Predictions Only Hold Scientists Back
Together with his colleagues, Igor Kukushkin, Chief Research Fellow at the Institute of Solid State Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences) and Professor at the Faculty of Physics at the Higher School of Economics, has founded two scientific-commercial enterprises. Their products are used in a range of areas, including pharmaceuticals and medicine, as well as to control the quality of various materials and even in the fight against terrorism. Igor Kukushkin spoke to the HSE news service about how to combine science and business.
From Chernogolovka to Stuttgart
I was born and grew up in Chernogolovka and then studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology which had a base at the Institute for Physical Problems. I really liked it there but I decided to transfer to the base at the Institute of Solid State Physics (ISSP) in Chernogolovka.
At ISSP, I began to study the unusual properties of exciton systems in the presence of deformation of germanium (Ge) crystals. We studied semiconductors at low temperatures and for the first time, under certain deformation conditions, observed bound state exciton molecules in germanium crystals. We created the first opportunity to study this condition and its properties.
At that time, I was also interested in the study of exciton systems in strong magnetic fields. My colleagues and I were able to observe the quantum-statistical properties of the exciton gas. These studies formed the basis of my PhD thesis, which I defended in 1983. I was then invited by Nobel laureate, Klaus von Klitzing, head of the Solid State Research Institute at the Max Planck Society, to go to his laboratory in Stuttgart.
Into the Future
I was very impressed by the laboratory in Germany. It was better equipped and boasted all the latest technologies. In terms of knowledge and professional training, I would say that we were ahead of our German colleagues. However, the Max Planck Institute, at least at that time, was considered the pinnacle of physics in Germany. For me, their way of holding seminars was unusual. We communicated on a different level, more openly, and we never concealed anything from each other. We exchanged our ideas which enriched our research.
On the other hand, the laboratory in Stuttgart had all the equipment necessary to carry out the most complex experiments. Soviet physicists could only dream about this - they had to wait for two years to get the equipment they needed, and when it came, it was often of poor quality. The Germans already had computers that we didn’t have. It felt like I had travelled through time, into the next decade. I even felt a bit lost.
Until the 1960s and 70s, physical science explored elements from Mendeleev’s periodic table – those that can be found in nature. But it soon became clear that the most interesting objects are those that can be created by humans
Thanks to new technological capabilities, our work advanced quickly and I made a major career breakthrough. Up to that time I had been exploring classical semiconductors (germanium and silicon). In Stuttgart, it was possible to investigate new semiconductor structures, namely heterojunctions and quantum wells, which could be grown by molecular beam epitaxy. This technology was already well-developed in Germany, but it was non-existent in the USSR. Our experience and our desire to use optical methods to study the properties of low-dimensional electron systems with strong interaction drove us to develop a new magneto-optical method and to create a new type of heterostructure. This enabled a breakthrough in our study of the fractional quantum Hall effect and on Wigner crystallization in a two-dimensional electron system.
Kitchen Quantum Mechanics
Until the 1960s and 70s, physical science explored elements from Mendeleev’s periodic table – those that can be found in nature. But it soon became clear that the most interesting objects are those that can be created by humans. At the institute in Stuttgart, we were able to develop any structure that we needed for our research: metal, dielectrics, semiconductors. We would come up with structures possessing unique properties that were non-existent in nature. It was referred to as ‘kitchen quantum mechanics’. Objects of any width were created- 10, 100, 400 angstroms. There were no limits to fundamental research and practice in this area. Several new phenomena were discovered in physics, including the fractional quantum Hall effect, which I also had a hand in.
Having achieved such positive results in Stuttgart, I was given my own laboratory with the latest equipment. It was a researcher’s paradise. You could work in peace and build a career as a scientist. It did occur to me to stay in Germany. Our family lived between the two countries for about 15 years, but every year it became increasingly difficult to travel. It was time to settle somewhere. My wife and I decided to return to Russia. Science began to be better financed over here, particularly in the early 2000s, and the possibilities for research at the Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka continued to grow. For 15 years, I had a research group at the ISSP which consisted of my students, graduate students and young researchers and I travelled to Stuttgart for up to 2 to 3 months at a time, a couple of times a year. Most of my group also travelled to Stuttgart in order to use the instruments they had over there. By the early 2000s, the group had grown to 20 people and it became necessary to identify means of financing from Russian sources.
Science and Business
Our research attracted the attention of investors from the ‘Troika Dialog’ company. They happened to be looking for an opportunity to invest in a scientific business. At that time, we were engaged in various studies to do with micro waves, we were studying a new way of converting electromagnetic radiation into electricity and we were creating a multi-pixel matrix of terahertz radiation detectors. At the time, it was a completely undeveloped area known as ‘radio vision’ – the reception of images of invisible objects using radio waves (for example, objects hidden under clothing).
The idea was to develop a device that would record what is not visible to the human eye and what is not captured, for example, by a metal detector. My colleagues and I decided to come up with a device that operated at frequencies 1 000 times smaller than a normal camera does and that was able to recognize different kinds of explosives, for example, plastic explosive. We wanted to make it a convenient and compact instrument. Investors liked the idea and they even came up with a business plan. When we were allocated money, investors came out to visit us personally. For us scientists, it was easier, because we didn’t have to do the accounts. It was an opportunity for us to earn money by ourselves, independent of grants.
The idea was to develop a device that would record what is not visible to the human eye and what is not captured, for example, by a metal detector
We had to make sure that the device worked at room temperature. Achieving this took three years and we ended up with ‘TeraSense’- a device consisting of a large multi-pixel array of terahertz radiation detectors, as well as a generator and optical elements. In fact, it is a device that is applicable in a variety of areas. For example, in the production of ceramic tiles, where, due to the heterogeneity of the material, defects in the tiles can occur. Our device can be placed directly on the part of the machine which pours the clay and it controls the uniformity. In the same way, it is possible to control the uniformity of substances in medicinal preparations. We also came up with a security scanner that provides images of moving people and can detect weapons and explosives hidden under clothing.
We eventually created another company and developed an instrument known as ‘EnSpectr’, which is based on Raman scattering. It is a fairly compact device (generally weighing about 1kg), and enables us to identify substances based on the light scattering spectrum. Pharmaceutical companies were interested in this device because it enables the determination of the entire composition of a substance. This is done with the help of spectroscopy - a laser in the visible range hits a substance and the spectral characteristics of the scattered radiation are specific to each substance. That is, we can use the device to identify the substance in front of us, for example, aspirin or other medicines. We have a database of substances, part of which we put together ourselves and part of which we bought.
Depending on the requirements, the result can be displayed in the simplest form (for example, dangerous - safe, water - combustible liquid) or can be visually compared with the reference.
The instruments developed are sold worldwide and have been for the past five years. Hundreds of orders and contracts are executed each year and the turnover of each company exceeds one million dollars annually. Our instruments are sold to Germany, France, Japan, USA, China and many other countries. There is considerable demand in Russia. For example, last year, about a hundred ‘Inspector’ instruments were delivered to customs in the Russian Federation where they are used to verify imported and exported substances.
Research – A Perpetual Search for the Unknown
Since I started doing business, life, of course, has changed. When I was working on the quantum Hall effect and my friends asked me what I was working on, regardless of what I said, my answers weren’t clear. Entrepreneurship is different- it is close to everyone's lives and most people think they understand what it is. As a scientist, I am always ready to work with applications, especially since it earns me money. But it can’t be compared to research. Research is always a search for the unknown and it’s something I can’t do without. In fundamental physics, it’s unhelpful to set specific tasks and to search for what someone predicted, because theoretical predictions are always incomplete and they slow you down. Predictions only make it more difficult to make breakthroughs. The victor is the person who didn’t know which direction to head in, because they enter unchartered territory in their searching. I still spend at least half of my time doing science.
We attract young and talented students in their final years of undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate courses and teach them to translate their research ideas into practice
With regard to research at the ISSP laboratories and our applied projects, we attract young and talented students in their final years of undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate courses and teach them to translate their research ideas into practice. For example, students can study different types of spectra in modern spectroscopy, and, using our computer program designed especially for the instrument they are using, create their own substances databases, develop methods for analyzing specific mixtures, and adapt the instrument to answer specific scientific questions. In my opinion, this is a very promising area of research.
From their fourth year, students at HSE’s Faculty of Physics have the opportunity to participate in laboratory research as well as author and co-author scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals. The main thing, in my opinion, is that the students are talented and sincerely wish to build their scientific careers. Grades are as important as the ability to make decisions independently and to think critically. These are the students that the ISSP laboratories need.
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