Quantum emerges for nanoscale components and systems provider

Jan. 16, 2024
Here, Ivan Nikitskiy, EPIC’s Technology Manager for Quantum and PICs, talks to Peter Kraemer, CEO at attocube systems AG, a German producer of components and systems for nanoscale applications such as precision motion, cryogenic microscopy, and nanoscale analytics.

Ivan Nikitskiy: What’s the background to your appointment as CEO at attocube?

Peter Kraemer: I have always been fascinated with physics at school, but also interested to work with people. After an education as optometrist, I went to Aalen University in Germany to study a Diploma Degree for Engineering in Optoelectronics. After graduating, I worked as a product manager for Carl Zeiss Microscopy in Göttingen, where I assumed responsibility for different applications and products in the research and clinical market.

Five years later, wanting to broaden my horizons, I moved to Mexico to work as Sales Director for Carl Zeiss Microscopy, with responsibility for the Central & Southwest America region. In 2006, I took on the responsibility for the German Sales and Service organization, and in 2012, I was promoted to Director Business Sector, in charge of the global business of educational and clinical microscopy, profit and loss, strategic marketing, and portfolio definition.

In 2017, having worked for Carl Zeiss for 19 years, I was looking for a new challenge, and although my time at Carl Zeiss had been very inspiring, I wanted to work for a smaller company where I could shape and manage processes and strategies more directly. Consequently, in 2017, I moved to attocube systems as CEO.

Nikitskiy: How well did your experience at Carl Zeiss prepare you for your current role?

Kraemer: Without the experience I gained in my former positions, I would not be able to do my current job properly. Firstly, the early sales trainings taught me the importance of putting my emotions aside and working with the customer to find the best solutions. This changed my perception of customers, teaching me how to look at myself and the company from the customers’ perspective. Secondly, the experience I gained in terms of scaling, company structure, international sales, product management, and strategic marketing has been crucial. At Carl Zeiss, I was continually looking for new challenges and I had many roles. This enabled me to learn by trial and error, which has also helped me enormously when I joined attocube.

Nikitskiy: How has attocube developed?

Kraemer: attocube was founded in 2001 as a spinoff from Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University. The aim was to commercialize a nanopositioning device, developed by Khaled Karraï and his PhD student Dirk Haft, that could function under extreme conditions such as cryogenic temperatures, ultra-high vacuum, and magnetic fields. In 2006, the company relocated to larger facilities in Munich and in 2008, attocube systems Inc. was established in Berkeley, CA. Further expansion took place in 2011, and in 2014, attocube became the majority shareholder of neaspec, a German designer and manufacturer of nanoscale optical imaging and spectroscopy microscopes. In 2018, we opened the NanoFactory, followed by 1200 m2 of additional space for logistics production and testing in 2023.

Over this period, attocube has developed a wide product portfolio ranging from precision motion components such as nanopositioners and interferometers, to measurement platforms such as scanning probe microscopes and closed-cycle cryostats for scientific and industrial applications. All instruments and components are designed to function in ultra-low temperatures, high magnetic fields, and ultra-high vacuum.

Seventy-five percent of our customers are in academia, well distributed across Europe, the U.S., and Asia. Since I joined the company in 2017, our workforce has expanded from about 100 to 250 people.

Nikitskiy: What are the main challenges facing attocube these days?

Kraemer: There are still supply issues resulting from COVID. Things have improved, but there are still delivery time and quality issues. The other challenge is politics: We are working in a high-tech environment that is increasingly governed by both import and export regulations, and limited by embargos and restrictions.

Nikitskiy: What are your best-selling products?

Kraemer: Our interferometer is really gaining speed. Some years ago, we built an industrial version of it and at that time, many people thought there wasn’t a need for such high precision. Nowadays, everybody seems to want it and we’re now swamped with orders. There’s also high demand for our nanopositioners from both academics involved in condensed metaphysics and from customers in the semiconductor and optics industry. The semiconductor equipment industry doesn’t need low temperatures, but they do need vacuum and stable systems ready for cleanroom environments. The other growth area is quantum technology.

Nikitskiy: How important are quantum technologies for you right now?

Kraemer: We supply enabling technology for companies involved in quantum states and processes, such as single-photon sources, trapped ions, and superconducting or photonic qubits. To maintain their quantum nature, these delicate states require cryogenic environments, low vibrations, or high vacuum. Fortunately, we are able to provide a range of low vibration, and unique compact rack cryostats, as well as high precision components to align, operate, and test such advanced quantum systems. For example, our latest product—an ultra-compact, 19-inch rack compatible closed-cycle mobile cryostat—can be used to cool the sensors. The device runs on 110–240 volts, doesn't need any water supply or special infrastructure, and can be used to cool quantum communication sensors and repeaters.

Nikitskiy: What's your projection for the quantum market?

Kraemer: There’s a lot of hype around quantum. Many competing concepts are in evaluation and big money is spend for R&D and industrialization. Whatever else happens, the future of the quantum computer is not a huge cryostat based system. To make them feasible and useful, quantum computers will need to run in an office building or even be mobile. Secondly, photons will be an integral part of quantum communication because photons are the only quantum information that can be dynamically sent over fibers. Accordingly, work on quantum communication, quantum repeaters, quantum sensing, and quantum sources will continue to increase, as will the demand for our cryostats.

If it’s going to happen, there needs to be a transition from quantum research to quantum technology, and quantum will follow the same path as semiconductors in that it needs to get smaller, cheaper, and more scalable. There’s a lot happening now at the startup level; some companies are failing while others join the game—if they develop successfully, it will depend on scalability.

Nikitskiy: What are your future challenges?

Kraemer: One of our aims is to further increase the share of industrial customers, who now account for around 20% of the business. This requires new strategic approaches and the reorganization of some processes in the company.

For example, for quantum startups to scale up, they will need to adopt an industrial approach in terms of delivery times, price, and performance. To enable them to do this, we will need to work proactively to offer always better, scalable, and less costly products and services. For this reason, we developed our mobile cryostat solution.

In a nutshell, our aim is the continuous product and process optimization. We realize this by transferring our academic knowledge and expertise into the development of scalable industrial products and—at the same time—by adapting our processes and efficiency to meet highest industry standards. If we manage this, I think we will be successful.

Nikitskiy: What would you do differently if you started again?

Kraemer: Overall, we’ve done well in achieving our goals, but looking back at COVID, I think I could have managed the situation better by keeping the company as the center of exchange for the employees. The problem with homeworking was that the processes we had established began to loosen up because, as I’ve come to realize, people are driven more by human interaction than by the processes themselves. If it happened again, I’d do more to improve communication between virtual teams and maintain the excellence and the spirit of our company.

Nikitskiy: What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Kraemer: Don’t fall in love with your technology. Your technology is not your purpose—it is all about providing an added value to the customer and to the market. You need to make it clear for yourself and to everybody else how you offer a superior product to the market that differs from the competition. Once you have done this, be resilient and never give up.

About the Author

Ivan Nikitskiy | Photonics Technology Manager, EPIC

Dr. Ivan Nikitskiy serves as a Photonics Technology Expert at EPIC, the European Photonics Industry Consortium, which stands as the world's largest association of photonics companies with over 800 corporate members. Ivan earned his Ph.D. with honors in photonics from ICFO, the Institute of Photonic Sciences. After successfully transitioning to an expert role in the semiconductor industry in France, he now provides a special blend of academic and industrial views on integrated photonics, optoelectronics, advanced materials, and quantum technologies.

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