Metamorphosis From Academic to Businessman


At a time in life when most people start thinking about slowing down, David Beaglehole decided to reinvent himself as a businessman.

After nearly 30 years as a professor of physics at Victoria University, he could have simply retired. But he had developed a range of instruments that could measure the thickness of interfaces and surfaces to very high accuracy, so he decided to start up his own business, Beaglehole Instruments Ltd, to continue developing and selling them.

Now, still a few years shy of 70, he works from offices at the top of Wellington’s Botanical Garden, employs several staff and is shipping his instruments to laboratories all over the world – and he maintains connections with the academic world as an associate investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute.

His clients include a Nobel Prize winner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Paris-based International Bureau of Weights and Measures, but his instruments also hum away in several university laboratories in the US, Europe and Japan.

It all began harmlessly enough when a colleague at Victoria University asked for help, back in the late 1970s. Professor John Lekner was trying to work out the thickness of a simple liquid interface between the liquid and air, but he was a theoretician so he turned to the experimenter to get the real answer. “There is a thickness to such layers, because the molecules are always bouncing around a bit. He wanted to determine the thickness of the surface of liquid argon, in connection with an interest in the statistical physics of liquid surfaces. But the theoretical predictions for the thickness of this interface were somewhere between 2Å and 2000 Å, so he asked me to measure this, and the seeds for the company were sown back then.”

It took some years of trial and error, but the end result was a highly accurate ellipsometer, an instrument that uses polarised light to analyse the surface of liquids and solids. “You couldn’t use Xrays because the vapour above the liquid would scatter the rays, you couldn’t use electron microscopy for the same reason, so I looked at the polarisation effect and started making simple ellipsometers.”

A simple ellipsometer wasn’t enough though. The Beaglehole ellipsometer measures disturbances on a surface at the accuracy of a picometer, that’s 10-12 of a metre, or the size of the nucleus of an atom, and to achieve the sensitivity required to measure such thin layers, Professor Beaglehole had to come up with something else.

“I remembered that somebody had used a modulation technique in physics some years back, so I tried that out and it worked really well. It turns out that it’s ideal for that sort of measurement.”

He incorporated phase modulation in his instruments by passing the polarised light through a vibrating slab of glass. “As it vibrates, the length of the piece of glass changes and you get a phase shift, which means that the light becomes circularly polarised one way and then circularly polarised the other way at a high frequency, at 50kHz. At that high frequency, the modulation is something we can measure with fancy electronics and that’s what makes it so very sensitive.”

Naturally, other researchers started asking for Professor Beaglehole’s ellipsometers, and he started making them with the help of Dr Andy Edgar who designed the electronics and university technicians after hours. However, eventually, in 1993 he incorporated a company, and then, with a grant from the government’s Technology for Business Growth scheme, set up shop in the gardens.

The prototype phase-modulated singlebeam ellipsometer became know as a picometer, but over the years Professor Beaglehole has extended the range, adding other features to his instruments. “The picometer is very sensitive, but a lot of the measurements that were needed were cases where the surface was changing all the time. You needed to monitor that and take pictures of the surface at any time, so I developed an imaging ellipsometer and there’s been a lot of interest in that. We’ve also developed a spectroscopic picometer, because you can do a lot with just one wavelength of polarised light, but if you have a complicated system you get more information when you tune the wavelength to match the absorption bands of the molecules that are there.”

As the range of instruments is growing, so are the possible applications and markets. Professor Beaglehole’s main customer base is the research sector, followed by the semi-conductor industry, which uses the picometer to measure the thickness of layers of oxide and metals placed over the silicon bases used in computer circuit boards. “The silicon industry is making these in the millions and they are not easy to measure accurately. It’s easy to measure them roughly, but to get accuracy is very hard.”

Requests also come from chemical engineering, where the instruments are used to investigate surface-active molecules. “This could be molecules that are at the interface between different phases, such as water and air. We can measure the adsorption, the sticking of a surface-active molecule onto an interface, with very high precision.”

One burgeoning market Professor Beaglehole is keen to break into is biotechnology. “The way biological micro arrays, bits of DNA, are studied now is by attaching fluorescent markers to the molecules to be isolated. But with our technique you could study just the molecules by themselves and by measuring the thickness of the layers you can see if the molecules are attaching. So for example you could have the target DNA molecules in an array, simply wash that with other molecules and to see which ones combine, all you need to do is to measure which layers get thicker.”

Despite the ongoing developments, David Beaglehole is the first to acknowledge that the metamorphosis from academic to businessman was slow and often difficult. “Initially, I couldn’t patent any of my work because it had all been published in scientific journals and was out in the public domain. I don’t think one would want to do this unless one is a good business man and I am still learning the hard way the skills you need as a business man.”

Right: Emeritus Professor David Beaglehole