Transitioning from academia to starting a viable business is a common challenge for deep tech startups, especially those that are rooted in any form of quantum technologies. Thankfully there are people across the South West working hard to counter this, so if you’re currently working with quantum but you’re struggling to monetise your idea, you’re in the right place.
To explore the hive of activity currently flourishing within the sphere of quantum tech, we spoke to Dr. Andy Collins, University of Bristol lecturer and Business Development Associate at Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre (QTIC).
QTIC behaves as a mediator between academia and commercialising business, specifically within quantum and emerging technologies. Andy explains, “So, if your idea is very high tech and doesn’t necessarily have a business application yet, but you think it has the potential to be transformative, highly influential or have an impact on the world, then this is the place that you can come to.”
We spoke to Andy to get a clearer understanding of the challenges deep tech startups face, why Bristol and Bath are the places to be for quantum right now and how as a region we can continue to support burgeoning startups.
Bridging the gap
Andy explains that quantum is essentially ‘electronics 2.0’, that enables new types of calculations, which in turn enables us to create new technologies with extremely unique properties.
The realm of possibility is expanded exponentially with quantum, making it a sector the rest of us shouldn’t, or perhaps cannot, ignore.
Andy highlights a few examples of new tech discoveries made through the lens of quantum: “Firstly you have quantum key distribution, which is a way of sending information and being sure that no one has snooped on your line; a way of exchanging a secure key.
“You can also do interesting things with light, such as cameras that can see around corners – Heriot-Watt University is doing some great research into cameras that can see underwater through very murky water. There are lots of applications with this, so naturally, there’s lots of excitement here.”
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He tells us schemes such as the UK National Quantum Technologies programme, which launched in 2013, assisted the growth by funding research into quantum tech and how it would be applied and used, but now the main focus is on actual companies and how it can be commercialised.
Understanding these barriers means coming one step closer to resolving them. Andy identifies the main roadblocks as knowing your end-user, establishing an efficient team, accessing finance and facilities and understanding the technicalities of running a business.
Commercialising Quantum Tech
Andy says he often sees people who have a very unique piece of tech but quite know where it’s going to fit. He tells us, “The laser is the ubiquitous example of this.
“When the laser was invented, it was a technology looking for a use. Much of what you see in emerging technologies is that people know what they’re working on is very cool and can do something that no one else can replicate, but who is actually going to buy that? Who are the people that are going to keep your company going? Who actually needs to have a quantum key secure satellite comms channel?”
The key is to see the science from the perspective of what an end-user might want. Andy explains that it’s crucial to remember the end-user is unlikely to care how the tech works: “so you need to decide how you’re going to express what your technology does in a way that people who are not experts in the field will understand.”
Once this obstacle is deconstructed, you need to engage in the business mindset. First of which means building the team that will come on this startup journey with you.
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Andy says, “People start a company because they’re passionate about the technology and enjoy doing it. Being involved with a startup is lots of fun – it’s an adventure – but there are realities to it where you are going to have to make difficult decisions.”
By bottoming out the technicalities such as who will become CEO, who the IP belongs to, who will be an advisor, and who is going to jump on board full time, you’ll save a lot of time further down the line. Andy adds, “You need to have people you trust and who know what they’re doing. You’re going to need the people in marketing and advertising, people who can do product development, people who can negotiate contracts, you’re going to need legal help. It’s a lot to take on board.”
Andy also underscores the misconception that if your idea fails, it will destroy the livelihood of an individual. He says, “The idea is you set up a company so the company takes the risks. If it looks like it’s not going to be a commercially viable entity then at least you’ve explored that.
“You shouldn’t be putting your house on the line and selling everything you own just to see if something works, you should have a really decent idea that it’s going to work and that there’s interest before you get to that point.”
The place to be
In our conversation, Andy points out Tech Nation reported that Bristol is the 3rd largest hub for tech investment in the UK with businesses raising $414m. And within that, the appetite for deep tech investment in the South West is growing.
The trend is that venture capital investment has been going up year on year. In QTIC alone, they have had 45 individuals come through the programme, 31 of those who have established companies and have gone on to create 130 jobs – from this, QTEC residents have collectively raised over £30 million over the last year.
Andy says, “The investor community in Bristol is becoming really strong; it’s such a great place to be right now. The ecosystem is really growing with initiatives such as Science Creates, who kickstart a lot of passion within the community, and hubs like Future Space that provide startups with dedicated lab space.”
He iterates that to maintain this progression, creating more spaces where people can access specialist hardware is crucial. Due to the sheer expense of the essential facilities needed to develop quantum technologies, the shared resources that deep tech incubators provide the means to be really exploring this tech.
The wealth of support programmes working together in Bristol and Bath allows the businesses here to thrive. Andy says, “It’s hyper-connected around here; that’s something really great about working in emergent technology. We know the people at Science Creates, Engine Shed, SETsquared, at most of the incubators throughout the cluster, the scaleup programmes – and most importantly, everybody’s happy to refer one to another.”
He adds, “You’ve also got the compound semiconductor catapult over the road, you’ve got everything that’s going on with Newport and the investments around there – with no bridge toll, it’s now easier to access South Wales and work with people over there. We’ve got facilities for the quantum photonic rapid chip fabrication facilities here. Down the road in Torbay, you’ve got a cluster of semiconductor and packaging facilities.”
This South West connectivity comes with the community culture here, and it’s without the sacrifice of expense you get in London.
Andy tells us his most important piece of advice is to go out and talk to people – get involved with the community and you’re sure to find an array of people and resources who are eager to assist you on your founder journey.