Department of Physics alumnus Kris Kaczmarek, Head of Product at ORCA Computing, has been named in the Forbes Under 30 Europe 2021 list. Now in its sixth year, the list identifies young innovators – visionaries – on the verge of making it big.
ORCA Computing is improving the scalability of quantum computers using quantum memory technology Kris invented during his DPhil research at Oxford. We speak to him at home in London to find out more about how he went from the Department of Physics to Forbes Magazine.
Let’s go back to where it all started at the Department of Physics…
I started my PhD at the Department of Physics in Oxford in 2013 and worked with Professor Ian Walmsley – now chairman and co-founder of ORCA Computing and also Provost of Imperial College, London – as well as Dr Josh Nunn – co-founder and CTO as well as Reader in Photonics at the University of Bath. I was exploring the interaction of quantum light and matter for quantum technologies at quite a fundamental level but I did also have in mind actual quantum devices – quantum communication systems or quantum computers. Ian’s group was the best place to do this, with extensive expertise in quantum light, especially when applied to quantum communications, quantum computing and sensing; I was working with the ‘matter’ part of the group thinking that if we could throw some atoms into the mix, maybe we could solve some of the challenges faced by pure photonics.
When did you realise that you had something that could be commercialised?
Even though initially my research interests were more fundamental, the emphasis shifted when Oxford became home to the national Networked Quantum Information Technologies hub in 2014. It became clear quite quickly that there was potential for commercialisation of different aspects of our research and an appetite to translate our research into actual, practical technologies. In 2015, we worked with Oxford University Innovation to successfully patent research into microwave-optical conversion using atoms. We went on to pitch this idea at the Nature/Entrepreneur First Innovation Forum in Quantum Technologies, but ended up licensing this patent to another start-up rather than build our own company around it, but this got me interested in the idea of taking research and turning it into a business.
Continuing my research, I came up with an idea of a quantum memory especially suited for quantum computing. While quantum memories for light have been explored for many years – indeed Ian and Josh have done ground-breaking work on them – work up to that point had concentrated mostly on quantum memories for quantum communications, and these memories suffered noise issues. I went back to the drawing board and realised that by trading-off a feature required by quantum communications (memory lifetime), it was actually possible to create a noise-free memory that is compact and scalable, and that could be used for quantum computing. Because of my previous experience, it made sense to patent it, and with the team at Oxford, we experimentally verified it working, which concluded my PhD.
I then moved to Switzerland in 2018 to take up a non-computing-related post-doc research role at the University of Geneva. In 2019, I got an email from Josh explaining how he was founding a company along with Ian and others based on the quantum memory technology that I had invented, and asked if I would like to get involved. While I had always envisaged staying in academia, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down! Not only would I be joining a company in a hugely exciting sector but I would also be building on the success of my own research.
What is your day-to-day life like now?
Today ORCA Computing has offices and labs in London in Imperial College’s Innovation Hub, and some 15 employees over 4 countries. My role as Head of Product has me combining not only the research and development work that I am so passionate about but also identifying opportunities to translate this work into products. From the science perspective, my day-to-day is honestly not much different from what I did as a PhD student and post-doc; the commercial/admin side of things however was largely new to me, and involves working with investors/customers, recruiting new, often highly-specialised staff members and management.
What complementary skills have you had to learn on the way or what character traits have served you well?
For me, one of the biggest shifts from academia to industry is knowing that you can no longer pursue a single problem indefinitely. While an academic researcher can potentially spend a career wrestling with just one concept, in a commercial setting, you don’t have the freedom to indulge simple curiosity as any investment in research needs to be carefully costed and planned. Ultimately, you are accountable to investors and customers relying on you to deliver a product so time management and project management are key skills.
What does the future hold?
We are operating in such an interesting field and one that is rapidly changing, and as a result ORCA Computing is moving fast and growing quickly too. Our goal is for the company to be really successful and for me, it will be about delivering not promises but actual devices into our customers’ hands.
ORCA Computing is one of four quantum computing spin-outs founded by researchers from the Department of Physics, adding up to 15 new companies in total. If you are interested in using our technologies or investing in our research, please contact Innovation and Enterprise Manager, Phillip Tait (firstname.lastname@example.org).