The History and Future of Entrepreneurship in Quantum Technology

Our latest policy debate explored the emergence of quantum technology in London and Washington and asked what policy measures need to be put in place to allow this emerging technology to flourish.

The Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) Debates in Public Policy Series brings together people from academia and industry to gain new insight into issues that have significance for public policy.

This week, we were delighted to be joined by Professor Erran Carmel of Kogod School of Business, American University and Dr Mirella Koleva, Founder of Quantopticon to discuss the first wave of quantum technology.

What do we know about entrepreneurship in quantum technology?

Saverio Romeo, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management and CIMR Visiting Fellow kicked off the discussion by providing an industry perspective on quantum technology. Saverio’s interest in this emerging technology began with the realisation that what was once seen as the stuff of science fiction is now all around us, bringing with it new opportunities for international collaboration as well as new concerns around data security.

Saverio summarised the findings so far of a research study into the impact of government policy on quantum technology entrepreneurship. The research, undertaken in collaboration with Birkbeck’s Professor Helen Lawton Smith and Kogod School of Business’ Professor Erran Carmel found that both Washington and London are good locations for quantum entrepreneurship, possibly because entrepreneurs in these cities are close to policy makers and universities and, especially in the case of Washington, the government is a client of quantum technology products.

Examining the profile of quantum start-ups, the researchers found mainly micro or small enterprises which are mainly government funded in London and a mix of government and private sector in Washington. The primary area of work for these startups is in security and computing and a key challenge for this group is applying for and gaining access to funding.

Saverio also highlighted the lack of diversity in quantum: of the 114 executives and board members working in the London and Washington start-ups, only thirteen of these are women, with only three female founders across London and Washington – one of whom, Dr Mirella Koleva, we were lucky enough to hear from at this event.

Considering the environment required to drive a second wave of efforts, Saverio argued that government policies need to have a greater focus on entrepreneurship and that initiatives such as mentoring, coaching and incubating should be put in place. Cross-national and public-private collaboration should also be encouraged.

What is the timeline for the development of quantum technology?

Professor Erran Carmel began his presentation by observing that patience is required when it comes to the development of quantum technology, noting that this emerging technology really began over 100 years ago with Einstein and the dawn of quantum mechanics.

Fast forward to 1994 and Schor’s algorithm allowed the thinking of the architecture of a quantum computer. Important developments in the past three years include the unveiling of the first commercial quantum computer by IBM in 2019 and Google claiming that its computer had reached quantum supremacy in the same year.

Over the past few years, beginning around 2016, there has been a big jump in the number and range of commercial deals involving quantum technology. Emphasising that quantum is still very much in the embryonic stage, Prof Carmel drew on comparisons between other technologies to demonstrate the typical length of time from invention to commercialisation – for cars this was over twenty years and for Solar photovoltaics the process was almost forty years, so there may be a way to go with quantum yet.

The landscape for quantum entrepreneurship

In the third part of this event, Dr Mirella Koleva, CEO of Quantopticon shared her experience as an entrepreneur in quantum technology. Dr Koleva began her career building bespoke microscopes as a postdoctoral research scientist before moving on to work full-time on Quantopticon in 2019. Dr Koleva argued that the second quantum revolution will enable us to solve some of the most pressing problems that the world faces today, from developing new drugs and vaccines, preventing floods and environmental disasters, to building ultra-secure communications channels.

In the past, the development of the quantum components required for these technologies has taken a very long time, as it involves producing multiple iterations to arrive at a high-performance end product. Quantopticon substitutes this expensive process with simulations that determine exactly what the parameters need to be to yield a high-performing component, allowing manufacturers to bring their components to market faster.

Dr Koleva formed the company in 2017 with Dr Gaby Slavcheva, renowned theoretical physicist and Dr Koleva’s mother. Dr Slavcheva conceived the theoretical model that predicts the quantum phenomena that occur in the devices, while Dr Koleva implemented this theory into code to make it more widely applicable.

Commenting on the factors that helped her in her entrepreneurial journey, Dr Koleva mentioned support from Innovate UK, the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre, the UK National Technologies Showcase and the King’s 20 Accelerator.

Among the challenges Quantopticon faced were the fact that quantum calls were cut this year and cashflow issues linked to the way grants are paid by large organisations.

What are the policy implications involved in quantum entrepreneurship?

Discussant Catherine Griffiths, Research Manager at Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics, raised concerns around the policy implications that would be required to bring quantum technology into a mainstream reality.

By way of comparison, Catherine asked how the internet itself was allowed to develop and become a significant force, as even now a battle is going on in who has control over it and who taxes it. Can some of these issues be addressed pre-emptively to justify the funding that quantum technologies need to progress? And where are the risks of quantum technology development, and who is responsible for them?

The discussion was followed by audience questions on the timeline for the commercialisation of quantum technology and what that might look like and the kind of problems that quantum computers might be able to address.

A recording of this event is available to watch on YouTube: The history and the future of entrepreneurship in quantum technology – YouTube