A revolution in precision testing and measurement equipment led by Canberra start-up Liquid Instruments, is enabling scientific discovery in new frontiers and development in everyday technology.
Liquid Instruments – a software-driven company that is propelling scientific discovery through its game-changing precision testing and measurement equipment – recently announced a funding injection of $28.5 million.
It’s a figure that brings investment in the venture capital-funded company to more than $50 million. This signifies the value of the technology that underpins leading innovation and research around the world including from NASA, Google, Stanford University and the Australian National University (ANU) from which the company emerged.
The Canberra-based start-up was awarded two Accelerating Commercialisation grants from the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme in 2016 and 2017. The grants, totalling $1.6 million, were utilised to bring two distinct aspects of the business to market. While the figure is modest compared to its latest fundraising effort, the grants were critical in the development of the company’s technology, outlook and structure, enabling it to get to where it is today, says CEO Professor Daniel Shaddock.
“At an early stage for our company, those dollars were very valuable,” says the experimental physicist. “I was as happy about getting the first ($830,000) Accelerating Commercialisation grant as I was about closing our latest investor round worth millions.”
The two grant encouraged the company to invest creatively and “aggressively” in technology development with a focus on real-world impact, establishing the foundations that today sees Liquid Instruments leading innovation in the $25 billion global test equipment industry.
“It enabled us to shoot for the stars and try and do something quite ambitious, and it’s really paid off, helping us to build out the successful product portfolio that we have today,” Shaddock says.
Today Liquid Instruments is a world-leader in its field manufacturing precision test and measurement equipment – a field that Shaddock says may sound like “one of the most boring things you could think of”, but which enables exciting scientific advances as well the functioning of the devices we rely on every day.
“Pretty much all technology that we use has some form of electronics in it, and any electronics products or technology would have been developed, manufactured or tested with this type of equipment,” he says. “So it’s really fairly ubiquitous and underpins trillions of dollars’ worth of industries – from telecommunications, to aerospace, to defence, the semi-conductor industry and the general research and development (R&D) sector.
Hardware goes soft
Companies manufacturing precision testing equipment, such as oscilloscopes, waveform generators and spectrum analysers, have been around for decades. But Liquid Instruments departs from tradition by shifting from a hardware-centric approach to a software-based model.
At the core of this transformation is the use of Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) – ‘digital computer chips’ – that enable multiple pieces of cumbersome equipment to be combined into the one compact operating unit controlled via a user-friendly interface on a computer screen or tablet.
“The value proposition is that you can change the function of the device based on what you need without having to change the hardware,” says i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Arthur Pappas, who has remained in contact with Liquid Instruments beyond the initial funding period.
Traditional silicon computer chips that operate in conventional hardware are etched with electrical circuitry and therefore fixed. But FPGAs are infinitely programmable and can be reconfigured on demand to perform the functions of different instruments.
With Liquid Instruments’ modem-sized ‘Moku’ devices that contain an FPGA, users can switch seamlessly between virtual pieces of equipment as required using a drop-down menu on a screen.
“The FPGAs in our products are reconfigured perhaps hundreds of times a day as people switch between different functions,” Shaddock says. “And it’s that dynamism that is really differentiating us. We can replace many different types of instruments with a single device, at a fraction of cost because you only need to buy one of our products.”
Next level laboratories
Furthermore, in Liquid Instruments’ latest product, developed as a result of the Accelerating Commercialisation service, different testing equipment can now run simultaneously. This has also been enabled by the millions of dollars invested in development in FPGAs by companies such as Xilinx and TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company), Shaddock says.
“As FPGAs get more advanced, we can replace entire systems of equipment with a tiny little chip,” he says. “So now multiple instruments can be interconnected so they run as a system that would conventionally require a whole rack of equipment with lots of different boxes all plugged into each other with cables and wires coming in and out – the sort of stuff you see in bad sci-fi movies. Now we’ve shrunk all of that down onto a single chip.”
And the technology does more than just clear up a cluttered laboratory. Without cables and with greater integration, faster, more accurate and more sensitive testing is possible. And opportunities in education and in remote areas are opened up thanks to the equipment’s portability and affordability.
On launching the latest product, Shaddock recalls that a client likened the software-driven advances in the testing industry to the shift from typewriters to word processors last century.
“And not only do people not use typewriters anymore, but computers have gone to the next level. They are doing a whole range of things that nobody imagined 20 years ago. And I think that’s where our industry will go now that we we’ve blurred the lines between hardware and software, and we can do things that you wouldn’t imagine conventional equipment would ever be asked to do,” he says.
The software-driven “secret sauce” at the core of Liquid Instruments allows broad application in the market and greater agility within the company to develop products that meet customer needs, Shaddock says.
The company continues to grow its market in the R&D sector, where its products are being used for wide-ranging applications including drug discovery, biomedical research, dark matter exploration and gravitational wave detection. And it is also experiencing increasing demand from major tech companies using its devices in the development of their own products.
Shaddock says the system’s modernised and intuitive user interface enables result analysis in minutes, saving engineers valuable time. “So it’s really gone from being a cutting-edge R&D tool to being the best-in-class product development tool for industry,” he says.
To service this growth, Liquid Instruments now has a base in San Diego and is building a bigger marketing team to manage global sales and customer support. “North America, Europe, China, Japan, India and South Korea are really big markets for us,” he says. “So getting boots on the ground in those countries is essential.”
From starting with six staff members, the company now has close to 100 employees – a mark of success that was encouraged from the beginning through the Accelerating Commercialisation service that also provided helpful advice on practicalities such as how to structure a board and attract investment, Shaddock says.
“Once we were connected with our Commercialisation Facilitator (Arthur Pappas’ predecessor in Canberra, Murray Rankin), we really felt like they were an advocate for us, a guardian angel on our side and their job was to make us be successful,” he says.
While it has expanded its global footprint, Liquid Instruments maintains its engineering base in Canberra, from where Shaddock hails and continues to live despite working for NASA and living in California for a decade.
It hires up to 10 top ANU engineering graduates each year, and is facing growing competition from other local technology companies who have also been supported by the Entrepreneurs’ Programme.
“There’s a really nice ecosystem now in Canberra of like-minded tech companies and we can all learn from each other and it makes it easier to attract people from abroad with the skills that we need,” he says.
As a fellow Canberran, Pappas too is thrilled to see a homegrown company thriving on the international stage, particularly given the research-rich capital has traditionally lacked commercialisation opportunities.
“Part of what I really enjoy doing and what drives me in this job is helping to connect really talented, smart people with the resources they need to develop their technology here,” he says. “And the Accelerating Commercialisation service is a great example of how a small amount of government funding can create an enormous impact.”