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Founded in 1992 as Microlase Optical Systems to manufacture specialty laser products for scientific use, this spin-out from Strathclyde University rapidly gained a reputation in a number of niche markets.

This pioneering work led to an acquisition in 2000 by the California-based photonics giant Coherent Inc. As Coherent Scotland, the company has matured into an R&D and manufacturing site for industry-leading ultrafast, deep UV and CW lasers used in the scientific, commercial and industrial sectors. 

With a staff of more than 100, Coherent Scotland designs and builds laser-based products that are sold all over the world.

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Chris Dorman, vice president, Coherent Scotland

Right place, right time

Chris Dorman, Coherent Scotland’s vice president and general manager, says: “It’s an exciting time to work in this area. Lasers are both displacing other technologies and developing new applications – so there’s very strong growth in the laser industry.

“The lasers we produce are complex pieces of equipment, costing over a hundred thousand pounds.

“The expertise available in Scotland is globally significant. In Scotland, you’re working in one of the big centres for optoelectronics, alongside California and Germany.

There's a vibrant ecosystem of laser and optoelectronics companies in Scotland... I think our mix of technical skills, combined with the entrepreneurial flare we get from Silicon Valley, gives us the best of both worlds.

Chris Dorman, vice president, Coherent Scotland

“There are at least five Scottish universities – Glasgow, Strathclyde, St Andrews, Edinburgh, and Herriot-Watt - with strong expertise in the field, along with a vibrant eco-system of laser and optoelectronic companies.

“The university sector provides a constant stream of highly qualified graduates, while the innovative support we receive from SE helps to maintain our competitive edge.”

As part of that pipeline of graduates, Coherent is also involved in pioneering optoelectronic work with the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics based at Strathclyde University’s Technology Innovation Centre.

“Our parent company is one of the world’s leading laser providers, based in California,” Chris adds. “And our Scottish operation is equally impressive – a fully self-contained business unit including every aspect of the business, from research and development to design, manufacturing and finance and marketing.

“I think Scotland’s mix of technical skills, combined with the entrepreneurial flair we get from Silicon Valley, gives us the best of both worlds.”

Science in action

Among Coherent Scotland’s major successes is the development of the Chameleon laser, a compact table-top device suitable for use in lab-based biological imaging systems. The system allows biomedical researchers to see cellular processes as they happen, and to image organs as they function, giving them a greater understanding of how the human body actually works. 

The system – which has won an Institute of Physics Innovation award – is already being used to make new discoveries in a wide range of areas. These include in-vivo brain imaging for such conditions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Coherent lasers were also at the heart of the technology that stunned the world’s scientific community this year. Its Mephisto laser system helps to detect and measure gravitational waves in deep space, thus confirming a theory posited by Albert Einstein in 1916.

Looking to the future

As the miniaturisation of technology continues, lasers are finding new roles in the production of:

  • Semiconductors
  • Solar cell and LED manufacturing
  • Health and life sciences

“There’s a vibrant eco-system of laser and optoelectronics companies in Scotland,” adds Chris. “And if you have the talent and skills, you can move between them. Even on the manufacturing side, the majority of our people who build lasers have a degree in optoelectronics.

"Our universities have good links with the industry, and continue to provide us with a stream of well-qualified, work-ready graduates.

“This attraction for work-ready staff doesn’t end at the Scottish border. There’s a wide range of nationalities on our team. We have a very talented international staff from as near as England and as far as Germany, Italy, France and China. It’s great, because each person brings something completely new to the team.”

Tech skills in Scotland