Razorbill Instruments - Dr Alex Ward

Razorbill Instruments is a start-up company that makes cryogenic compatible products that are used as the critical part in various physics experiments. We are, in a very real sense, a SUPA company. Of our three founders, Jack Barraclough, Cliff Hicks and me, Cliff was a SUPA researcher when the company was formed and Jack and I were just graduating from SUPA’s very own Condensed Matter CDT. Ever since the company was officially founded – at the end of 2014 – we’ve kept these very close ties to SUPA. 

Our flagship product is a cryogenic strain cell that can apply tunable uniaxial strains at temperatures below 4K. In condensed matter physics, theorists are often asking hard to deliver requests, for example; “can you move the atoms apart along one coordinate?” This is desirable because it throws a lot of insight onto how crystal structure influences the emergent electrical properties of a system. Many similar requests from theorists (if not absolutely impossible!) are way beyond what’s currently experimentally feasible and are usually a source of head-scratching and consternation to experimental physicists. While strictly speaking, it’s not 100% possible without introducing any other changes to the system, applying uniaxial strain gets you pretty darn close.
Razorbill’s cryogenic strain cell allows exactly this kind of transformation and still works at cryogenic temperature and high magnetic field and fits inside a 25 mm diameter sample space. Unlike most techniques, the thermal expansion and contractions due to the temperature change when mounting the sample at room temperature and measuring a 4K are cancelled out, meaning you can tune the strain through the zero strain point.
Since launching our product at the end of 2015, we’ve found that the global physics community has been incredibly supportive. Customers understand that the device isn’t quite a turn-key solution yet but are willing to accept that they may have to provide the electronics for the product themselves if the product enables them to achieve a fundamentally new experiment. Although we (as yet) have not sold to a UK research group, our strain cells are in use in laboratories in several European countries, East Asia and a numerous US states.
The experience of setting up and running a physics-based company has been a very positive one. The customers tend to be highly clued up on the technology and are willing to really give a good grilling on the capabilities of the product. Once they’ve been convinced that we know what we’re doing and our product is what they need they’ve been our strongest advocate – vital in a small community where word-of-mouth referrals are our bread and butter. And the market is small, perhaps only a few tens or hundreds of groups are interested in doing this kind of experiment, but we’re adding to our product range all the time. It’s pretty obvious we’re not going to be the next Facebook, but if we continue to do good R&D, incrementally add well-designed scientific products to our range, and we continue to receive the support of the physics community we may eventually be the next Thorlabs. So far the experience has been very educational. I’m interested to see where it goes next.