Cerca Magnets won the qBIG 2023 prize. Here’s a Q-and-A with prize winners.
What does it mean for Cerca Magnetics to win the qBIG 2023 prize?
The quantum sector is growing rapidly, with more than 200 businesses across the UK. The companies span all areas of quantum science including sensing, imaging, communications, time and computing. The application space is very large, from geophysics, to climate change; telecommunications for global security; navigation to health services. So against the backdrop of cutting-edge innovation in so many companies, being recognized by the Quantum Innovation and Business Growth group at the Institute of Physics is both humbling and very exciting.
How about gift funding and mentoring packages from Quantum exponential driving the growth of Cerca Magnetics?
Cerca has enjoyed tremendous success so far. We’ve been profitable in our first two years and we’re selling quantum-enabled brain imaging equipment to top research institutions around the world. However, to realize the impact of our technology, we need to deploy it in hospitals, and that means getting medical device approval. This is an expensive process and Cercas do not have all the skills required at home. Prize money, and guidance from Quantum exponential, will be a sincere help. We can use the money to engage with consultants on important aspects of medical device regulation, and we also believe Quantum Exponential will be able to pave the way for the right people who, in turn, can help us bring our technology to those who benefit most from it. he.
How will you use Physics Institute‘ Accelerator workspaces and associated benefits?
That the TIO accelerator the workspace is a fantastic facility. We will use this as a space for collaboration, particularly to accelerate the work we are doing with the national charity, Young Epilepsy. YE is based in Surrey and affiliated with Great Ormond Street Hospital; they have Cerca scanners and we work with them to scan epilepsy patients. The Accelerator Room offers a useful place to meet YE doctors and scientists, to share ideas and monitor progress.
Can you tell us a little more about how Cerca Magnetics started and how the technology works?
The University of Nottingham has been developing brain imaging technology for 50 years. Work was started in the 1970s by Sir Peter Mansfield, who later won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of MRI. About 15 years ago, Nottingham started working with a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG). MEG measures the magnetic field generated by currents flowing through nerve assemblies in the brain. The field can be used to reconstruct pictures of brain activity that allow us to see – over time – how electrical activity in the brain develops when we perform mental tasks, and how that function is altered in disease.
In 2016, working with collaborators at University College London, we realized that a new type of quantum sensor, now called optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs), could be used to measure the brain’s magnetic field much more accurately than conventional sensors (superconducting quantum interference devices – SQUIDs). What’s more, because it is small and light, the OPM is much more practical than SQUID (which usually needs to be bathed in liquid helium to work). We partnered with US atomic devices company QuSpin, which had started building the first commercial OPM, and together we prototyped the first OPM-MEG device in 2018. However, we quickly realized that the key to making this work was extremely high precision. magnetic field control. We then partnered with a British company called magnetic shields limited (MSL) which is a world leader in the development of magnetically shielded enclosures. Working together, we built a second prototype in 2020, and this time we realized that our system could outperform the state-of-the-art. Many brain imaging groups around the world started asking us to help build the OPM-MEG system. This led to the birth of Cerca – in mid-2020. Cerca was formed as a joint venture between the University of Nottingham and MSL, in partnership with QuSpin.
How does your technology compare to what is currently available on the market?
Because the SQUID used in conventional systems requires cryogenic cooling, the system is bulky, with large, helium-bathed, helmet-mounted sensors. In our system, the sensors are about the size of Lego bricks and can be mounted on a lightweight helmet. This means the sensor moves with the head, so the system allows the subject to move freely while we measure brain activity. Also, conventional systems are “one size fits all” and built for adults, meaning in children (whose heads are smaller) the sensor is further away from the head so the signal is smaller. However, with our system, scanning a child just means wearing a smaller helmet size. Finally, because the sensors don’t need to be cold, they are closer to the head, so we get a bigger signal from the brain and better spatial precision. All of this also comes at a lower cost because we don’t need cryogenic infrastructure.
What challenge do you want to solve?
OPM-MEG has many applications – from basic neuroscience to clinical applications; from disorders that strike in childhood like epilepsy, to neurodegenerative disorders that strike parents like dementia; from concussions in professional sportsmen, to severe mental health problems like schizophrenia. In all of these disorders, we know that there are MEG-based biomarkers that can help us better understand the underlying neural substrates, or help us inform treatments. At Cerca, we partner with institutions around the world, enabling them to start addressing these issues. However, we have a special interest in epilepsy. Epilepsy is a disorder characterized by abnormal electrical activity, and our system can map the areas of the brain that produce that activity with unprecedented precision. Because we can tolerate movement while scanning, we can even scan patients during seizures. We can also scan children. So in the short term, we have a great opportunity to help people who have epilepsy, and we’re partnering with the National Charity Young Epilepsy, and doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, to do that.
How do you expect the industry to innovate in the next 5 years?
The global quantum sector has developed rapidly in recent years. In the UK this has been fueled by Quantum Hubs, which are the rock on which Cerca, and many other industrial entities, have been founded. The Hub not only brings together those working in similar quantum science fields from different universities, but also provides an interface between academia and industry. It becomes a powerful “melting pot”, where those with questions meet those who provide (quantum) solutions. The UK government recently announced the continuation of the Hub structure, and it promises another 5 years of partnerships and innovation. There is a huge opportunity for companies, big and small, to get involved and – especially in areas like quantum sensing or imaging – there are technologies that are already working and ready to be implemented in the real world. It seems that in the next 5 years it is expected that there will be a transition, in which “quantum” leaves the laboratory bench, and begins to be integrated in our community to solve real life problems.
Which brands/leaders in the field inspire you and your team
At Cerca, what inspires the team is seeing how our technology is used by our end users. We now have many systems in the field, which are used for cutting-edge neuroscience – a good example is our system at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. The system was installed in mid-2020 and is now being used in children – to map the neurodevelopmental trajectories of brain tissue in healthy children, and how these trajectories diverge in disease. The Toronto team has been scanning children up to 1 year of age, something that is very difficult to do with conventional technology. Seeing quantum technology used in this way, overcoming real-world challenges, is truly inspiring!
What’s next for Cerca Magnetics?
We know OPM-MEG can do amazing things, but deploying it in hospitals requires medical device approval. This is the next big challenge for Cerca. Luckily, we’ve been lucky enough to get funding from Innovate UK to help do this, and our (ambitious) timeline is to collect the data we need in the next three years.
Image: qBIG prize-winning photo of winner, Niall Holmes (left) and IOP Director of Science, Innovation, and Skills, Louis Barson (right).