“In engineering school, they don’t teach you very much about commercialization of technology. There are a lot of skills that go into that that I’m really just learning about right now,” says Paul Webster, recent Queen’s University Physics PhD graduate.
While that may be true, it seems that Dr. Webster has picked up a thing or two about business from supporters Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Queen’s tech transfer office, PARTEQ Innovations (funded through OCE’s Tech Transfer Partnerships
program). In fact, he just may be a natural when it comes to business: the 29-year-old is now CEO of his own company, winner of PARTEQ’S Atherton Entrepreneurship Award
and recipient of OCE’s 2012 Martin Walmsley Fellowship for Technical Entrepreneurship
His business, Laser Depth Dynamics addresses what Webster calls the "dark secret" of laser use in manufacturing: the fact that lasers don’t naturally stop until they hit something. This means it’s difficult to control the depth that a laser penetrates into a material. That's a nuisance when you're using lasers in the production of bagged salads, but a veritable disaster when you're using them to weld lithium-ion batteries for electric cars.
"Right now there is a wide range of applications where manufacturers would like to be able to use lasers - everything from food packaging and transportation, to medical devices and microelectronics - but their capabilities are limited by a lack of control of the depth aspect. By removing that roadblock, it allows the manufacturing sector to expand the use of lasers into new spaces,” says Webster. “Overall, it’s going to bring down the costs of manufacturing, help companies stay competitive and even result in greener manufacturing."
His company’s technology adds an optical measurement concept used in medicine and telecommunications to a high power machining laser beam to measure depth in drilling, cutting and welding with the accuracy of a human hair, 300,000 times per second. This innovation is particularly relevant because it is delivered down the exact same beam path the cutting laser itself uses, meaning that it’s practical for actual production environments, whereas previous technologies have been largely for lab use only.
Because there is such a diversity of products that are made with lasers, almost all of them require the laser to be changing the depth of the part somehow, demonstrating a tremendous market opportunity both in new installations and in the tens of thousands of existing laser machine tools.
Thanks to the funds afforded by the Walmsley Fellowship and the Atherton Award, Laser Depth Dynamics will launch its first commercial product in 2013. The company is choosing to focus initially on laser welding applications. The first product, called the depthcon system, is a 19” rack-mount box that fits in standard industrial form factors and hooks right up to an industrial welding head. The device will provide quality control and depth control information for a wide variety of laser welding applications.
Webster credits financial and business support received from OCE, Queen’s and NSERC for getting the company to this point and for getting him personally out of the lab and into a job he was able to create for himself.
“It’s quite an adventure to be going on. Whenever a technically trained person graduates from school they have a number of options,” says Webster, who originally thought his studies would lead him to the nuclear industry. “The safe choice is to go to work for a larger organization and bank a steady pay cheque. It’s a big risk to go out there on your own. To know that you’ve got some sort of support that will get you through the first couple of years limits the personal risk and provides some confidence to really make something of your technology.”