Enterprising Minds

Quantum leap

Carmen Palacios-Berraquero

WHO? Founder and CEO of Cambridge spinout, Nu Quantum, Carmen Palacios-Berraquero, has a PhD in physics from Cambridge and is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize for exceptional early-career contributions to physics by a female physicist.

She is also a founding member and Director of UKQuantum, the voice of the UK’s quantum industry and a member of the Technical Advisory Group to UKRI's National Quantum Computing Centre.

WHAT? Building the quantum networking infrastructure essential to scaling quantum
computers.

WHY? "Quantum computing is going to be the defining technology of this century. It’s a privilege to be in this moment of time, developing this technology which is going to change everything."

Why did your parents decide to educate you in a British School in Madrid? Both my parents are medical doctors. My dad in particular has always done cancer research but he struggled with having to learn English later on in life. It was always front of mind for him that he wanted his daughters not to have to worry about that.

From a very early age, I knew I wanted to study physics - and to do so abroad. Having had a British education made me think of applying to Imperial for my first degree.

Did you always want to do a PhD? It was pretty clear to me that I would do one. After my degree, I was accepted into two PhD programmes – one here and one in Oxford. I chose Cambridge, joining the Nanotechnology Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT).

That meant doing a master's before starting the PhD. That first year was great: I had a lot of fun and it gave me a chance to understand how research works, the kinds of things people research and what my options might be.

Even though I was part of the Nanotechnology CDT, quantum physics was always my favourite subject so that's where I ended up. My supervisor, Professor Mete Atatüre, said: "There’s this new thing - 2D materials and quantum optics - do you want to do it?" It sounded perfect, a new field, ripe for research.

My PhD was very successful. I published two highly cited first author papers and filed a patent.

At this point, did you think you were on a conventional academic career path? By the time I got to Cambridge, I definitely thought I would pursue an academic career, become a professor and all that.

What changed your mind? I became disillusioned with academia. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to carry on and apply for a postdoc position.

For a while, I continued to work on a really challenging experimental project but Cambridge Enterprise (the University's technology transfer arm) kept asking me what I was planning to do with the patent I had filed during my PhD.

They suggested that I go on the University's Impulse programme. By the time the programme finished, everything started to snowball.

"I suddenly realised that this is quite fun and I’m quite good at it."

I began to understand more about the quantum industry. 2018 felt transitional - it was, in fact, when the majority of quantum start-ups were founded: it seemed like the moment when research leaves academia and goes out into the real world.

I was asked to pitch at an event in London. An investor saw me and invited me to join an accelerator programme, even though it was for Series A companies and I didn’t even have a piece of paper with the company name on it.

In September 2018, I incorporated the company just so that I could go on that programme. I started to work with the entrepreneur in residence there, applied for a small grant and was given £20k by Cambridge Enterprise. I suddenly realised that this is quite fun and I’m quite good at it.

It sounds as if you had to be persuaded that founding a company was a good idea? Kind of. I gradually became less sceptical over time. Now, I absolutely love it!

"Quantum computing is going to be the defining technology of this century."

Carmen Palacios-Berraquero

Can you explain - in simple terms - what Nu Quantum does? We believe quantum computing is going to be transformational, the defining technology of this century, much like classical computers were in the last one.

Instead of the binary logic we are used to in computing - zeros and ones - in quantum, we have qubits (short for quantum bits). These qubits can be entangled together creating multi-qubit superposition states. Essentially, in very simplified terms, this could mean that you are able to explore an exponentially large number of solutions to a problem at the same time.

The problem is that it’s really hard to build these computers. A qubit is embodied in an object such as a single atom: assembling and controlling them is difficult as quantum states are very fragile. Qubits need to be completely isolated from everything and their interactions controlled super-precisely which is why we need advanced infrastructure such as an array of fridges, lasers and ultra-high vacuum systems.

And because qubits are not perfect we need many of them - around a million - to make the kind of calculations we think will be life-changing.

At the moment, we are managing around 100 qubits in one machine. We think we can get to thousands per machine in the next five years. But that’s still orders of magnitude from where we need to be.

So we need to think about a modular approach, with many computers connected together. The analogy is with high-performance compute clusters which are also modular, with many, many computing cores all connected together.

A quantum network extends the entanglement that exists inside each individual quantum computing unit, and creates entanglement so that all the modules can work together to carry out a larger computation.

This is what we are doing, building these quantum computing networks so that we can scale quantum computers. Unsurprisingly, it’s very hard to do.

How do you think quantum computing is going to change our lives? In lots of ways but some of the most exciting applications are likely to be in designing new materials and optimising drugs in ways, and at speeds, which are out of reach today.

What are you most excited about? Everything. We are one of the only quantum networking companies in the world. Without this technology the world won’t be able to build quantum computers. We are designing how to inter-connect quantum computers, what the different parts of a modular architecture are, what they are called and how the protocols work. It’s a privilege to be in this moment in time, developing this technology.

"I’ve learnt that there are constant problems but also constant successes: it’s not like you ever arrive at a steady state."

Carmen Palacios-Berraquero

How have you found growing the team? It's been great. We have tripled in size in the last 12 months.

Nine months ago, hiring was the number one risk because we had several new projects and contracts and so we had to grow fast and that’s hard to do but we’ve done it. We’ve hired an amazing team.

Has being in Cambridge helped with that? For sure. Half of our technical team are physics and quantum PhDs and the other half are industry engineers. Some of our scientists come from the University and they are very international. Our engineers, on the other hand, tend to come from other great technology companies around Cambridge.

Cambridge and the UK more widely is an attractive place for people to move to, which really helps.

You clearly love physics and quantum. Are you getting enough of that now that you’re growing so fast? I do a bit of everything. It's been a long time since I did any deep, detailed implementation of the technology in the lab but I’m involved in all functions of the business at the right level.

My role is understanding where the company needs to go to be successful commercially and ensuring that we are all rowing in the same direction. It’s about understanding both the industry and the technology.

I’m very lucky with my management team. Everyone in my team is an expert in their field. I trust them – and they trust me.

How competitive is the UK's quantum industry? The UK is one of the top countries in terms of funding, the number of patents, the number of companies and the level of government support. The other big players are the US, China, Canada, and Europe. The US is very strong with big tech companies investing in quantum like Cisco, Google, IBM and Intel but the UK has the opportunity to have some world-leading players and I hope Nu Quantum will be one of them.

Who’s influenced or inspired you? I learn from my management team every day as well as from my investors.

What are you most proud of? The team and the strategy. We didn’t start out on this path – we've had a major pivot. We had seen something that no-one else had seen, we moved there early and we are now doing the work of creating this category.

What about setbacks? Pre-pivot it was hard for many reasons, not least during the pandemic when all our labs were closed.

And it continues to be hard. There are always going to be problems.

What have you learnt? So much. It turns out that I’m way more commercially minded than I thought and now what I bring is the commercial strategy and building partnerships.

I’ve also learnt that there are constant problems to solve but also constant successes: it’s not like you ever arrive at a steady state.

What would your colleagues say is your greatest strength? Maybe something to do with drive or energy? Also that I enjoy problem-solving on a massive scale.

What about weaknesses? The other side of the coin is that I can be too driven, which may spill over into impatience.

Do you have a piece of advice for someone who is interested in starting a business? Give it a go!

What do you like doing in your spare time? Dancing and spending time with my friends and family

Quick fire

Optimist or pessimist? Optimist.
People or ideas? It has to be people.
On time or running late? Roughly on time which is maybe five minutes late.
The journey or the destination? The journey.
Team player or lone wolf? Team player.
Novelty or routine? Novelty.
Big picture or fine detail? Big picture.
Do you have to be lucky or make your own luck? Make your own luck.
Work, work, work or work-life balance? Work-life balance. I like to have fun.

 

 

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Visiting Fellow & Honorary Ambassador at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Published 21 March 2024

All photography: StillVision

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License