Oxford Quantum Circuits: Scaling a quantum computing company
Scaling up quantum circuitry is a significant challenge. Building up even a relatively small system raises the problems of noise and interference, increases error rates, and can eventually jeopardise output completely. But for young start-ups, quantum computing has a second scalability problem: attracting more talent to a field still widely perceived by those on the outside as intimidating, inaccessible and academic. Oxford Quantum Circuits, a spin-out from the University of Oxford, has a solution for the first. CEO Ilana Wisby, Founder, Peter Leek and quantum engineer Brian Vlastakis are working on the second.
“One of the challenges with scaling is that every single qubit requires both a control and a measurement line,” says Wisby. “These are features that scale on a one-to-one ratio and if you begin to increase that number of qubits - as you begin to scale up - you have to get more and more components onto your chip. Qubits are very sensitive to different noise mechanisms and different things that impact on circuitry as you scale it, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case for classical systems. This is, quite quickly, a constraint with scaling quantum computers.”
The key component in OQC’s architecture is the coaxmon, which isolates the control wiring from quantum chips and allows for upscaling in qubit arrays without compromising coherence.
“What you need to do is remove additional elements from that plane and instead take them into a third dimension,” Wisby explains. “The neat thing about the coaxmon is that it’s designed from fundamentals for the purpose of scaling. You can copy it into an array or however you may like and as you increase the number, each one shouldn’t be detrimental to the quality of the overall system as you scale it.”
The near-future applications listed by Wisby and OQC for its architecture are familiar goals in quantum simulation: drug discovery, healthcare and materials research (and batteries in particular) - molecular modeling on a scale too large and complex for classical computing. But as a young start-up (founded in mid-2017, the company is less than two years old), the more immediate short-term scaling challenge is building the company through finding the right talent. As a nascent and still relatively academic field, building the team to build the computer can be tricky.
Wisby herself was head-hunted for OQC by Oxford Sciences Innovation, one of the company’s major investors. After studying for her PhD in quantum physics between Royal Holloway and the National Physical Laboratory, she worked for two start-ups on AI and data projects.
“OSI invests in people entrepreneurs early in their careers so that they can build them up,” she says. “They found me through LinkedIn, saw my profile and the mix of my PhD in quantum as well as my start-up experience, saw that it was quite a unique subset of skills and future potential and brought me in.”
Vlastakis, meanwhile, began working at OQC as a postdoc researcher at Oxford. The job and the research position brought him over from the United States, where he had completed a PhD in experimental physics specialising in superconducting quantum circuits at Yale and worked for two years as a research scientist at IBM-Q.
“I’ve always been on the lookout for opportunities in the UK. My wife is British and it was an excellent opportunity for me to bridge the gap between doing some university research while also working to build out a company doing something that I believe in, which is building superconducting circuits for future quantum technology,” he says. “It just seemed like a great fit.”
Wisby and Vlastakis are testament that finding talent for a quantum computing start-up can require casting a wide net. Just having the word ‘quantum’ attached to your business can be intimidating - Wisby tells the story of how, even when advertising for administrative roles in the new company that required no prior knowledge of quantum physics or computing, the number of applications the company received was markedly lower than for other Oxford spin-outs. But that problem also extends to the hiring of technical specialists: ‘quantum’ being seen by the electrical and software engineers a start-up needs as overly academic, complex or otherwise outside of their wheelhouse.
“One of the challenges that comes from working with deep-tech in general is around knowledge and making sure that you can bring the right knowledge to the table - this particularly in a field that is coming out of academia and has been to this day quite heavily academically-led,” says Wisby. “A key challenge we’ve found is making sure that we build a diverse and commercial team from the get-go. At the minute we’re academic-heavy, and that’s something that in the next year we will diversify greatly - but we have to attract talent in from outside our field. We have to think about electrical engineers and programmers and how we can bring them on board in an area that is quite challenging conceptually."
“For most people, quantum computing is something that’s still not very relatable, still something that people aren’t sure exists or not - so finding people that are forward-thinking enough to be aware of these things and want to be involved in working in it now and getting good talent in that area is something that I think is a challenge particularly for quantum.”
But as Wisby illustrates, ‘quantum’ needn’t be a barrier to potential employees with non-quantum backgrounds. Engineers and computer scientists have a natural curiosity; a need, as she describes it, to constantly ask why a system works the way it does until they have the fullest possible picture. But while it may sound counter-intuitive, the truth is that not everybody working in quantum needs to understand the physics in microscopic detail.
“You start to dig down, and you ask, ‘Why does this work like that?’ You ask, ‘Why?’ And you get to a point where you don’t need to know the next why! It’s a question of finding people that are curious enough that they find out the information that’s required for their job, but don’t necessarily need to know all of the nitty-gritty details. Otherwise you’d have to go and do a master’s course - which would be ridiculous.”
This recruitment drive is part of OQC’s roadmap for the next 12 months, along with the acquisition of more dedicated space for the company and greater independence.
“In a year’s time we will have our own industrial space and we’ll be operating completely autonomously, while still collaborating with the university,” says Wisby. “We’ll have a team in place which is a lot bigger and more technically diverse to really kickstart and ramp up those operations and make a lot more noise, and gain the technical confidence and…” Wisby pauses, before saying with a laugh. “Building that quantum future, I guess - if you want to be super-cheesy.”
As for the future of the field as a whole, both Wisby and Vlastakis predict a watershed moment for quantum computing when the technology provides a visible demonstration of advantage for the public - a breakthrough that crosses the barrier between academia and everyday life and delivers a radical change that people can see and touch.
“In my opinion, most consumers won’t be accessing a quantum computer, but they’ll be feeling and seeing the effects of having quantum computers in their everyday lives,” says Vlastakis. “We might have better battery technology for instance, or newer drugs will come to market in a faster and more reliable way. I think, again, this is something where the everyday consumer won’t be using it but will be feeling its effects.”
“I think the general excitement from the public will probably come when it has a personal impact on them,” Wisby agrees. “So at the point where something happens that they can really relate to, that isn’t just completely back-end-focused: something that has some tangible output and is quantum-enabled, and has everybody singing and dancing about how this would never have been possible - without quantum computing.”
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To visit the Oxford Quantum Circuits website: https://oxfordquantumcircuits.com/