NT-MDT is a brand that is well known to users of scanning probe microscopes in the world. Zelenograd based company is an example of how original ideas of Russian scientists and engineers can be translated into a successful business project. At the end of 2016, the company announced the reorganization and creation of the NT-MDT Spectrum Instruments Group. We have interviewed Viktor A. Bykov, the founder of the NT-MDT brand and Honorary President of NT-MDT Spectrum Instruments Group, to get to know about the company's changes, current projects and development plans.
Mr. Bykov, what are the reasons for reorganization of the company and creation of a new brand, NT-MDT Spectrum Instruments? In 2015, the NT-MDT company due to a number of problems have suspended their activities. The developers have concentrated in NT-MDT Ltd., a kolkovo resident. We quickly created and brought to market the new devices in which the scanning probe microscopy is combined with spectroscopy, for example, with high-performance confocal Raman microscopy, infrared micro- and spectroscopy of nanometer spatial resolution. The so-called spectral modes have also been developed in atomic force microscopy. The new brand emphasizes the willingness to respond to current market trends. The establishment of a R&D centre using Skolkovo’s tax environment is beneficial in a situation when other mechanisms of state support of new developments are virtually absent. In these circumstances, it was decided to concentrate efforts in the field of scientific instrumentation and to suspend the development and production of process equipment, because the Russian process equipment market is insignificant and the global market requires a large investment in the organization of a service support. I am confident that this step will increase the efficiency of the company, will enable us to more quickly develop the devices and to improve the quality of service and technological support for users.
What is current state of the company? NT-MDT Spectrum Instruments Group employs about 200 people, including about 150 employees in Russia. Currently we have offices in Eindhoven (Netherlands), Limerick (Ireland), Phoenix (USA), Beijing and Shanghai (China). In more than 50 countries our products are represented by distributors. In terms of sales of scanning probe microscopes and combination devices on their basis, we are ranked second in the world. Installations of devices in leading scientific centers of Europe, China, Japan and USA, where they are used for most advanced researches, testify to the international recognition and high prestige of NT-MDT Spectrum Instruments Group. The fact that our consultant is Virgil Elings, founder of Digital Instruments, one of the first companies that started in the 1980s the development of scanning probe microscopes, also speaks for itself. How important is the international market for the company? Since the release of our first products we began to work with foreign customers. Moreover, if we would have operated only in the domestic market, it is likely that the company would not had survived. The logic is simple: the market of one country is vulnerable to recessions, for example, in Russia over the past 30 years there were several deep crises, and the international market is much more stable. By the way, the Soviet scientific instrumentation engineering has not been developed largely because of limited demand. It is almost impossible to create a good device in case of single batches, but the serial manufacturing requires to operate in the international market. Currently, Russia accounts for less than 10% of our sales. There was a time when this value reached 30–40%, but most of the revenue has always provided by foreign customers. There is another factor that was taken into account in the establishment of foreign offices. Not all components of the devices are available in Russia, but to import them because of the strictness of the customs legislation is expensive and time consuming. Therefore, some components are purchased by our partners in Ireland, where we have created a service center for international customers. Also not all technologies of required level are available in Russia. Cooperation helps to quickly and effectively resolve these issues. The work in the international market is important in order to quickly understand trends and changes in requirements of users. At the same time, we were, are and will be Russian company, because all R&D and the main production are concentrated in Russia. Why did you succeed in foreign markets? Not to copy someone else's design is our immutable rule. You must know the subject and have your own original ideas, only then it is possible to create successful products. When we started, many of my colleagues did not believe that we will be able to make competitive devices of the world level. Indeed, it was difficult, as there was no access to the necessary components. However, none of our devices have not been copied. Another problem is the opinion that a good instrument cannot be designed and manufactured in Russia. As a result, funds that the government assigned for the modernization of scientific and educational centers, often went and still go to foreign companies, even in the presence of high-quality domestic counterparts. It is very difficult to break this mentality. The best way to refute a misconception about the quality of the Russian developments is to show the devices installed in the leading foreign institutions and companies. Thus, the successful work in foreign markets contributes to increasing loyalty to the company in Russia. Currently, our devices have the best characteristics. They can operate in multiple modes with high accuracy. NT-MDT has become a recognized brand and it is one of the most important our achievements. The competitors are behind us, some of them even try to copy the design of our devices. What problems are typical for export-oriented company? Unfortunately, Russian laws support raw-materials branches. There are very few export-oriented companies like us in the country, and our interests are not lobbied. I have already mentioned the strict customs legislation. Because of this we had to create a service office abroad because the users cannot and will not wait as much time as required to complete all customs procedures. A big problem for Russian manufacturing companies is the high cost of borrowed funds. As a result, foreign competitors can much easier and cheaper attract funds for their development than we can do it. In general, the state ought to provide much more support to domestic small and medium high-tech business than the measures that are being implemented now. We cooperate with many scientific and educational institutions, implementing joint projects and providing them with jobs for graduates. In particular, we have a great connection with the MIPT, MIET, Lomonosov MSU, MEPhI, Bauman MSTU and other universities. What are the trends in the field of scientific instrumentation? The main trend is the simplification of use of the device. We strive to make even the most complex and multifunctional microscopes simple for operation, so that customers didn't need to hire costly qualified employees. This is not a trivial task, since the technical capabilities of devices are growing. If we talk about specific technical solutions that facilitate the use of AFM, it is advisable to note our unique cartridges with 38 cantilevers of different lengths with different coatings. These cartridges are significantly easier to install into device than an individual cantilevers, at minimal risk of damage. In addition, this solution helps to reduce errors, and all cantilevers in the cartridge have close resonant frequencies. In the near future, the device must become the partner of the researcher. What are the development plans of the company? Among the new developments I would like to mention the automatic scanning probe system for wafers. A prototype for 200 mm wafers is already created, which can be a base for the device for 300 mm wafers. This system promises to be very successful with excellent noise performance. Systems, which allow to determine not only the physical properties but also the chemical composition of the surface, are in development. Integration of IR spectroscopy and apertureless near-field microscopy allows to solve these tasks. The design of combined SPM and Raman spectroscopy is much improved. We continue to improve all of our systems, as circuitry improves. I think that integrated circuits on the memristors will be available soon, which will allow us to create a trainable systems. I want to note that modern materials science and related areas can't be developed without instruments with nanometer resolution, which helps to move science and technology forward, avoiding false paths. Interview: Dmitry Gudilin, Olesya Lavrenteva