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Early-career Q&A: Startup cofounder Danielle Wuchenich

6 July 2022

The former NASA physicist’s experiences in the laboratory inspired her and colleagues to develop versatile instruments for the research community.

Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of Q&As with early-career researchers, with a focus on careers in industry, contributed by Physics Today’s partners at the American Institute of Physics Career Network.

Ask Danielle Wuchenich about the inspiration for the company she cofounded, Liquid Instruments, and she’ll bring up floppy disks. While working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory a decade ago, Wuchenich had to use a new, expensive piece of equipment that still relied on a floppy disk drive. “I had to go on eBay and buy a floppy disk reader because no one in the lab seemed to have one,” she says.

Danielle Wuchenich.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Wuchenich

In 2014 Wuchenich and 11 colleagues started Liquid with the idea of leveraging the computational power of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are typically reserved for specific laboratory applications, to create highly versatile instrumentation for use by students, scientists, and engineers. In her current position as chief operating officer, Wuchenich oversees the company’s US operations, which are based in Solana Beach, California. Although her duties have changed from when she was a JPL researcher, she taps into her expertise from that time during site visits and technical meetings and when coordinating deliveries of the company’s Moku products.

Physics Today recently got a chance to talk with Wuchenich about her early interest in science, the founding of Liquid, and where the company hopes to go from here.

PT: How did you get interested in physics?

WUCHENICH: I grew up in Redlands, California, in a family of medical doctors, so I always thought that I would go into medicine in some form. At the same time, my parents exposed me to a lot of different scientific ideas and concepts. We went to a space shuttle takeoff and landing. I even met Sally Ride!

I was always good at math; it was hands down my best subject. I went to a small liberal arts school in Michigan called Andrews University, my dad’s alma mater. Initially I pursued a medical degree like the rest of my family. I started reading through courses and thought focusing on the sciences made the most sense, especially since a math degree alone sounded a little too nerdy for me. That led me to a process of elimination: Chemistry seemed too hard, biology seemed like too much memorization, and physics just emerged as the most logical option. It seemed like an easy fit to major in math alongside physics, so I chose both, and Spanish.

I had a really great experience with physics at college. I would call it my primary major. I think it was the smallest department in the university, so the staff-to-student ratio was probably one to one, if not even better.

PT: How did you end up at JPL?

WUCHENICH: During my junior year, one of my professors pulled me aside and said, “Danielle, if you’re at all thinking that you might want to pursue physics in graduate school, you really need to do some summer internships.” So I applied for a summer internship with the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) program, a project that later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017. I was placed at the Australian National University (ANU). I was fortunate enough to join a network of high-achieving scientists who had very ambitious goals.

As it happened, my principal investigator from the internship worked jointly at JPL. He said if I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump right into graduate school, I could come work for JPL and keep the focus on physics and maybe get an idea of the direction I wanted to go in. That’s really where my five-year relationship with JPL started. As I was getting my PhD at ANU, for a few months each year I was also performing graduate research at JPL.

At JPL I focused on laser metrology for satellite systems. I worked on LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), a project to put a gravitational-wave detector in space that has yet to launch, and the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) project to track Earth’s water from space. Seeing part of my PhD work presented at the preliminary design review at NASA for GRACE-FO was just really fun. I even got to attend the launch. I’ve been extremely lucky.

PT: How did you end up cofounding Liquid Instruments?

WUCHENICH: The genesis of the company was my colleagues and me asking, “How can we design equipment and leverage technology that we ourselves would want to use in research?” We thought about the limitations of the equipment and tests that we’d had to use over the years. These are tools that are based on technology from 50 years ago. There’s nothing technically wrong with them; they work fine. But there was always a recurring thought of “There’s got to be a better way.”

With all our research experience, we wanted to help our fellow researchers access cutting-edge technology and push their research for humanity forward.

PT: What did it take to turn those ideas into commercial products?

WUCHENICH: I was completing my PhD when we started doing early prototyping for Moku:Lab. Once we felt we had a good enough handle on what would be required, we founded the company and got our first seed funding from ANU through its Discovery Translation Fund. By that time, I had moved back to the US and had started working at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center.

At JPL, ANU, and Lockheed, we were using test equipment all the time for our day jobs. We had become experts in using FPGAs to do real-time digital signal processing and control for specific LISA experiments for which general-purpose equipment wasn’t suitable. [FPGAs are integrated circuits that the end user can configure with a specific programming language.]

Danielle Wuchenich (right) and a colleague.
Danielle Wuchenich (right) and colleague Huntington Wagner set up equipment at a trade show. Credit: Liquid Instruments

There were many advantages in both performance and flexibility that our in-house FPGA systems were comparable to conventional equipment. The idea to expand our dedicated, specialized, FPGA-based test systems into more general-purpose test and measurement equipment evolved over time; that was the way I had already started using FPGAs for my own experiments.

I was programming basic, general-purpose instruments on my FPGA system for diagnostics so I wouldn’t need to go to the lab and pester my colleagues to borrow equipment just to run a few quick tests. I could reprogram my FPGA and deploy different instruments to do most of what was necessary without needing to replug cables and switch out equipment. As we realized this—what we now call an “instrument-on-chip” architecture—it enabled such extreme flexibility that it could be applied to a much more general-purpose audience.

PT: Could you tell us more about the products themselves?

WUCHENICH: Our products aim to simplify lab needs by offering multiple, customizable instruments in one package at an affordable price. It’s only been in the last several years that FPGA chips have been powerful enough to be able to replace standard box options and let us combine all these different instruments.

Currently in our lineup we have three Moku hardware platforms, which vary in specs, performance, and price. All our platforms include commonly used instruments like an oscilloscope, waveform generator, data logger, spectrum analyzer, and more. We also have more niche instruments, like a lock-in amplifier, phasemeter, laser lockbox, and others, all of which can run on the same hardware. Users can customize their equipment through software, as opposed to hardware, to suit their needs.

PT: What does a typical day look like for you?

WUCHENICH: Currently it’s a lot of being on the phone and Zoom. The best part of my job is all the different aspects of the company that I get to touch, for better or for worse. That means everything from legal issues to marketing campaigns and product road maps—it’s really across the board. Since I’m at the high management level, ultimately you’re kind of responsible for everything. It’s challenging but rewarding.

The main shift for me has been from being a researcher to providing the tools for researchers worldwide. We’re venture funded, which means fundraising on a regular basis. It’s something I enjoy engaging in, but it’s also work that you’re very happy to have done. And the recent chip shortage has made it very clear how important it is to make accurate forecasts so that we can reliably put in firm component orders far enough out, even as much as a year out.

We exhibit our equipment at technical trade shows that have researchers coming to present their work. That’s how we find a lot of our customers. The researchers present their latest and greatest, and then they’ll come and see the latest and greatest equipment. That’s been a great way of connecting with people who could be using our equipment.

PT: What is your next big project?

WUCHENICH: With the release of these new Moku products, I think there are a few different directions that we could go in. One area that has really been underutilized is the connection with the cloud. Traditionally in our industry, it’s very hardware centric. And so, to do the measurements that you’re trying to do, you have a bespoke box that does that job. If you need to make a different measurement, you buy a different box, and usually the computing that you have available is tied to the box. So you use the box to acquire your data, and then maybe you do some postprocessing with some other software to get some additional analytics out of it.

What we’ve seen in so many other industries is a move toward the cloud. So we recently launched Moku Cloud Compile, a web-based compiler that lets users program their Moku’s FPGA to quickly create and deploy custom, real-time signal processing algorithms.

I think that in our industry, cloud computing can enable and transform certain applications. For example, real-time processing from measurement technologies requires tremendous amounts of computing power; think LIDAR for autonomous vehicles, quantum computing, imaging satellites, and more. We want to enable technologies that are requiring that kind of fundamental shift in the way in which data are processed.

PT: What advice would you give to undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in a similar career path?

WUCHENICH: Everyone says, “Do what you love.” There’s some truth to that. I would add, “Do what you’re good at.” That way, you’ll hopefully be opening an easier path for yourself. And then it comes naturally to you, and you can hone your skills even further. For example, math was a subject that I liked but didn’t see myself focusing on as a career, whereas physics was this brilliant bridge that took advantage of the fact that I was good at math. Finding out subjects you naturally enjoy can help you get through them easier, and it could help you develop a successful and satisfying career.

There are several skills I developed during my training that have been unexpectedly useful in my job and are valued in the industry—for example, being comfortable with complex data and being able to perform detailed analyses and simulations. It’s especially helpful for the financial side of things.

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