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In conversation with: Oxford Quantum Circuits’ Ilana Wisby

Ilana Wisby, CEO and founder of Oxford Quantum Circuits, discusses pioneering quantum computing-as-a-service, the quantum scene in the UK, and how the industry will scale up.

 

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Ilana Wisby has helped to pioneer quantum computing-as-a-service through Oxford Quantum Circuits, helping to bring the product to the masses. (Photo by Oxford Quantum Circuits)

Under the leadership of founding CEO Ilana Wisby, Oxford Quantum Circuits’ (OQC) strategy of pioneering the quantum computing-as-a-service (QCaaS) market neatly aligns with the UK government’s ambition of becoming a global quantum superpower while placing OQC at the forefront of transforming the sector from a deep tech frontier to a revenue-producing sector.

Wisby shatters all deep tech founder stereotypes. Her unique skill set seamlessly crosses both the business world and academia, garnering accolades in each along the way. Wisby studied music as well as physics at Royal Holloway University and credits her communication skills to this creative outlet, which involved high-level performance and intense discipline.

Communicating complicated deep tech concepts in layman’s terms is not an easily acquired skill, but Wisby’s unique background and passion for the science has set her on a mission to spread the word about the value that quantum computing can bring to businesses. “My role as CEO is about inspiring and leading within the company but equally about interfacing externally,” she says, adding that a deep tech business is not served when science communication is undervalued.

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From quavers to quantum

Setting her ambition to become a concert pianist aside, Wisby remembers reading a book about quantum physics as a 16-year-old and being “put in a trance”. As a quantum physics PhD at Royal Holloway, Wisby was seconded at the National Physics Laboratory. What followed was a sharp learning curve as a serial entrepreneur until she was finally headhunted by Oxford Science and Innovation to become the founding CEO of OQC.

I don’t think every business will have its own quantum computer. Ilana Wisby, Oxford Quantum Circuits

The company was spun out of Oxford University’s physics department in 2017, at which point Wisby was handed “a laptop and a patent”. It was an opportunity to put everything she had learned about start-up life into action while drawing on her quantum physics background. By 2018, OCQ had built and launched the UK’s first superconducting quantum computer, and in July 2021, the launch of the company’s QCaaS made this proprietary technology available to enterprise customers via its private cloud.

OQC has a number of enterprise customers experimenting with cybersecurity, financial applications and drug discovery in order to assess the potential commercial benefits of quantum. “I don’t think every business will have its own quantum computer,” says Wisby, who imagines the technology becoming fully integrated into service-based models, so that businesses doing anything with data intensity or simulation-type work would have quantum capability “on tap”.

Estimating the market size of this nascent sector is extremely difficult. However, in a market sizing forecast based on tangible variables such as customers currently leveraging the technology, their average utilisation rates and cost of usage, specialist publication the Quantum Daily predicts a $1bn QCaaS market by 2023, $4bn by 2025 and $26bn by 2030.

A forecast in this region goes some way to explaining the vast amounts of investment flooding into the sector despite the technology being far from market ready. According to a Markets and Markets report, the quantum computing market as a whole is valued at $472m in 2021 and is expected to reach $1.7bn by 2026. QCaaS is essentially putting the sector onto a more revenue-based path, which will drive further investment and knock-on innovation.

Chasing quantum’s first-mover advantage

While not short of investment, most industry experts agree that an error-proof quantum computer is still at least five to ten years away. Despite this, Wisby categorically believes there is a first-mover advantage for companies experimenting early with quantum technology. “Innovation is more important than ever and companies will only be able to identify specific use cases and problems through the process of design and experimentation to identify their specific advantage,” she says.

Innovation is more important than ever and companies will only be able to identify specific use cases and problems through the process of design and experimentation to identify their specific advantage. Ilana Wisby

The potential benefits to businesses require an imaginative approach. Mother Nature at her core is quantum, says Wisby, but quantum mechanics cannot be accurately simulated, even with the classical supercomputers of today. For example, a 95-electron molecule of caffeine would take one-tenth of the world’s atoms-equivalent of memory to solve accurately. By this measure alone, the advent of mature quantum computing technology will open doors to things that have fundamentally never been possible before, according to Wisby. “It will have huge commercial impact,” she adds.

For now, however, the market is in transition – and just as with any new sector ecosystem, the outcome of a quantum world is hard to predict. What is vital, according to Wisby, is making sure the quantum space grows in a healthy way with global collaboration and partnerships at this early stage. One such partnership saw OQC allow fellow UK quantum start-up Cambridge Quantum access to its private cloud to demonstrate Cambridge Quantum’s IronBridge cybersecurity platform, which generates un-hackable cryptographic keys. This spirit of cooperation doesn’t mean that the sector isn’t fiercely competitive but rather shows a pioneering spirit within the emerging industry, particularly among UK companies.

Wisby seeks to build UK foundations

Despite keeping a global market view, Wisby believes in the importance of operating within OQC ’s own backyard first. “There are many advantages in providing UK technology to UK and European firms, particularly with the data protection elements at play,” she says. Covid has also brought with it a preference to be able to work locally, so the start-up’s outbound efforts are for the moment slightly more localised in the UK and European markets.

Wisby believes the UK’s strong academic footing, core intellectual property and government support mean it is “set up for success”. She is optimistic the sector will continue to see ongoing investment and some large deals as the underlying technology reaches critical milestones within the next decade.

With the evolution of the sector comes a new kind of founding CEO, one who is more reflective of today’s society, with what Wisby describes unabashedly as a commitment to championing a company culture committed to the values of cultivating love and diversity. Wisby has long swapped her lab coat for a suit and is more likely to be seen at a conference than coiling wires or getting deep into the data. However, her passion and reverence for the underlying scientific concepts remain as strong as ever, as does her optimism for quantum computing’s potential to become a force for good.

Lara Williams

Lara Williams

Senior reporter

Lara Williams is a senior reporter at Investment Monitor specialising in FDI in the tech and bio-pharma sectors.