Starting a business is hard enough, but starting a business from the ground up in a highly technical, capital-intense field where a few industry giants already cast long shadows may tip the needle toward crazy. But, according to ICEoxford CEO Chris Busby, founding a company in the cryogenic space and competing in this challenging industry for 17 years helped shape the values and competitive edge of a company that is now considered among the world’s leaders in cryogenic products.
The company started with a simple knock on the door.
“I knocked on his (co-founder Paul Kelly’s) door and I just said, right, let’s do what we talked about, we have some money to start with – and that was 17 years ago now,” said Busby. “It was a very challenging time right up until about five or six years ago, when I think the company has really started coming together since we found our niche in the market and in the product range against the competition.”
Over the nearly two decades of its existence, ICEoxford hasn’t dropped the lessons it has learned as a struggling startup. In fact, the company is still shaped by that scrappy startup mentality to remain agile, sharpen its niche and keep the customer at the center of all of its processes.
Making It Automatic
Over the years, ICE has developed a full line of high-performance cryogenic systems, including both dry and wet systems, in addition to other technologies associated with these systems. The company is especially known for their systems that operate in the 1.5 Kelvin range – or 1.5K – which is necessary for several quantum modalities.
Busby states that “ICEoxford’s systems are meant to be as easy as possible to operate. They are a long-shot away from earlier systems that were extremely complex and very manual, you’d probably have to be a cryogenics expert to operate them”.
He added that quantum businesses and research institutions are scaling so rapidly that the older systems won’t scale along with the businesses. These organizations need cryogenic systems to be even more user friendly.
“They need plug and play, they need to be able to purchase? these systems, get them out of a box, turn them on and they’re ready,” said Busby. “Then, once they start using them, they want them to be simple. So, our 1.5K systems, for instance – and most of our other systems – now are automatic in the sense that you push a button at the beginning, you come in at a certain time and after that, it’s cold. You’re ready.”
Agility is an ability that has also evolved as part of ICE’s corporate legacy. That ability to instantly respond to customers’ needs and wants is appreciated in the quantum industry because specs can change overnight.
“We understand that they’re in a race… We understand that that what they order one day, the following week, they’ll say, hang on, we don’t need this cooling power. Now we want to do this with it, we now want to change this. So, being a smallish company, we’re very agile and understanding of that process and hopefully they’re understanding that we do adapt. And we do react very, very quickly.”
One of the traits a scrappy startup learns very quickly is to be customer focused – usually because their customers have your personal cell number. That’s the case for ICEoxford, too, except they raise the level of customer focus to customer obsession.
“We? take it very personally if they don’t work, and we? will do everything we can to make sure the customer gets what’s expected of us,” said Busby.
Rather than just tell customers they are focused on their needs, they bake those needs into company processes.
“One thing we do is make sure our sales engineers find out what the customer expectations are, then they transfer those expectations through to our project engineer, who becomes the customer whilst that instrument is being built,” Busby explains. “So, in this company, they’re the customer and they will ensure that this company meets their expectations.
ICEoxford’s innovative product line has evolved into a niche, particularly in quantum and as that niche has grown, so has ICE’s opportunities. The team has been rewarded by keeping an eye on technological trends while listening to customers’ current assessments.
“We said early on, ‘let’s concentrate on the other products that the main players aren’t focused on’ and that’s what we’ve done,” said Busby. “So we’ve got quite an extensive product range at 4K 1K 1.5K and 300mK. With these products we are actually finding our niche and we expect that niche to grow as quantum is starting to come along.”
Photonic quantum computing is a niche within that quantum niche for the company,
“Because photonic researchers are working at 1K and 1.5K, our systems are very well suited to their requirements,” said Busby.
It’s easy to think of quantum as a small, esoteric niche in the cryogenic market, but indicators suggest that the growth potential is vast – and ICEoxford is in a good position to ride what Busby describes as a growing trend that is beating original expectations.
“It’s growing and I can only gauge by the rate of results – the rate of new companies coming in and the rate of how many qubits they’ve got now and it seems to be moving a lot faster than they originally said,” said Busby.
ICE’s approach to riding the quantum trend is the same approach that helped it survive 17 years in an extremely competitive market: stay agile, focus on the customer and keep innovating.
“We keep developing new products, and we keep innovating,” said Busby. “We want to keep putting the money into the product. And that’s why the performance and usability of our products is market leading.”