We spoke to Ilana Wisby, founding CEO of Oxford Quantum Circuits, home to the UK’s most advanced quantum computer. She explains how quantum technology works, the progress of her company, and the growth of the field more widely.
How would you explain quantum computing to someone unfamiliar with the technology?
Quantum computing isn’t just a step-change in quantum or in computation – it’s a complete paradigm shift, like moving from a candle to a lightbulb. It’s operating off entirely new principles of physics, offering a novel way of interacting with and manipulating information.
It is typically used through two main methods. The first is through quantum simulation, which I call ‘the quantum laboratory’. This is essentially taking any process currently stuck in a wet lab, where you don’t understand how to simulate it, and putting it in a quantum computer. That will have huge applications across fields such as drug discovery and materials design, by helping us to better understand the way systems work.
The second is through data processing. With quantum information you can do parallel processing, running hundreds of steps in an algorithm at the same time. This means we can process more data effectively and efficiently, and has significant advantages in quantum recommendation engines, where we think about optimising over many different variables.
It’s not simply that you can do things faster, simpler, or more effectively, but that it’s enabling you to do things that have fundamentally never been possible before. We can see this with the case of man-made fertiliser solutions that support the rapid growth of human populations. They are costly, needing high temperatures and pressures, and currently consume 2% of the world’s energy usage. That process is done naturally within leaves at room temperature, with 100% efficiency, but we have no idea how that happens. What quantum computing can do is model that system, enabling us to better understand the process, reproduce it and thereby have a positive impact on the world.
How did you become involved with OQC?
I obtained my PhD in quantum physics from Royal Holloway University, during which I was placed in industry at the National Physical Laboratory. Following that, I left academia for the startup world, as I much preferred the pace and impact. I worked in a number of deep tech startups that were still closely linked with universities.
I was headhunted by Oxford Science Enterprises to be the founding CEO of OQC. Of course when I came to Oxford and met the Oxford Science Enterprises portfolio, I was immediately drawn to everything that was going on. There’s so much incredible technology here. I met with Dr Peter Leek, our academic founder, who was a familiar face from my PhD, and it became our dream to deliver quantum computing and make it a reality.
What is unique about OQC?
The company has a unique quantum bit based on superconducting technologies. It’s based on the same fundamental physics as other systems, but has been redesigned to be simple, scalable and flexible. This is enabling us to address some of the challenges that come with scaling superconducting computation.
Beyond the brain of the computer, you need a lot of infrastructure and support systems, so we also do classical control hardware, fabricate the devices, and develop control software, enabling the quantum engineers to focus on the quantum. We’re very aware that this is a rapidly developing ecosystem, so we want to make sure we have the agility to adapt.
What is your vision for the future of the company?
Our vision is to make sure we put quantum in the hands of humanity to solve the world’s most pressing problems. I think with the current situation we’re all in, it’s undeniable that quantum computing is needed now more than ever.
We’ve already been able to deliver the UK’s most advanced quantum computer, which is commercially available. Next year, we will be launching our service through private and public cloud. We will also be opening our new lab, which will be a wonderful shiny, new home for us all, and enable us to both expand our team and significantly accelerate the research and development of this technology. Finally, we are also raising a Series A, led by Oxford Science Enterprises, closing towards the end of this year.
What is Oxford’s role in the quantum ecosystem?
The UK is pioneering in its quantum efforts and Oxford has always been at the core of that, setting itself up as the ‘quantum valley’. We have the UK National Quantum Computing Centre which will be based in Harwell, and we are increasingly drawing in more talent and expertise.
It’s a really close-knit ecosystem here. Not only do I admire the unique offerings and approaches of the individual companies in the Oxford Science Enterprises portfolio, but I also admire how we interact as a field. We are supporting a growing ecosystem in a way that’s quite unique. We are at a pre-competitive stage, and we understand that it’s better to be collaborating and working together – you don’t always get that in other places.
Do you think quantum could be at some sort of inflection point?
We’ve seen some significant milestones in the last year or so, such as Google’s quantum supremacy, which was an incredible thing to have achieved. We’re starting to see step-changes in the technology, and internationally, governments have also really upped the game in terms of investment because this is a national strategic area of importance.
The hardware is developing rapidly every year, and software developments are continuously driving down the system requirements. We don’t know when the two will intersect, but we know that it’s going to be at some point within the next few years.
What are you most excited about?
I’m excited about getting back into the office and seeing my wonderful team. There’s so much momentum that’s waiting to be unlocked by this new lab and the Series A funding. I’m very excited about the year ahead.
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