If Carlsberg made AFM probes...

When you drink a pint of Carlsberg you know precisely what to expect in terms of taste and flavour.

Carlsberg’s best known beer, Carlsberg Export, is allegedly still brewed to the original recipe that Danish brewery founder J.C Jacobsen created in 1847.

Jacobsen claimed that “develop[ing] the art of making beer to the highest possible degree of perfection” was his central and constant purpose.

For the company, as for the founder, repeatability of their lager recipes to the same standard every time continues to be central to this pursuit for (and some might say achievement of) excellence.


Reliability and repeatability are values that we hold pretty dear at NuNano too.

The experience of working with AFM probes as a doctoral student has informed my own “pursuit of perfection” in the art of making AFM tips to a consistently high quality of sharpness.

Few things were more frustrating than going through the rigmarole of preparing my precious sample, setting up the system, carefully scanning the sample and then not getting the image or image clarity that I expected.

Checking off the different reasons for this and adjusting various imaging parameters, only to discover that simply changing the probe made all the difference in the world was a good outcome, but very time consuming, and sometime required the preparation of yet another sample...

It wasn’t just the cost of the probes or the associated time wasted in this way that I found frustrating, it was also the break in momentum. I know from other colleagues then and now that poor tip sharpness can stall a good day’s science.

For some it’s costly in different ways, for example when they are dealing samples that are particularly sensitive or could degrade quickly. There simply isn’t time to faff around changing AFM probes.

 Quality Control @ NuNano

Quality Control @ NuNano


For this reason I’ve ensured a market leading level of quality checking in our AFM probe manufacturing process.

Specifically, during and after production we inspect every single probe.

Using scanning electron microscope (SEM), we check each probe for tip sharpness, cantilever thickness and uniformity, measuring the radius of the curvature of the tip to ensure it is sub-10 nanometres.

Our strict quality control (QC) process during fabrication safeguards the tips from contamination during these checks. The follow up post-production QC confirms that each tip meets the requisite sharpness, and if it doesn’t, the probe simply doesn’t get shipped.

As founder of NuNano, this is my central and constant purpose: ensuring that we provide a level of quality that guarantees reliable and accurate imaging from every probe in every box we ship. It gives our customers peace of mind and saves them time as every probe works.

And this of course is precisely what makes our AFM probes the best in the world. Probably.

Pint anyone?

Why growing your start-up business inside an incubator is a good idea – an outsider-insider perspective

This month’s blog is written by our non-exec Chairman Rick Chapman who reflects on his journey with NuNano and what it takes to raise a company from start-up to scale-up…

Rick has over 30 years of experience working in high tech industries (including corporates such as Marconi and STMicroelectronics) but since 2001 he has worked predominantly with start-ups, successfully helping four grow himself – two hardware and two software businesses.

 Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd


We’re experiencing exciting times at NuNano. As a company we no longer really fit the descriptor of ‘start-up’, having graduated into a growth-stage company.

You’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks, but I want to share with you some of key factors that helped move us from a position of having cutting edge tech, grounded in academic research, that we’ve now turned into a viable, expanding and scalable business.

Central to our success has been the fact that, since our inception, we have been housed within SETsquared, the University of Bristol’s business incubator.

The SETsquared Partnership was formed in 2003 through a collaboration between five leading research-intensive universities: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. SETsquared is a focus for enterprise activity and new business creation for the five university partners, including incubating start-ups.

Whilst an incubator isn’t the right thing for all start-ups, a young business, like a young child, needs support, guidance and to be part of a community. For us SETsquared was the perfect environment for this nurturing growth approach, but any incubation hub is good, at the right time.

 Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography

Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography


Here are three ways that being part of SETsquared really moved our business on.

1)  Business Review Panels – Roughly every 6 – 12 months SETsquared invites the companies it is incubating to present to a panel of 5 – 6 business people. This is a mix of people from within SETsquared, within industry and from services such as legal and finance. It’s effectively a cross between Dragon’s Den and a therapy session! The CEO presents the current business plan to the panel which is followed by a 2 – 3 hour discussion about the business, approach and next steps. Knowledge and insight is shared with the start-up and a robust plan of next steps is formulated with the CEO.

2)  Coaching and mentoring – SETsquared have ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’, these are people like myself who have a significant amount of industry and start-up experience who are able to provide structured and ad-hoc support, advice and guidance to the CEO as they navigate the first few months and years of the business, implementing their plans and responding to challenges.

3)  Learning and development – SETsquared annually organise a number of workshops from the basics of setting up a company to company finances, writing grant applications, presentation skills and so on. What works really well for companies within the hub is that they can attend these workshops at the point in time that it is most relevant and helpful for their company development.

Fundamentally this combination of support methods means that the incubator is able to provide a bespoke programme tailored to the real-time needs of the developing company.

There is of course a fourth way that incubators can help – they can put a business like NuNano in touch with someone like me – people looking to get actively involved with young companies and assist their growth in a hands-on fashion. This combination of solid technical and academic credentials with strong business background and knowledge of developing start-ups makes for a powerful relationship. Ultimately having the right mix of great product and great business skills is what can really help to take your business onto that next level.

Now not all such connections necessarily progress as ours did with me becoming non-exec chair of NuNano. However if you speak to any of my fellow ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’ at SETsquared they would agree that one of the challenges of working in an incubator is holding yourself back from wanting to get too involved in a hands-on way with all the great companies that you meet.

 Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

In the main, we simply don’t. But with NuNano it was different. I was impressed from that first Business Review Panel – here was a company with a great product, being led and run by one person, James Vicary, but with a vision from the get-go of being something much bigger.

One indicator of this was the fact that the company had a board in place – something that many might consider overkill for a company with, as it was then, just one employee. But having that structure in place set out a clear stall in terms of future ambition and, as that future starts to unfold before us now, puts us in a strong place with new investors as we’re already set up and familiar with boardroom landscape.

I can’t speak highly or strongly enough of the importance of the level of guidance and support for new businesses provided by innovation hubs such as SETsquared. You can’t put a price on the value of having the ability to run out and test ideas and strategies and come back into the relative safety of the hub to discuss how things went, what could be done differently and what needs to be done next.

I feel privileged to have accompanied James and NuNano on the journey from that first Business Review Panel - very much as a company outsider - to most recently helping to drive the business into our latest stage of growth from the inside.  Whilst the time with the incubator is coming to a natural close as we move into the next phase of development, I would certainly recommend other fledgling companies to consider joining an incubator program to help grow their acorn idea into something that is built to last.

To boldly sense what no probes have sensed before...

As a child, the very idea that Colonel Chris Hadfield would grow up to be an astronaut could be summed up in one word: impossible.

I recently attended a talk by this former commander of the International Space Station and first Canadian to walk in space, which was fascinating, inspirational and familiar. He described with wonder and awe the joy of greeting, challenging and overcoming ‘the impossible’, capturing the very essence of how most scientists I know feel about their work.


I’ve had the pleasure of working with one such scientist at the University of Bristol, Dr Massimo Antognozzi. Equally excited by challenging the sense of what is impossible Massimo’s ‘final frontier’ is pushing to measure what was previously considered unmeasurable at the nanoscale through Atomic Force Microscopy.

Catching up over a coffee last week Massimo explained:

“Although a cantilever is an incredibly sensitive device, it still has to be rigid (i.e. insensitive) enough to horizontally extend out over a sample. In doing so cantilevers sacrifice their true sensing potential.”

Overturning thirty years of AFM thinking, Massimo wondered what if we didn’t make the sacrifice and didn’t horizontally extend our cantilevers?  Could we mount them vertically? How sensitive could we be, and what could we sense at the nanoscale that before was considered impossible?

What Massimo found was that by rotating the probe into a vertical orientation the fundamental limit to the forces that can be measured inherent in the standard horizontal AFM orientation could be lifted.

Massimo's bold new thinking challenged the very construction of the ‘standard’ AFM and has led to the development of a new detection system, capable of measuring very small lateral movements of the probe as it interacts with the sample.

 ©eLife Journal

©eLife Journal


I've been very proud to be part of that journey, developing ultra-soft probes for use in this vertical orientation, in instruments capable of detecting lateral or shear forces acting on the cantilever and with spring constants of less than 10 femtoNewtons.  That's 1000 times more sensitive than conventional AFM probes!  Massimo said:

“While theoretical models exist for some systems in this new low-force regime, many we will be observing for the first time.

Exploring this with innovative sensors and instrumentation is really exciting.”

With this powerful instrumentation, Massimo and his co-workers have been able to apply scanning probe techniques to a new range of low-force applications.  From observing the procession a single kinesin molecular motor along a microtubule to the mechanosensitive responses of adhesin proteins binding to bacteria.

 And for Massimo the mission is only just beginning:

“The next step is to push the technology even further and get into the sub-femtoNewton range!”

It is his boundless enthusiasm to go where no AFMer has gone before that reminded me of the Hadfield talk and that for the true scientist there is no final frontier, only the next unknown, the next impossible to overcome. So let’s keep setting the warp drive to ‘inquisitive’ and see where the technology can take us next…

What ‘impossibles’ have you overcome in your work?

If you are interested in purchasing some ultra-soft probes we can provide them here.

Why hoarding is good scientific practice...

Look around your desk. I bet there’s a drawer stuffed with cables that you simply don’t want to throw out*. You never know when you might need that one specific adaptor and you can probably remember that one time when you did have the essential [insert item of your choice here] that saved the day with a particular experiment.

 Look familiar?

Look familiar?


Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Ultimately this hoarding reflects ‘good scientific practice’ – holding onto seemingly useless or unnecessary things, whether that is data, or tools or the piece of kit that ‘came with you’ from your previous university.  A seemingly pointless result one day can suddenly be the key that illuminates some unexplained data and new avenue of research.

During my PhD, my colleagues and I in the SPM group here in Bristol had a habit of hoarding our used AFM probes. The reason being of course that you might need to re-use a probe that gave you a specific result, or maybe image one in an SEM to see why the image wasn’t what you were expecting.  It was scientifically important to hoard AFM probes!

In order to remember whether the probe was to be kept and reused or kept but not reused, I created a sort of code in terms of how I angled the probe when I put it back in the box and kept notes in my lab book to remind me. I’d be lying if I said that there was never any confusion when I came back to the probes at a later date… my system was far from fool proof!


It’s the little things that count

Some time ago I was chatting with some fellow AFMers and discovered that they too had equally complex mechanisms for storing their probes.  On the basis of that discussion, I decided to design our Gel-Pak® packaging in such a way that you can quickly see whether an AFM probe is used or unused, and if used whether it could be reused.


It may only a little thing but I’ve found these small details make all the difference in the world of academic research. It’s a key part of how I work.  It’s also why I relish getting feedback on our probes. It’s great to hear good stuff about our products (obviously! Don’t hold back!).  But actually, like any good scientist, what I really enjoy is chewing over ideas and problems, and finding innovative ways to solve them.


*If you feel the need to confess to your item of hoarding choice, let us know. Your secret will remain safe with us (unless you post it publicly as a comment below of course…).

(Gel-Pak® is a registered trademark of Delphon)


A pedant’s (Christmas) guide to AFM probe terminology

Consider this. You’re at the dining table on Christmas Day. It’s been a fabulous meal and you’re stuffed to bursting but the cheeseboard has just come out and there’s a cheeky piece of stilton calling your name.

 What do AFM probes and cheese knives have in common?

What do AFM probes and cheese knives have in common?


You have the whole block in front of you but no implement to cut yourself a chunk. Do you say to your neighbour “Would you mind passing me that blade?”, or even “Could you chuck us that handle over there?”? Or would you say, “Could you pass me the knife please?”….

Now obviously, you’d pick the latter. Afterall a blade needs a handle so you don’t cut yourself as well as the cheese and equally a handle needs a blade otherwise you’d just be smashing the cheese into chunks. Tasty but not especially good table manners! Together blade and handle are known as a knife.

Okay, so why am I talking cutlery? It’s just as we wind down for the Christmas break I find myself wondering why the AFM community, being a clever bunch of people, has not chosen a single specific term to refer to the fundamental device that makes atomic force microscopy possible.

As it currently stands the terms AFM tips, AFM cantilevers, AFM chips and AFM probes are used interchangeably. And to be fair, in the main, everyone knows what everyone else is referring to (except perhaps the poor person new to atomic force microscopy…).

In reality however, three of these terms refer to distinct components of the device that, as a whole, I refer to as an AFM probe - and here's why.

 Components of an AFM probe.

Components of an AFM probe.

As you know the AFM tip is the, typically, pyramidal or conical structure, the apex of which interacts with the surface of your sample.  The AFM tip protrudes perpendicularly from the end of the AFM cantilever.

Needless to say, these two structures are microscopically small and fragile, and most certainly cannot be handled by you or I.

Hence these parts of the device are fabricated attached to a larger structure, the AFM chip, which is large enough to be handled by experienced scientists and students alike.*

You can talk about the components independently, i.e. how sharp is the AFM tip? What is the resonant frequency of the AFM cantilever? Just as you might discuss how sharp a knife is, or how long the handle is.  But you can't buy an AFM tip or AFM cantilever in its component form, just like your everyday cheese knife doesn't come with a separate blade and handle.

Therefore, the device you buy to mount into the AFM instrument consists of a tip, a cantilever and a chip, and to my mind is best and most accurately described as an AFM probe.**

So as you cut into the stilton at the end of your Christmas feast and ponder the best cheese/cracker ratio, why not join me in making your 2017 New Year's resolution to commit to consistency and accuracy when talking about AFM probes...?


*So long as said student has sufficiency dexterous tweezer skills and isn't suffering from a night out with their supervisor!

**Incidently, you can buy tip-less probes... but let's not go there.  Pass the port please!