Dr Gaby Slavcheva and Dr Mirella Koleva are not your average mother and daughter. Both holding PhDs in science, the pair moved away from academia to found Quantopticon, a company which aims to rapidly speed up the development of quantum components to bring this exciting new technology to market.
We caught up with them to learn what it’s like starting a business with your family and how they’re blazing a trail for female scientists and entrepreneurs.
Would you say family was a big influence in your interest in Physics?
Gaby: Absolutely. My cousin studied physics and he used to teach me all his lectures from university, so I became interested in the subject from a very early age. Now he is a team member in our company – we are all physicists!
Mirella: I can definitely blame it on my parents! Both my parents are physicists, and when I was growing up we regularly used to have dinnertime discussions about some physical phenomenon, why it was happening and what the origin of it was – from atoms to planets and astronomy.
How did the idea for Quantopticon come about?
Gaby: I recently decided that I no longer wanted to be an academic. I found it frustrating having to go wherever there was an opportunity and not being able to live with my family. My life’s work has been working on these codes, and I wanted to develop a product that would put this research to use on a massive scale, so we started Quantopticon. Mirella has been heavily involved in the product development from the start.
Mirella: Quantum technologies will be key to solving some of the world’s biggest problems, from discovering new drugs and vaccines, to developing ultra-secure communication systems. Through Quantopticon, we’re speeding up the development of these technologies and making them more affordable so we can bring them to the mass market.
What has been your experience as a woman working in a male-dominated discipline?
Mirella: From the second year of my PhD, I noticed that women were disappearing one by one. It was very sad to witness that. Recently I was looking at stats on how many women were studying physics in the US and the peak was around 2000. Then there was a plateau until 2003, and it’s been dropping off since. Presumably this is a trend that’s reflected in the rest of the world.
I think sometimes people see two women on the other side of the screen and it makes them very sceptical. This makes it harder to dispel my imposter syndrome, and I know several other female CEOs of quantum companies who feel the same way.
Gaby: When I was doing my PhD, things felt more equal than they do now. It’s really scary how all the women have disappeared from Physics and Maths. I know a lot of men who are protégés of professors and they progress in their career and get to professor level. Men are very good at showing off!
What are some of the secrets to your success in getting Quantopticon to where it is today?
Mirella: Perseverance is definitely something at the top of our list: do not get disheartened if you fail, we have failed so many times, we have applied for so much funding and been turned down. Some reviewers have referred to quantum as ‘blue sky’ research that has nothing to do with reality, but we’re really excited about bringing this new technology to market. There isn’t anyone developing this kind of product – it’s very unique. Nobody else in the world has developed such a software and we’re excited to be pioneers.
How do you find working together as mother and daughter?
Mirella: I think we’re quite demanding of each other and we expect things to be performed to a high standard, but it’s because we are perfectionists.
Gaby: Especially Mirella!
Mirella: We want to make sure we do it properly, because we want to project our brand in the way that we do things, that we are a serious and diligent company. We’ve just had to make it work, as we don’t have anyone else who can take over if one of us drops out.
Gaby: We distribute the workload between the two of us. Mirella is very good at writing business letters and networking, but she is also helping with the codes and developing the model. Now that we are living together due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are working much more effectively than when we had to communicate via Skype.
Mirella: Being able to share a laugh also helps!
What do you think needs to be done to encourage more women into STEM?
Gaby: It’s about politics. Building up networks and contacts is so important as a female academic. Without it, it can be really hard to progress in your career.
Mirella: Mentorship is so crucial for women in STEM. Everybody who has succeeded in science has had someone behind them pushing them forward and supporting them, and that’s paramount to career success. Not everyone is aware that they need that or how to look for it – when I was doing my PhD, I just picked the supervisor that seemed the smartest to me.
Some of my most positive experiences as an entrepreneur have been in incubators or accelerators with likeminded people – it would be great to see more opportunities like that going forward.
Dr Mirella Koleva was one of the speakers at the CIMR seminar “The History and Future of Entrepreneurship in Quantum Technology” (Feburary 24th 2021). A recording of this event is available to watch on YouTube: The history and the future of entrepreneurship in quantum technology – YouTube