Oxford Startup Wants to Revolutionize Sensors

A startup spawned from Oxford University is trying to commercialize components of a quantum computing technology that could ultimately improve the downstream end of existing diagnostic devices.

Oxford HighQ has received £2.1 million in seed funding to commercialize components of a quantum computing technology developed at Oxford University that can be used to develop improved chemical and nanoparticle sensing technologies.

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Oxford HighQ, a quantum technologies startup spawned from Oxford University, has received more than $2.5 million (£2.1 million) in seed funding to commercialize components of a quantum computing technology developed at Oxford University that can be used to develop improved chemical and nanoparticle sensing technologies.

The new startup is in the process of developing sensors with a sensitivity up to 10,000 times that of any currently available optical sensing technologies on the market. The company aims for the new technology to be used for applications in a number of different fields, but primarily in medical diagnostics and nanomedicine.

“Our sensors are based on optical microresonators, which are able to amplify signals in any of the wide variety of optical methods commonly used in chemical sensing,” said Jeremy Warren, co-founder and CEO for HighQ. “While the use of optical microresonators in sensing is not a new idea, our team has pioneered methods for resonator fabrication and use that will make microresonator-enhanced sensors a commercial reality for the first time.”

Warren said the company remains confident that optical microresonators will deliver orders of magnitude increase in the sensitivity of colorimetric assays approaching single molecule sensitivity. In other words, the new technology could make a measurement using only minute liquid sample volumes which could simplify the sample collection process. The new technology could also produce sensor elements that can be mass-produced at low cost, are micrometers in size, compatible with microfluidic systems, and also be used in chip-scale devices.

“There is a clear opportunity to improve the downstream end of existing diagnostic devices by supplanting the existing detectors with microresonators,” Warren said. “There is a good fit here as HighQ sensors utilize the microfluidics that are so common to diagnostic medical devices, so this can provide better sensitivity at a lower cost on already proven diagnostics.”

The optical microsensors at the heart of the sensor technologies were designed by a team of professors from Oxford University’s department of materials and department of chemistry. Originally the microresonators were designed for use in quantum technologies where fine control is required over the interaction between light and matter at microscopic length scales.

Eventually, with improved funding, they were able to demonstrate that these components can also be used to design, manufacture, assemble, and control microresonators with micron-scale separation between the core mirrored surfaces to provide signals.

As the company looks to the future, they plan to continue to work with Oxford University to deliver profound advances in the sensing of nanoparticles and chemicals in fluids — with early applications in laboratory instruments and eventual applications in compact devices.

“We are well-financed and have access to excellent technologies as we maintain our links with the University of Oxford,” Warren said. “We also have proven expertise in getting new technologies to market. We anticipate having devices in test in Q2 2019. I’ll stick my neck out and predict we have open market products by the end of 2020. Certainly sooner than five years time.”

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