TQD Exclusive: Interview with Oxford Quantum Circuits CEO, Dr. Ilana Wisby

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TQD Exclusive: Interview with Oxford Quantum Circuits CEO, Dr. Ilana Wisby

While nearly all startups struggle with devising a business model and executing their business plans, startups in the quantum computing space face an even more daunting challenge: they have to build the business case for a brand new, rapidly evolving technology that most people don’t yet fully understand.

Oxford Quantum Circuits’ (OQC) approach to these challenges is simple: educate their stakeholders, build the quantum core itself and partner with the best to demonstrate the wide range of real-life applications it can support – from drug molecule modelling to stock trading optimisations.

“Our vision is to build a truly scalable, flexible quantum computer,” said Ilana Wisby, CEO of OQC. “We’re building the quantum computer itself, as well as the qubits, based on technology that was developed by Dr. (Peter) Leek at the University of Oxford, where the company started. And that’s really the core of what we do.”

Quantum Impact

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The startup’s ambitious goal can be summed up in a single word that comes up a lot in a conversation with Wisby: impact. Not just in the fledging quantum computing industry, but in the world writ. Within three years, the company expects that its customers will start realizing actual benefits from using its quantum computer. And it will grow from there.

“In five years time our end users will be working on commercial-sized applications which will either save them money or help them prove their business case through quantum computing” said Wisby. “We want to accelerate what quantum computing can do.”

Initially, ideal customers will likely be firms in the materials design, quantum chemistry and pharmaceutical spaces, as well as companies from other industries that seek a quantum “boost” to optimize their processes. But OQC won’t limit their customer base to those industries, Wisby said, adding they will always look for other commercial streams.

Commercial Applications

Wisby said that the company’s quantum computer is already a complete functioning unit, including the backend, the control, the hardware and the software. With four-qubits, their quantum computer is the most advanced and only commercial offering based in the UK.

“We want to be saving people some money or proving their business case through quantum computing. We want to accelerate what quantum computing can do.”

The key component of OQC’s computer is called the coaxmon. Because the slightest environmental noise or vibration can throw off quantum calculations — or decoherence — the coaxmon is designed to isolate the control wiring from quantum chips. This allows for the type of scaling that the company wants, without compromising coherence.

Besides the unique advantage in scalability that the coaxmon gives OQC, geography may be the company’s other not-so hidden intellectual property. The startup has ready access to the considerable talent and brain power that circulates around the Oxford area. Often called UK’s Golden Triangle, the company is centered in the hub of a number of the world’s best research universities — many with quantum computing programs — located in Cambridge, London and Oxford.

Customers and Clients

Oxford Quantum Circuits is already looking to extend access to its quantum computer to customers and partners beyond the university community. They are building their own laboratory to allow the company to accelerate R&D and broaden its partnership base.

“Up until this point, the operation of the processor has been within the university, which was a really good way of getting the proof-of-concept up and running,” said Wisby. “But we’re now at the stage where we need to rapidly accelerate research and development and that means moving that technology out of the university.”

Bringing the actual quantum technology in house will allow the company to broaden its partnership base, she added.

Oxford Quantum Circuits is focused on bringing quantum computing out of the labs and into the heart of business
Oxford Quantum Circuits is focused on bringing quantum computing out of the labs and into the heart of business. (Credit: Oxford Quantum Circuits)

Why Quantum CEOs Must Be Teachers

Because quantum technology is often counterintuitive, it can be difficult to conceptualize and communicate to the public, let alone potential clients and investors who are focused on results and applications. Wisby, who has a doctorate in quantum physics undertaken at the National Physical Laboratory, said that navigating both the academic side of quantum physics and the economic realities of running a business is one of her many challenges.

“It’s important to know how to communicate what the core concepts of quantum computing are and what our company’s unique selling points are, why we are different and why that’s meaningful”.

She said it’s also important to be well-versed in the technology of competing quantum technologies and approaches.

“It’s always a challenge to explain, for example, if you’re superconducting, how that’s different from ions, and how that’s different to silicon,” said Wisby. “Everyone has an opinion on the different technology spaces. There is still a lot of education to be done.”

Guiding potential partners, investors and clients through that initial bend of the learning curve is not always easy, according to Wisby, but it’s vital. While the excitement has caused a lot of interest in quantum computing, the news has also created a considerable amount of hype and confusion that makes it difficult to benchmark the various technologies and platforms that are beginning to develop, she added.

“When you’re in this technological space, how do you get reference points and how do you do due diligence? You’re trying to understand and compare in a space that doesn’t yet have standardized metrics for those comparisons.”

For example, though many in the industry focus on the number of qubits as a sign of the computational power of a quantum computer, it may not necessarily be an accurate benchmark, let alone a complete one, of the computer’s overall performance, she said.

“I feel for these investors because, how can you compare?” said Wisby. “When you’re in this technological space, how do you get reference points and how do you do due diligence? You’re trying to understand and compare in an industry that doesn’t yet have standardized metrics for those comparisons.”

Being at the forefront of this conversation will help position the company as a main actor in the country. OQC expects to be attending and exhibiting at upcoming trade and academic conferences, including Quantum.Tech Congress in London in 2020.

Matt Swayne

With a several-decades long background in journalism and communications, Matt Swayne has worked as a science communicator for an R1 university for more than 12 years, specializing in translating high tech and deep tech for the general audience. He has served as a writer, editor and analyst at The Quantum Insider since its inception. In addition to his service as a science communicator, Matt also develops courses to improve the media and communications skills of scientists and has taught courses. [email protected]

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