ultracold atom technology such as Bose-Einstein condensates – but doesn’t find it easy to explain …

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) are sometimes referred to as a “fifth state of matter”, a rare state or phase in which all the particles share the same quantum state, at temperatures just above absolute zero. This ultracold environment makes the wavelengths of the atoms increase so they overlap and the atoms lose their individual identities, with the result that the group acts like a single atom. Although the atomic cluster has a relatively large size, it is considered to be a single quantum state and it obeys quantum laws.

This phase was predicted by the redoubtable Satyendranath Bose and Albert Einstein way back in 1924, and was confirmed by experimental work in 1995 that led to the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Wolfgang Ketterle at MIT.

The business side of cold atom generating

I find it fascinating to see how such seemingly arcane scientific/technological fringe activities can be presented and/or marketed, and how they can be integrated into the more mainstream commercial world as a (hopefully) profitable business. This makes a company like ColdQuanta Inc. a case in point.

ColdQuanta declares itself to be the result of decades of research by Professor Dana Anderson and his work at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), and formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics. The company’s website asserts that its goal is to become a world leader in commercial cold and ultracold atom technology by leveraging its intellectual property and partnering with academic institutions, government bodies and investment capital to produce innovative solutions related to the production of ultracold matter. Fairly standard catch-all phrasing, really, although the subject is more esoteric than most commercial shingles.

It is quite a mission to be developing and championing a hitherto non-existent technology, and at the same time to engage in the commercial maelstrom by providing revenue-earning products and services. However, ColdQuanta (great name, which describes exactly what they work with – albeit with no mention of “why”, or what the benefits are) initially seems to fudge the issue by declaring “We are committed to producing cutting edge cold and ultracold atom technology” but then puts out the company’s sales shingle by offering help with custom engineering requirements – which sounds like a fair bit of an anti-climax.

This engineering apparently involves using lasers and a vacuum to help cool the atoms to within a millionth degree of absolute zero, and ColdQuanta’s role seems to centre around shrinking lab-sized equipment to a size manageable in commercial contexts. ColdQuanta writes that it focuses on the development of BECs and cold atom generating devices and systems, making the technology accessible to a wide range of research, educational and industrial institutions. The company highlights a wide range of identifiable products designed to facilitate the production of Bose-Einstein condensates and related forms of ultracold matter for use in scientific and industrial applications requiring high performance and reliability. All very descriptive, all not very explanatory.

Local rag gets it right

Interestingly, it was only when I turned to (translation = a chance click) a local news source – BizWest in Boulder, Colorado – that I began to get some idea of the practical out-of-the-lab usefulness of what ColdQuanta is doing, and a clear idea of the interface between the Nobel Prize-bedecked research environment and ColdQuanta’s revenue-generating market opportunities.

Once atoms are collapsed into each other to create what appears to be a single atom, it becomes much easier for scientists to measure how the atoms respond in a range of different experiments. For example, researchers can study the atoms to see how fast they fall, in order to determine gravitational force. And to help with navigation, scientists are able to measure how the atoms in the vacuum tube respond when turning left or right.

According to the Boulder County Business Report, this can help improve navigation systems for planes, submarines and satellites, improve accuracy for atomic clocks and provide researchers with incredibly accurate measurements. The technology seems capable of replacing lasers in instrumentation gyroscopes. Laser-based gyroscopes suffer from increased deviation over time or distance, whereas ultra-cold atom technology would help reduce or eliminate that deviation. ”What the laser does with light we are doing with gas – with atoms,” Rainer Kunz – co-founder, president and CEO of ColdQuanta – is quoted as saying.

The fount of knowledge at Phys.org™ provides more info, and another (rather different) perspective on the whole situation, noting that the core story is that ColdQuanta has been granted a licence to commercialise cutting-edge physics research developed by the University of Colorado Boulder and SRI International. But it’s delightfully ironic to discover that the best explanation (that I could find while in zap mode) of such fundamental physics comes from a bi-weekly local business newspaper.

A case in point

ColdQuanta’s website showcase is a good illustration of the challenges associated with profiling, marketing and explaining beyond-advanced technology and research, and moving awareness and appreciation into the arena beyond the hallowed halls of the initiated few. When you’re totally immersed in a highly specialised technical environment (whether in research or business), it’s often difficult to explain the basics to outsiders in a clear and concise way, avoiding geek-speak and taking lots of prior knowledge for granted.

As with so much else in marketing and communication, clear messages, a clear explanation of practical contexts and a focus on benefits can work wonders.

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