EIC Coffee Break with IQM: Attracting the best quantum talent to Europe
Every month, during a Coffee Break, we dive into the stories of EIC innovators and get a glimpse of the persons behind the startups and research projects. Our guest for today is Dr. Kuan Tan, CTO and co-founder of IQM. IQM is a spin-out from the Aalto University’s Quantum Computing and Devices (QCD) group and the Finnish State Research Centre (VTT) that was established to commercialise superconducting qubit and quantum information processing technologies. Over the past few years, they have assembled the largest (50+) quantum hardware team among private European quantum computing companies.
Tell us how the idea for your innovation started. Was there a day 0/a stimulus or was it something that was bouncing in the back of your head for a long time?
It came quite naturally. I studied experimental physics and was leaning towards becoming a professor. However, I quicky realized that quantum computing is not just a scientific problem; there’s a considerable amount of engineering as well. Seeing as this cannot be done in the lab, I got together with the other future co-founders who were former colleagues and shared similar thoughts earlier: what can we do to realize our dream of building a quantum computer? How much funding will we need? After a while everything fell into place. The journey is still long yet exciting, and we need more funding to reach this quantum advantage, but we’re getting there!
Instead of going into academics you opted for a startup. How did your family respond to this move?
My family certainly expressed their concerns, they wanted me to stay in academia instead due to career stability. My father was a sceptical, because for every successful startup there are 1000 failures. When he saw that things were moving very fast and great people were joining the company, their confidence grew. I managed to convert them and now they are standing behind the company and believe in our vision to build quantum computers for the well-being of humankind. I believe this support is crucial because there are many difficult moments along the way, with tough decisions and long hours. It takes a family, or many families and their sacrifices to build a successful startup.
As you mentioned, there are many tough moments in the journey of a startup. Can you tell us about one of these moments?
One of the most ‘memorable’ ones was when we tried to scale the company. Of course, you want to keep the startup environment, but you need a certain structure to continue to grow. This transition can be pretty difficult for some people because they joined when IQM was a startup, but slowly it was turning into a scale-up with certain processes in place. So, we sat down and had transparent conversations with everyone and asked what was the number one reason they joined the company in the first place. We were quite fortunate that most people were onboard with all these necessary changes. It’s in moments like these when you realize that a company is successful because of the people, not only the technology.
From a tough moment to milestone in IQM’s history: you’ve been shortlisted for the new EIC Fund! Can you tell me more about this and the impact it will have?
This funding is crucial because we are in the global race to build a useful quantum computer. We need to scale, and we need to do it fast. This funding helps us to accelerate. What we normally would grow in half a decade, we can now do in 6 to 12 months’ time. Automatically you get into this positive cycle because when you get the right people, improve your technology and infrastructure, results follow. This will naturally attract more people to the company. Especially this last point is crucial. There are a limited number of quantum scientists around the world and we are competing to attract them here. All these combined with our vision, will be crucial to attract the best people.
What are you currently reading? What book inspired you the most?
There are many books, although I mainly like to read on the professional side. Currently I’m reading a book related to design automation for quantum computers. Unlike the semiconductor industry, the design flow automation is under-developed for quantum computers. There’s no simple end-to-end software solution from the design to the production of quantum computers. In my opinion, this is crucial for scaling up quantum processors. In fact, we have recently released an open-source quantum processor design software called KQCircuits which is part of this processor design framework. I’m getting a lot of interesting ideas from reading this book.
If you could talk business over lunch with a large corporate CEO or global leader, which one would you choose and why?
I have many corporate leaders I look up to, but I would name the current CEO of AMD - Advanced Micro Devices, Dr. Lisa Su. I respect that she is a trained scientist and engineer with a strong business acumen and has shown great leadership. She took helm as the CEO of AMD when it was at bottom, but she has turned the company around in just a few years and grew the market cap significantly. Now the company is successful on many different fronts, creating great consumer and enterprise products, all while competing against the likes of Intel and Nvidia.