New Horizons in Quantum Computing | The Enterprise Sessions with Anthony Laing

 

How are novel quantum technologies being applied to meet market demands? Find out as Professor Michele Barbour speaks to Anthony Laing, Professor of Physics and Co-Director of the Quantum Engineering and Technology labs at the University of Bristol and CEO of Duality Quantum Photonics. Anthony outlines his career journey from mature student to CEO and the importance of customer-centricity in gaining market traction.

 

Highlights

  • Develop your insight into the real-world applications of quantum computing, from quantum factoring to drug design.
  • Trace the evolution of Duality, from the challenges they faced during the pandemic and how they have aligned their technology roadmap to customer needs and developed a more distinctive voice.
  • Find out more about Duality’s involvement in clean energy, via a collaboration with the UK Atomic Energy Authority on fusion reactor technology.
  • Anthony outlines Duality’s decision-making process and the ethical considerations involved when choosing projects

 

🌐 About the Enterprise Sessions

The Enterprise Sessions bring together a diverse mix of company founders and researchers who talk openly about their personal experiences of forming spin-outs and start-ups, raising capital, academic-industry partnerships and the joys of translating research discoveries into real-world impact.

The series aims to inform, inspire and challenge myths and stereotypes about research commercialisation and how businesses and universities can work together to tackle society’s biggest challenges.

 

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https://www.bristol.ac.uk/enterprise-sessions

 

🔗 Connect with Duality Quantum Photonics

Duality Quantum Photonics on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/dualityqp

 

 

 

Transcript:

 

Transcript 

00:00:00 Prof Michele Barbour 

Welcome to the enterprise sessions. Today I’m talking to Professor Anthony Lang. He’s professor of physics and also co-founder and CEO of Duality. Welcome, Anthony. Thank you very much indeed for finding time to talk to me. 

00:00:12 Prof Michele Barbour 

So I’m looking forward to talking about your research, which I already know is gonna be fascinating. I’m also looking forward to finding out more about duality. But before we start with those, maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to The University of Bristol. 

00:00:24 Prof Anthony Laing 

Sure. Thanks, Michelle. Thanks for having me. On the enterprise sessions. 

00:00:29 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I’ve always been at Bristol. I came to Bristol as a as an undergraduate and did my PhD here and stayed here as a post doc and and and then a fellow. But I I I came to Bristol in 2001 as a mature student, so I was 25. 

00:00:47 Prof Anthony Laing 

I didn’t have A levels in in. 

00:00:50 Prof Anthony Laing 

Maths or physics, but I was accepted onto a foundation year. It’s actually called the preliminary year, but it’s it’s kind of a foundation year and it’s kind of two years of maths and physics levels all kind of squashed in into one. 

00:01:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I did that as a kind of precursor to the main undergraduate course, which was actually astrophysics, so not quantum at that time. But I guess my kind of connection to physics, although the thing that really inspired me to to, to come to Bristol was, I think I watched those documentaries the the old Equinox documentaries about kind of the universe. And I just wanted to understand the universe and. 

00:01:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

That was really all I had in my head of it. I just wanted to understand how kind of time works and is time travel really a thing and that kind of thing. 

00:01:34 Prof Michele Barbour 

Just small questions you know? Yeah. 

00:01:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Was what it was. Probably the movies, I think back to the future and and and things like this that really. 

00:01:42 Prof Anthony Laing 

Push the button in me, so I wanted to get deeper and and really sort of, you know, understand whether this stuff is it, you know, how true, how close to the to the reality is, what we saw in back to the future. So I came to Bristol, did the foundation year which was quite intense. 

00:01:59 Prof Anthony Laing 

I also had to kind of work at at that time as well to kind of support myself, but I had the last thing that I did the last job that I had before I came to Bristol was a program. 

00:02:09 Prof Anthony Laing 

And I was able to take programming jobs kind of through minded graduate studies to to support my my studies. So I did the foundation I got into the main course of astrophysics, which was everything that I I hoped it was going to be. I learned that Parsec is really a. 

00:02:23 Prof Anthony Laing 

Thing. 

00:02:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I’d only ever heard on on Star Trek. 

00:02:28 Prof Michele Barbour 

I’m sure there’s plenty of people still think it’s fictional, like transporter technology. 

00:02:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

I had to call my dad and say, you know, a pasta. That’s really a thing. And when I said that it’s, you know, it’s kind of a sense of parallax arc. Second, I I kind of lost him at that point, but astrophysics stopped being the the main question. The questions of astrophys. 

00:02:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

So not I I guess are subsumed by or or replaced by the the the these deep questions of of quantum mechanics. So I I I then wrote a begging letter to Professor Sandy Popescu, who I think has an Einstein number of three, which means that he published published a paper with somebody who published a paper with somebody who published a paper with. 

00:03:08 Prof Anthony Laing 

So and I said, I’d like to do my final year project with with you because he was sort of he’s done a lot of foundational work in, in quantum mechanics, including teleportation, which is also a thing. 

00:03:21 Prof Anthony Laing 

And I mean, he’s also got an interesting journey. Should probably have a have a chat with him at some point. He, he he basically fled Romania in in the days of Chesco and did his PhD in Israel. So maybe because he had an unconventional background and so did I. He took me on as his master’s student. 

00:03:37 Prof Anthony Laing 

Sent me a a really well defined question that I could I could kind of work on and any kind of. 

00:03:48 Prof Anthony Laing 

The way that he explained it was kind of it was almost a geometrical problem, and so I I could I could work on it. 

00:03:54 Prof Anthony Laing 

Like that. 

00:03:55 Prof Anthony Laing 

And then I didn’t. I just worked on. I really sort of ignored all the rest of my graduate studies and just did that and and then I, I and I got an answer to the question that he set me. And again, this was kind of. 

00:04:06 Prof Anthony Laing 

On a Friday. 

00:04:07 Prof Anthony Laing 

And it was, and for the whole weekend. 

00:04:10 Prof Anthony Laing 

I am. I guess I knew this thing about the universe that nobody else knew. Not even Sandy knew. I I knew a thing. And then I, of course I went to tell him on Monday. And it was one of those moments, you know, everything else that before then was made, you know, made that moment kind of even better. 

00:04:27 Prof Michele Barbour 

You define your life as before and after. 

00:04:30 Prof Michele Barbour 

It’s pivotal moment well cause. 

00:04:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

I could do it, you know? And you know, I guess your interviews about sort of myth busting and sort and this kind of really busted that myth. You know the Einsteins and so on there, you know, they just have a sort of a tools to attack a problem and they. 

00:04:44 Prof Anthony Laing 

They just really work at it and they focus super hard and to the exclusion of kind of everything else and then and then at some point you get get to the. 

00:04:53 Prof Michele Barbour 

Answer you’ve you’ve expressed it how how far we are from truly realizing quantum computing. Why are we trying? Because there’s so much said in, in, in the press. 

00:05:05 Prof Michele Barbour 

And you know, on the Internet, on Twitter about what computer quantum computer could achieve. But I’m really conscious that a lot of it is probably pretty fanciful or certainly a long way off. So what what is the end game? Why are we trying to do this? 

00:05:20 Prof Anthony Laing 

00:05:22 Prof Anthony Laing 

So there are a handful of kind of well formed application areas where we know that if we can build a quantum computer then we can gain an exponential time advantage of a of a even supercomputers. 

00:05:37 Prof Michele Barbour 

00:05:38 Prof Anthony Laing 

Quantum Factoring is is one of them, but finding kind of special states of molecules, what’s called, you know, eigen sets of molecules, that’s another one. And and if we can, if we can do that, if we can solve those kinds of problems, then we can. 

00:05:54 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know, we can improve drug design, we can design better materials. This kind of thing. There’s still some work to be done in, in connecting those, those kinds of mathematical solutions to sort of real world problems. 

00:05:56 Prof Michele Barbour 

00:06:08 Prof Michele Barbour 

But this is if I’ve understood you about taking things versus drug design and and material sort of development. 

00:06:16 Prof Michele Barbour 

Less from a laboratory setting and more into a sort of computational setting such that we can compute what it is we need to do, and then they can. The drug can be made. The material can be made, but that it takes. 

00:06:26 Prof Michele Barbour 

The. 

00:06:26 Prof Michele Barbour 

Experimental aspect of that out or reduces it? 

00:06:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

To drug discovery and you still have to do clinical. 

00:06:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Clinical trials and and those kinds of things. And then and then the, the, the, the, the screening steps. 

00:06:35 Prof Michele Barbour 

Of course, yeah. 

00:06:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

But but the modelling bit could could sort of really have, you know could could really significantly reduce the time between. I guess, you know, conception and and ultimately discovery. 

00:06:53 Prof Michele Barbour 

So imagine there’s there’s a there’s sort of two sides to it. There’s the doing things that classical competing. 

00:07:00 Prof Michele Barbour 

Andy but vastly vastly faster, and presumably there’s also some things that classical computing simply can’t do. 

00:07:07 Prof Michele Barbour 

That could be made possible with a quantum computer. 

00:07:09 Prof Anthony Laing 

It’s it can be the same thing. So when I guess what you have to say is what does. 

00:07:13 Prof Anthony Laing 

What? 

00:07:13 Prof Anthony Laing 

Does cannot do you mean and probably what we mean by cannot do is it it it takes, it would take, you know, thousands of years for for a personal computer to do it. 

00:07:20 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. OK. Yeah. So while it can all practice and purposes it. 

00:07:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

Can’t the computer would rust and fall apart before it got got to the solution or something? 

00:07:27 

Yeah. 

00:07:29 

Uh. 

00:07:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

Or the earth would be swallowed up by the sun. You know it takes exponential time. So those are kind of that, that those are kind of like the key application areas where you say, you know, we can solve a problem with a quantum computer in hours that it would take centuries for for the best supercomputer to to do. 

00:07:48 Prof Anthony Laing 

UM and UM, you know, problems in drug design, molecular dynamics, materials design. Those are those are some of them. 

00:07:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

When we get into duality, I’ll I’ll maybe give you another example because there are there are, you know there’s another, I guess school of thought, which is to say well, you know, like the Field of Dreams, you build it and they will come. So you might, it might be too much to expect the people that build quantum computers and design them. 

00:07:59 

So. 

00:08:16 Prof Anthony Laing 

To have all of the applications ready as well, and really what we want to do is, you know as well as being guided by these these non applications we want to. 

00:08:18 Prof Michele Barbour 

I’m quite sure it is. Yeah, absolutely. 

00:08:26 Prof Anthony Laing 

Make you know, get early prototypes and put them in in the hands of. 

00:08:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

People around the world. 

00:08:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

Who are you know, think differently and and are created in different ways. Maybe they don’t even care about quantum computing and they don’t care about, you know, what we call complexity classes. What? You know what we try and do is to say, well, for this problem to be interesting and and kind of worthy of a quantum computer. 

00:08:47 Prof Anthony Laing 

To be outside of the complexity class P. 

00:08:50 Prof Anthony Laing 

Which is sort of all the problems that can be solved efficiently with a chewing machine or a regular computer. They probably don’t care about that. They might just say, well, you know what I want to do is sort of sell something twice as quick or, you know, I I can load more data on onto the quantum computer because I’m using it in a. 

00:08:56 

No. 

00:09:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

Way. 

00:09:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

That you hadn’t imagined. 

00:09:08 Prof Anthony Laing 

But I think to to connect with those people, we have to build some version of quantum computers. 

00:09:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

That’s. And that’s really what kind of what the current race is is all about. So companies like IBM and Google, they they. 

00:09:18 Prof Anthony Laing 

Already have kind of their their computers available on the cloud. In fact, Bristol was the 1st place around the world to have point them in the cloud. It was only two qubits at the time. It was a, you know. 

00:09:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

A2 qubit processor but it’s principle. 

00:09:33 Prof Anthony Laing 

But it was it was. And that was about 10. 

00:09:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Years ago. 

00:09:36 Prof Michele Barbour 

You strike me. The what you’re talking about. And the way you’re talking about it as a physicist who is really immersed in their in their research, you speak with satisfaction with delight. Yeah. With what you achieved. 

00:09:50 Prof Michele Barbour 

I know you went on to form duality a company, but at this point in your story, you sound like you’re having such a lot of fun in your academic career. I’m starting to wonder why you took that step. It sounds like you were really fulfilled in that academic environment. 

00:10:08 Prof Anthony Laing 

I yeah, I mean it, it is true. I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed it in a way that it was very tough at the time because I I didn’t know whether it was a good idea or not and whether it would really work. We couldn’t get the chips to work. 

00:10:24 

MHM. 

00:10:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

And you know, all the other problems that you can imagine in a sort of a big experiment like that. 

00:10:29 Prof Anthony Laing 

We’re we’re kind. 

00:10:29 Prof Anthony Laing 

Of going on. But yeah, I was. I didn’t really care about my career. I didn’t really care about sort of much else apart from leading the team to realize these experiments and and then write the paper. And I spent six months reading about. 

00:10:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

Kind of the history of femtochemistry so I could write the introduction to that, that paper. 

00:10:49 

MHM. 

00:10:53 Prof Anthony Laing 

But but then I think it was satisfying to get the validation of of the paper published in a journal like journal like Nature. 

00:11:02 Prof Anthony Laing 

And then and then you’re right. But then after that you think so this satisfying. But, you know, satisfying for sort of like an afternoon and then. 

00:11:09 Prof Michele Barbour 

You still work? I’m sure it’s not satisfied we’re asking, but, but yes, I think I mean every nature people paper does inevitably conceal hundreds, thousands of human hours of hard graft doing the work of reading around and so on. 

00:11:22 Prof Michele Barbour 

So was that was that a turning point you you’ve achieved that what many people with the pinnacle of their career are paper in nature, some people only ever dream of that was that what spurred you wanted to form your company or was it more gradual? 

00:11:36 Prof Michele Barbour 

Than that. 

00:11:37 Prof Anthony Laing 

We published that paper. I looked around at the world again at that point and saw how it had changed, and a lot of my group were were were kind of going off in, in, into companies. And those companies can offer, you know, double or AAA salary that you can get in, in, in a in academia. 

00:11:42 

Hmm. 

00:11:58 Prof Anthony Laing 

And. 

00:12:01 Prof Anthony Laing 

And so I I I I guess I thought well you know. 

00:12:07 Prof Anthony Laing 

If you know, how do you, how do you really compete in that world now, in this new world of quantum technologies where there’s billions of private investment coming in? 

00:12:18 Prof Michele Barbour 

So in your side of the Atlantic, you’re seeing this this need. 

00:12:21 Prof Michele Barbour 

Need you know what you need to create, but you don’t have a material that can furnish it. There’s research coming out of Harvard’s that suggests that. I mean, were they developing the material with this application in mind or they develop it for other purposes or just? 

00:12:32 Prof Anthony Laing 

For the sake of developing it, the material was, I think the material have been around, but they they demonstrated that that’s enough of a quantum mechanics, but just for photonics. 

00:12:36 Prof Michele Barbour 

00:12:39 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. 

00:12:42 Prof Anthony Laing 

It was superior. 

00:12:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

And and it was probably the first time that I thought, well, you know, actually I can see now how you can really scale up the technology. So in, you know, I guess when we wrote the papers. 

00:12:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

Prior to then, we would talk about the need for fast switching and maybe cite some of the literature that you. 

00:13:03 Prof Anthony Laing 

Know that was. 

00:13:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

Some of the some of the literature out there that in some way could handle switching, but it not really in in the way that this material would would would would just kind of solve those problems. 

00:13:18 Prof Anthony Laing 

So that was. 

00:13:20 Prof Anthony Laing 

Part of the motivation for for duality it was being able to see that special purpose quantum computers could solve interesting problems. 

00:13:33 Prof Anthony Laing 

Seeing that there’s a material that’s better than silicon. Yeah, that was kind of demonstrated as as being superior to silicon. 

00:13:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

And then maybe the the sort of the clincher for me was. 

00:13:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

UMI thought there’s an opportunity to do some sort of manufacturing. 

00:13:48 Prof Michele Barbour 

Here OK. 

00:13:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I’m from the North East of England. That’s where I travelled from to to come to Bristol. Back in in the North East, back in the day we made bridges, ships and you know, all of those kinds of things that you get out of heavy industry that really. 

00:14:02 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know, we’re part of the Industrial Revolution and and that that sort of moved to China and and you know the Far East and and and other places around the world that did were able to produce those ships and bridges at A at a much lower cost. 

00:14:21 Prof Anthony Laing 

And I thought, wouldn’t it be a cool thing? 

00:14:23 Prof Anthony Laing 

If we can. 

00:14:23 Prof Anthony Laing 

Bring fabrication nanofabrication back to the UK and there’s an opportunity to do it because. 

00:14:29 Prof Anthony Laing 

The skills are here and the the brands are here. We we know we can put those pieces together, we can see. 

00:14:33 Prof Anthony Laing 

The. 

00:14:33 Prof Anthony Laing 

Material exist? We can see the applications, we know the missing piece of the. 

00:14:39 Prof Michele Barbour 

Jigsaw and the skills aspects of it really can’t be unstated, can it? Because you know traditional industries, we can have the skills all over the world. They’ve been known for some time. 

00:14:49 Prof Michele Barbour 

In a lot of quantum technologies and. 

00:14:52 Prof Michele Barbour 

So on it’s really hard to recruit. And as I’ve already said, companies can command three times or more the salary. So having a local network of skills, people with the skills I think must have been a really. 

00:15:02 Prof Michele Barbour 

Important niche if you did. 

00:15:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

Absolute to to so to do the design of the chips, Bristol was the best place in the world to to do that and still is. 

00:15:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

To do the fabrication, we needed to look elsewhere, but Alberto Paletti he you know, he’d left Bristol. He’d gone around the world. He’d gone to Santa Barbara. He’d learned to do fabrication. Not just design, but fabrication. 

00:15:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

And then he came back to the UK. He’s a bit of an Anglophile and came back to Southampton. 

00:15:35 Prof Michele Barbour 

MHM. 

00:15:36 Prof Anthony Laing 

So the University of Southampton has huge clean rooms, some of the biggest in Europe. They’re they’re really impressive and and he started a group there about 10 years ago. So in nanofabrication UM. 

00:15:48 Prof Michele Barbour 

And was this coincidence with about the time you’re you’re looking at this and conceiving the idea of your company? 

00:15:54 Prof Anthony Laing 

He’d been there for a few years before. 

00:15:56 Prof Anthony Laing 

Least sort of conceived at the company David had. 

00:16:03 Prof Anthony Laing 

Left Bristol gone to. 

00:16:06 Prof Anthony Laing 

Stuttgart. And then come back to the UK and and took a job at Oxford as a as a professor of quantum chemistry and and then we I had sort of the three bits so. 

00:16:20 Prof Anthony Laing 

David to work on applications that are related to quantum chemistry, key application area of quantum computers and sort of defines a special purpose that we want to build our devices to address. 

00:16:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

And with Alberto at Southampton I thought we could do fab and and that’s not a trivial thing to be. 

00:16:37 Prof Anthony Laing 

Able to say we we’ve got a fab. 

00:16:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

So we got together in 2019 and said OK. 

00:16:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know we we’ve we’ve got the the resources here and and to to do. 

00:16:50 Prof Anthony Laing 

This. 

00:16:52 Prof Anthony Laing 

And. 

00:16:52 Prof Michele Barbour 

Well, you’ve got the human resources. Yes. You’ve got the expertise. What you haven’t presumably got at the moment is a great deal of time. You’re all busy people with full time jobs and every well with, with, with absorbing jobs and everything that entails. 

00:17:06 Prof Michele Barbour 

So I can see how the the materials were there in terms of the people, the knowledge, the ability. 

00:17:13 Prof Michele Barbour 

But how did you then? 

00:17:15 Prof Michele Barbour 

I don’t know carve out sometimes some ability to actually. 

00:17:18 Prof Michele Barbour 

Deliver on that. 

00:17:19 Prof Anthony Laing 

Well, you’ve you’ve gotta give up. 

00:17:20 Prof Anthony Laing 

Television. 

00:17:21 Prof Michele Barbour 

OK, one thing. 

00:17:23 Prof Anthony Laing 

And you, you’ve gotta sort of, you know, some some of that. 

00:17:27 Prof Anthony Laing 

Some of that myth is true. You you’ve gotta work a lot of hours and there are weeks where it it adds up to about 100 hours, not every week. 

00:17:34 Prof Anthony Laing 

But there are some weeks like that. You know, you’ve gotta. 

00:17:37 Prof Anthony Laing 

Do 60 plus hours every week consistently. At the time, I was still about, you know, halfway through my fellowship, maybe 2/3 of the through my fellowship, so I still had some flexibility and part of my fellowship was around commercialisation. 

00:17:51 Prof Michele Barbour 

00:17:52 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I was sort of able to legitimately pursue this as a goal. 

00:17:56 Prof Anthony Laing 

UM&UM. 

00:18:00 Prof Anthony Laing 

And so we did a lot of. 

00:18:02 Prof Anthony Laing 

It was another year before we incorporated the company and we did a lot of thinking and sort of preparation before we did that before we incorporated, February 2020 incorporated the company a a big moment and and we also won an innovate UK project. 

00:18:22 Prof Anthony Laing 

Or we or part of an innovate UK project. 

00:18:23 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. 

00:18:26 Prof Anthony Laing 

And so that was brilliant. 

00:18:29 Prof Michele Barbour 

And what did that put me to do that innovate UK funding was that there’s different types of grants and and awards and loans that they make. Was that around the the sort of the the laboratory facilities that that design, the fabrication, was that more about getting the people in? 

00:18:44 Prof Michele Barbour 

What did that permit you to do that you couldn’t have done beforehand? 

00:18:48 Prof Anthony Laing 

The that particular innovate UK project was led by a company called Riverland in Cambridge. There are quantum software company. 

00:18:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

And at the time what they wanted to do was to show that they could develop an operating system that could sit across different hardware platforms. So of course, as in addition to photonics, there are other ways to build a quantum computer ion traps superconducting qubits, which is what Google and IBM. 

00:19:15 Prof Michele Barbour 

Has that’s the one you often hear about and press, isn’t it? 

00:19:18 Prof Anthony Laing 

And and so that’s what that project was about. So it was kind of. 

00:19:24 Prof Anthony Laing 

Developing hardware and connecting that to the operating system that that Rivelin we’re we’re developing it also kind of pulled us into the community which was great and and kind of got. 

00:19:39 Prof Anthony Laing 

Us going. 

00:19:43 Prof Anthony Laing 

We also needed to match fund that that project and in in March 2020, you know the world very quickly changed in into something that we just weren’t expecting. You know there was the pandemic, they were locked downs. 

00:19:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

There was a feeling of. 

00:19:58 Prof Anthony Laing 

Chaos and UM and. 

00:20:02 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know, at that point the investors that we were speaking to weren’t investing. 

00:20:07 Prof Michele Barbour 

Anymore. I’m not sure anyone was investing. It was 2020. Certainly everyone. Everything just sort of stops. 

00:20:11 Prof Michele Barbour 

Didn’t it? 

00:20:12 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah, but if you’re innovate, funding is predicated on match. That’s a bit problematic when the investors suddenly just stopped talking. 

00:20:20 Prof Anthony Laing 

So we, but we did have. 

00:20:24 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know we. 

00:20:28 Prof Anthony Laing 

I think we had a good reputation and we still had the facilities to make chips. We still could design chips. 

00:20:38 Prof Anthony Laing 

But we just couldn’t scale in the way that we. 

00:20:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

Wanted. 

00:20:41 Prof Anthony Laing 

To we were. 

00:20:43 Prof Anthony Laing 

Speaking to British Telecom. Mm-hmm at the time, who were leading a a different innovate UK project. 

00:20:44 

MHM. 

00:20:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

And they wanted a particular kind of quantum photonic device developing, so this wasn’t quantum computing. This was kind of quantum authentication. 

00:21:03 Prof Michele Barbour 

OK, so for secure data transfer for. 

00:21:07 Prof Anthony Laing 

For if 2. 

00:21:09 Prof Anthony Laing 

Parties want to authenticate one another. They wanted a kind of a a quantum solution to that problem. So that’s what we did for for British Telecom. And and it was one of those situations where. 

00:21:11 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. 

00:21:15 Prof Michele Barbour 

00:21:22 Prof Anthony Laing 

That kind of that hiccup, although it was an uncomfortable sort of few weeks and months. 

00:21:27 Prof Anthony Laing 

In the end was, you know, one of the kind of really kind of matters because we we won that contract with British Telecom. We then had to get commercial really quickly. So we had to have to deliver that. We had to do things like insurance. We had to get like a formal leasing arrangement with with Southampton. 

00:21:39 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah, it’s 11 now. You got the contract. 

00:21:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

And Bristol so you know we leased the laboratories in. 

00:21:49 Prof Michele Barbour 

Bristol. So you stayed at the moment in your university labs? 

00:21:53 Prof Anthony Laing 

Well, this is lockdown. So we’re all in our homes. We’re all working for our kitchens, but that’s the, you know, but as soon as we’re able to, we’re we’re. We’re then able to sort of start doing fabrication at Southampton and then we leased the laboratories in two small laboratories in in Bristol and. 

00:21:55 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. 

00:22:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

And that kind of got us going umm. And and and I think it gives us a bit of an edge because we. 

00:22:21 Prof Anthony Laing 

We we I think we saw that the possibilities that that we had at our kind of fingertips if we were willing to be commercial. 

00:22:34 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yes, as opposed to going straight into sort of investment backing, which sounds from your story like it might have been the first plan. 

00:22:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

00:22:42 Prof Michele Barbour 

That plan had to be revised, as plans will often do. Getting the contracts must have. Yeah, forced you into a position you hadn’t anticipated. 

00:22:50 Prof Michele Barbour 

But did it ultimately serve you well do. 

00:22:52 Prof Anthony Laing 

You think the the the original plan was? Yeah. Get a get a pile of of investment and then build a a quantum computer or some version of special purpose quantum computer. Do manufacturing in in Southampton. Design the devices and test them in in Bristol and just kind of scale it up the same as sort of mostly the the the quantum startups we’re doing. 

00:23:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

Uh. 

00:23:13 Prof Anthony Laing 

But but actually we saw that you know we we can actually but with that model with you know with the building a quantum computer and and and so on at some point you still need to get commercial you need to have customers right. You need to build a thing that people want to buy either time on your quantum computer or. 

00:23:32 Prof Anthony Laing 

You need to be able to ship them quantum computers. In the end you have to have a product. Yeah, we ended up we we started with a product, right. We just very quickly had to find a product that we could develop for the BT would. 

00:23:43 Prof Michele Barbour 

Actually wants to buy and pay money. 

00:23:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

So we thought, OK, you know what we can we can start producing products kind of now. 

00:23:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

But then what? You have to be able to do is still stay on your main technology road map and somehow find a way to commercialize that kind of earlier on. So in the early days, that’s really what what we were doing and and we won, you know, a few of the contract as well so. 

00:24:10 Prof Anthony Laing 

A national quantum computing centre, the UK Atomic Energy Agency, got in touch with us and asked us to solve a particular problem and. 

00:24:22 Prof Anthony Laing 

And then we were producing chips in Southampton and we started to sell some of those chips kind of abroad. So we had to get into kind of export how do you export had a, you know there there was one? 

00:24:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Evening, where the OPS manager called me up and said we haven’t paid export tax. And I said, oh crikey, you know, so I had to speak to a. 

00:24:44 Prof Anthony Laing 

A guy in a up there in the in the in the Asia Pacific region. And so I said, look, I’m really sorry we sort of haven’t paid export tax, he said. Well, that’s not a thing. You know, you don’t pay export tax. You know you you pay import duties. 

00:24:58 Prof Anthony Laing 

And I say, oh, great, I can go. 

00:24:59 Prof Anthony Laing 

Back to bed, but. 

00:25:00 Prof Michele Barbour 

I mean, at this point your your team, then we you’re talking about, as I’ve understood at least it’s still principally 3 physicists who’s pretty much a rhetorical or has been academically based. 

00:25:12 Prof Michele Barbour 

Suddenly you’re required to have all these skills. You’re supposed to know what an export import tax is and what’s reasonable and what you should have thought of these things. You would know born knowing these things, right? So did you. Did you bring in expertise? Did you lean on people in that wide network, or did you try and figure it? 

00:25:29 Prof Michele Barbour 

All out yourselves we well at. 

00:25:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

This point we’ve grown to about 10 people. 

00:25:32 Prof Michele Barbour 

OK, so you did have some expertise to bring in in different areas? 

00:25:34 Prof Anthony Laing 

So that’s right. That’s right. We had primarily the people that joined were were were technical and. 

00:25:47 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know, because in the end the the the big problems that we well we focus on the problems that we knew about the the kind of the the known unknowns which were all on technology. 

00:25:53 

Yeah. 

00:25:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

But uh yeah, we got a really great OPS manager, Alex Greenwood, who had worked in the universities Q tech program. Yeah. And so he was really great in kind of understanding some of those. Some of those problems. And between the two of us, we just. 

00:26:15 Prof Anthony Laing 

Solves every problem we encountered. We managed to overcome. 

00:26:24 Prof Anthony Laing 

Meanwhile, you know the the on the technical side, we were just really focused on solving this. 

00:26:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

Problem of of the transistor in in in photonics and UM. So that was a big focus and getting lithium IBIT fabrication up and running at Southampton so. 

00:26:43 

We. 

00:26:44 Prof Anthony Laing 

We were getting the the sort of the the main parts of the company up and running. We were getting the the bits of the company that kind of you know are commercial up and running and then doing everything else that you’re supposed to do to keep you legal, you know, corporation tax and handling, VAT probably in properly and all of. 

00:27:02 Prof Michele Barbour 

Those kinds of things to most academics is. 

00:27:04 Prof Michele Barbour 

Terribly telling. Boring. So. Well, you know someone else to do with. 

00:27:08 Prof Michele Barbour 

That or these these. 

00:27:09 Prof Michele Barbour 

Are skills that you’ve absorbed along the way and. 

00:27:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

Yeah. We just you know, we just. 

00:27:15 Prof Anthony Laing 

We just dealt with ourselves. We, we, we the kind of professional help that we needed, we needed to hire a patent attorney to patent the the technology. We obviously got an accountant for a few of the bits and pieces we had to get kind of a lawyer. So for the bits that you know for any company would you know that they would normally. 

00:27:17 

Yeah. 

00:27:23 

Mm-hmm. 

00:27:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Drafting help we we did that, but really, you know, most of the the, the the problems we we solved ourselves and gave us a sense of confidence. I I think that that we wouldn’t have. 

00:27:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

Had if we’d have just brought in VC money and and hired a bunch of a kind of a board or whatever that we didn’t really know and understand, you know? 

00:27:48 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. 

00:27:55 Prof Anthony Laing 

We didn’t have a relationship with. 

00:28:00 Prof Anthony Laing 

So. 

00:28:02 Prof Anthony Laing 

So that thing that looked like a problem, it made us into the kind of company that we wouldn’t have been. We wouldn’t have felt we might have ended up like a cookie cutter company, you know, kind of like following the the paint by numbers approach that that’s right. And we became kind of a different kind. 

00:28:17 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah. The prescribed treats, yeah. 

00:28:22 Prof Anthony Laing 

And that’s you’re probably one of the most rewarding things I I think of. 

00:28:26 Prof Michele Barbour 

That I find that really interesting. I mean, I guess partly it was driven by necessity. It was driven by necessity. 

00:28:33 Prof Michele Barbour 

If you were now talking to one of the many people forming quantum spin outs and startups, and there are quite a lot in the Bristol area. 

00:28:42 Prof Michele Barbour 

Is that something you’d advocate if someone now does have the choice to go down the more conventional you know, venture backed route or down the I don’t know. It’s more difficult but certainly difficult route that route that you used. What advice would you give? 

00:28:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

It’s it’s a good question. So I I don’t think I would repeat that journey. I wouldn’t change it now that it’s happened, but I wouldn’t do it like that again. I think I wouldn’t actually want to be too pejorative about the painting by numbers approach because unless you’re a great artist, you know you can produce 1/2 picture. 

00:29:15 Prof Michele Barbour 

20 by numbers is yeah, quite. 

00:29:16 Prof Anthony Laing 

Effective. That’s right. So and there’s a reason that that model exists because in the end it you know it it, it has a a track record of producing good companies. Maybe I I think sometimes maybe the really great companies, they often chose a slightly. 

00:29:30 Prof Anthony Laing 

Different route. 

00:29:32 Prof Anthony Laing 

And so you can see that’s what my ambition is for, for duality. 

00:29:34 Prof Michele Barbour 

Absolutely. 

00:29:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

In the end. 

00:29:36 Prof Michele Barbour 

So where is duality? Now? You set this up a little over three years ago, so have you reached? What have you reached and is it where you hoped? 

00:29:41 

Yeah. 

00:29:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

You’d be now it’s. Yeah, it is where I hoped it would be. Now it’s not exactly. 

00:29:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

Where I might have predicted. 

00:29:55 Prof Anthony Laing 

We’re we’re more commercial now than I thought we would be. You know, we’re exporting chips, we’ve got several customers. We arrived at an application that we wouldn’t have arrived at unless the UK Atomic Energy Agency got in touch with us and. 

00:30:13 Prof Anthony Laing 

And presented it with a particular problem and and so that was maybe a a clue as to how quantum computing might need to work in the future. You might you might need. 

00:30:14 

Mm-hmm. 

00:30:24 Prof Michele Barbour 

  1. Yeah. Customer driven effectively, yeah.

00:30:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

To. 

00:30:26 Prof Anthony Laing 

That’s right, that’s you. You need market traction, so there needs to be a pool there. 

00:30:32 Prof Anthony Laing 

And so UK. 

00:30:33 Prof Anthony Laing 

Yeah, they are, you know, developing fusion reactors and nuclear fusion, clean energy, and actually just to sort of, I guess digress for a second. There were some people that approached some companies that we didn’t do business with or that I was about to do business with. 

00:30:39 

Yeah. 

00:30:49 

Hmm. 

00:30:53 Prof Anthony Laing 

So kind of oil and gas companies that maybe related to kind of defense and UM and there was a reaction in, in, in the company. So the young people that we’d hired were not keen on on those kinds of parts and you know, and I guess I kind of said well look you. 

00:31:11 Prof Anthony Laing 

Know on this oil and gas. 

00:31:14 Prof Anthony Laing 

Company they they want to go in in the renewables direction and we can help them do that. We can show them we can simulate how to design cleaner fuels and they just weren’t having. 

00:31:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

Any. 

00:31:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

Of it you know, so I I could have just, you know, put my foot down and said, look, you know this you got to get real guys. But I didn’t want to do that. I thought well. 

00:31:25 Prof Michele Barbour 

No. 

00:31:34 Prof Anthony Laing 

It’s one of those situations, another situation. 

00:31:36 Prof Anthony Laing 

There, if you just listen to the world, it’s telling you. 

00:31:39 Prof Anthony Laing 

00:31:39 Prof Anthony Laing 

Particular thing and and I wanted the company to be distinctive and have a voice that was different from the other companies and that really meant, I think listening to that team, those those first ten people are are really key, not just their skills, but also. 

00:31:40 

MHM. 

00:31:56 Prof Anthony Laing 

Have their beliefs? Yeah, their values. 

00:31:58 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yes. 

00:31:58 Prof Anthony Laing 

So I thought, OK, well that’s that is the company now, right? The company is not just me, it’s not what I say it is it’s it’s what it. 

00:32:03 Prof Anthony Laing 

Really. 

00:32:04 Prof Anthony Laing 

Is so although we turned down some opportunities. 

00:32:11 Prof Anthony Laing 

On the flip side, when the UK yeah got in touch and said, well, you know we what we’re trying to do is build fusion reactors, you know and and nuclear fusion is where you take hydrogen or isotopes of hydrogen, you squish them together to make helium and you get energy out. 

00:32:27 Prof Anthony Laing 

It’s actually much harder than that, but that’s the that’s the basic. 

00:32:29 Prof Michele Barbour 

As a as a principal, yeah. 

00:32:31 Prof Anthony Laing 

But it’s, you know, it’s it’s clean energy. 

00:32:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

And it’s renewable and and it’s a you know it it would be the biggest building block in the solution to net zero if we’re able to to pull that off. 

00:32:47 Prof Anthony Laing 

So they’ve got a huge range of engineering challenges, a bit like quantum computing, but they’ve gotta solve before they will before we’ll get kind of net gain, fusion energy, net gain, energy from from fusion. 

00:33:00 Prof Anthony Laing 

And they presented us with a few of these challenges, one in particular and they said and it’s a data processing challenge, you’ve got to process data really quickly, a lot of data really quickly and they said, you know, could a quantum computer do this? 

00:33:15 Prof Anthony Laing 

And I said, well, maybe one day, but it’s not going to be this week. And look, you know, fusion sounds very hard. Quantum computing is also very hard, I think, to do things together because it’s going to be doubly hard. And so I was initially skeptical. 

00:33:34 Prof Anthony Laing 

But we carried. 

00:33:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

On talking to to to UK a year. 

00:33:39 Prof Anthony Laing 

And and then another company and the startup company called Tokamak Energy. But they’ve been around for a while now, but they’re they’re the kind of the leading UK company in fusion energy and they are building their own tokamak topamax, that kind of react to that, that. 

00:33:59 Prof Anthony Laing 

Sort of. The leading model for for nuclear fusion and and as we kind of got into those conversations we. 

00:34:04 Prof Anthony Laing 

Understood. 

00:34:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

Really sort of very specifically what this particular problem that they have is and UM. 

00:34:13 Prof Anthony Laing 

And how a special purpose quantum processor might be able to process that that sort of that size of data set in the time that they want to do it by exploiting the transistors that I mentioned earlier on. So it’s a. 

00:34:32 Prof Anthony Laing 

Kind of an application of that. You know those components that we hadn’t seen and an application more generally of quantum computers that we that we. 

00:34:40 Prof Michele Barbour 

Hadn’t really seen, which does make me think of your answer to my earlier question, which is, you know, illustrate what a quantum computer could facilitate achieve is this is something you haven’t formed your company with any sense of likelihood of working with. 

00:34:54 Prof Michele Barbour 

Nuclear energy and and fusion. 

00:34:56 Prof Michele Barbour 

And yet the customers are are banging down your door to to ask if that you can help. 

00:35:00 Prof Michele Barbour 

With it. 

00:35:01 Prof Anthony Laing 

That’s it. Yeah, that’s it. We we would not. 

00:35:04 Prof Anthony Laing 

Have. 

00:35:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

Thought of that application? It was just too far outside of the things that we understood. The areas that we wanted to be relevant to, to quantum computing. You know, molecules, chemistry, materials, that kind of thing. We weren’t thinking of of. 

00:35:05 

Hmm. 

00:35:21 Prof Anthony Laing 

Of of sort of analysing very large data sets very in a particular way very quickly. 

00:35:28 Prof Anthony Laing 

And now we are and. And sometimes I think sometimes I tell my students, you know, when they want to go in. 

00:35:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

00:35:35 Prof Anthony Laing 

Particular direction. 

00:35:38 Prof Anthony Laing 

But you know that it’s kind of like that. Feels really kind of mature. I say, well, it’s a bit like, you know, that bank’s already. 

00:35:44 Prof Anthony Laing 

Been robbed even. 

00:35:45 

Hmm. 

00:35:45 Prof Anthony Laing 

If you’re a great bank robber, if the bank’s already been robbed. 

00:35:48 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah, you’re not going to pay out for you. Yeah. 

00:35:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

You want to try to find a a bank that hasn’t been robbed yet. 

00:35:53 Prof Michele Barbour 

And if it’s difficult or the the war could be. 

00:35:55 Prof Michele Barbour 

All the greater if you. 

00:35:57 Prof Anthony Laing 

Well, I mean it is difficult, but it’s it’s no more difficult than anything else really. Once you get into it, it’s and it’s very well defined then we know exactly what needs to be done. 

00:36:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

And it’s a bank that hasn’t been robbed yet, so UM, so we have had a lot of fun, and it’s a little bit like that molecules paper from 2018 where you’re in an area you’re in, that you’re in the vote of the bank. And you know, you with your torch and you’re looking around and seeing things and nobody else is. 

00:36:24 Prof Michele Barbour 

Really, that, that sense of discovery, that sense of being the 1st. 

00:36:25 Prof Anthony Laing 

Yeah, yeah. 

00:36:28 Prof Anthony Laing 

Nobody was, at least with our kind of backgrounds, they’re people are trying to solve these same challenges, but we can see a route to do it differently with actually really robust technology. And it would be a massive game change. 

00:36:30 

Yeah. 

00:36:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

So in terms of legacy, you know if in the end we can say, well, you know, not only did we show that, you know, not only did we show the route to real world quantum computers, that can change people’s lives, but we also helped bring about net 0. 

00:37:00 Prof Anthony Laing 

Clean energy and net gain fusion then although I didn’t set out to do that, it would be, you know, all the better. I think I I think. 

00:37:11 Prof Anthony Laing 

For you know, for not setting out to do that, it would all it would be brilliant. I I just think. 

00:37:14 Prof Michele Barbour 

It would be a a great result. It’s it’s fascinating. The sort of the things that can emerge from. 

00:37:19 Prof Michele Barbour 

These journeys. 

00:37:20 Prof Michele Barbour 

Isn’t it because what would you like your legacy to be is a question I try to ask as part. 

00:37:24 Prof Michele Barbour 

Of. 

00:37:25 Prof Michele Barbour 

These interviews. But it’s it’s fascinating to find one where the legacy that you would now look to have is one that. 

00:37:31 Prof Michele Barbour 

Had really nothing to do with it. When you set out and it’s that emergence opportunity which maybe is that part of that entrepreneurial spirit is not just plowing the fur that you set out to, but but being open to the opportunities that emerge as you progress. 

00:37:48 Prof Anthony Laing 

Absolutely. If you think of my journey, I I wanted to do astrophysics and and then and then I heard about quantum nonlocality and changed to to quantum. But the foundations of quantum. 

00:38:00 Prof Michele Barbour 

Yeah, one lecture had your career pivot in a direction that you couldn’t have anticipated. 

00:38:04 Prof Anthony Laing 

Absolutely. And. And then I saw how kind of that foundations training can really kind of connect to quantum technologies and and and changed the game. Did an experiment in kind of you know what you might call traditional quantum computing in which. 

00:38:17 Prof Anthony Laing 

We, you know, factored a a semi prime number. But then again when in a different direction in a in a in the direction of special purpose, quantum computing couldn’t quite see how that to scale it up until we saw that there was material that just emerged that was very interesting and was an opportunity to do manufacturing in, in the UK and. 

00:38:39 Prof Anthony Laing 

Great. 

00:38:40 Prof Anthony Laing 

Jobs, nanofabrication jobs. High skilled. Not metal bashing, but you know. 

00:38:47 Prof Anthony Laing 

Economic game changing results, but still we’re we’re still in that direction of of, you know, simulating molecules really was what we were thinking of, but then connected with, you know, very interesting people, different scientists to us, very smart, very creative. 

00:39:06 Prof Anthony Laing 

From the UK? Yeah, and. 

00:39:08 Prof Anthony Laing 

And and that’s a market now, right. So now we’ve got market. 

00:39:12 Prof Anthony Laing 

Pull. 

00:39:15 Prof Anthony Laing 

So in in terms of legacy, of course, if we can be part of the story that’s that’s solving climate change, then that would be magnificent. 

00:39:28 Prof Anthony Laing 

Or on a more sort of down to Earth scale I I think just if. 

00:39:31 Prof Michele Barbour 

Hmm. 

00:39:36 Prof Anthony Laing 

We. 

00:39:36 Prof Anthony Laing 

Build a great company with great people who are very passionate, who want to solve. 

00:39:43 Prof Anthony Laing 

Important problems and UM. 

00:39:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

And if we? 

00:39:48 Prof Anthony Laing 

Create jobs. I think if we have a a great relationship with the universities that the kind of the founders are are from. If we can show that that can really work. That kind of partnership between academia and and industry. 

00:39:52 

Hmm. 

00:40:03 Prof Anthony Laing 

Then that that would be a great legacy. 

00:40:04 Prof Michele Barbour 

There’s a there’s a lot of little bifurcations. There’s a lot of points at. 

00:40:07 Prof Michele Barbour 

Which you followed. 

00:40:08 Prof Michele Barbour 

Right, right. And interest and avenue, a scent almost. 

00:40:12 Prof Michele Barbour 

Teams. 

00:40:14 Prof Anthony Laing 

I think probably what I would say to myself and just to anybody else is just focus on the next step. If you listen to other people in sort of challenging areas, you know. 

00:40:18 

MHM. 

00:40:24 Prof Anthony Laing 

Very like an an s s soldier. When they do that training or that selection process, they just tell themselves. Just think about the next step. If you’re trying to climb a hill for like the 10th time, because that’s what they might make you do. You just think about the next footstep and then the next one. You don’t think about kind of getting to the top. You just think about what’s the next thing. 

00:40:46 Prof Anthony Laing 

And do that and you and you, once you put a few of those steps together, then it starts. 

00:40:50 Prof Anthony Laing 

To. 

00:40:51 Prof Anthony Laing 

Look like something? Hmm. And if you do that consistently over time, just the next thing and the next thing you might not get to where you imagined, you’d get to, but you will get to somewhere. That’s kind of. 

00:41:01 Prof Michele Barbour 

Interesting. Somewhere interesting and you’ll know that you followed your interest. 

00:41:04 Prof Michele Barbour 

To get there. 

00:41:05 Prof Anthony Laing 

You know that it’s it’s your journey. It wasn’t a journey that somebody gave to you. You know, you you sort of discovered it for yourself. 

00:41:13 Prof Michele Barbour 

That’s all for this enterprise session, but join us again soon to hear more about the way our amazing staff and students are translating their enterprising ideas into real world impact. And do please click on the links if you’d like to contact the University of Bristol. 

 

 

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