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Entrepreneurs to Watch 2023: Stephanie Simmons

Stephanie Simmons portrait

Stephanie Simmons. [Image: Courtesy of Photonic Inc.]

The July/August 2023 issue of Optics & Photonics News featured the magazine’s biennial feature spotlighting 10 Entrepreneurs to Watch. Here, we offer an interview with one of those entrepreneurs, Stephanie Simmons, the founder and chief quantum officer of the Canada-based firm Photonic Inc. Building off of work on spin-photon interfaces in silicon by Simmons and her research team, Photonic has developed ways to put a million quantum bits (qubits) on a single silicon chip.

Can you talk a bit about how you first became interested in science and the sorts of things that drew you to optics and photonics and the quantum world?

Stephanie Simmons: Well, maybe just to start: I was a geek growing up. I was coding on the earliest computers; anything that was a puzzle I loved. And I actually came across the concept of quantum computing when I was quite young—about 16. I grew up in the city where the Institute for Quantum Computing [at the University of Waterloo, Canada] got going, and it started in 2001. That’s when I found out about it.

I completely fell in love and never looked back … There’s usually something that brings people into STEM—“Oh, I want to go into space,” or whatever it is; it captures them. The big difference in my case is that what captured me ended up keeping me. Most people get into something, and then they find all this other beautiful work and they go down some other rabbit hole. But the first love for me ended up being the real one.

“I actually came across the concept of quantum computing when I was quite young—about 16 … I completely fell in love and never looked back.”—Stephanie Simmons

I just couldn’t look away. It just seems like one of the most intriguing, grand puzzles for us to crack. And every time we commercialize a branch of physics, the impact is always underappreciated when they get going; they’ve always had a massive, transformational effect. And I’m motivated by that; I think it’s going to be a fun part of history to make this all happen.

So, I’ve been heads down on quantum computing for 20 years now.

You’ve come a long way in that time. I saw an announcement this past January that you are now cochair of the advisory council for Canada’s new national quantum strategy.

Yes. The advent of a national strategy has been a long time coming. And I’m really happy that various governments around the world are now recognizing that quantum deserves a strategic position. They don’t want to be on the losing end of the commercialization of the next branch of physics; they’re taking that narrative very seriously ... It all has huge economic implications. And so it’s very nice to hear that that recognition is happening at the very highest levels.

In the advisory council, we’re not executing the strategy. We are advising them. The federal Quantum Secretariat is executing the strategy that has been put together after really extensive consultations, which is great. But they also need the fast-feedback loop … So, we on the advisory council give them guidance on what we think could be making them more impactful around their aims.

And it’s really important, because whenever you’re in this kind of pre-transformational phase, people equate the technology word with magic, right? It happened with radioactivity—there were radioactive bracelets and radioactive toothpastes, and people just thought it was equivalent to magic, and it could be really misused in some sense.

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The same thing is happening for quantum right now—you hear the word quantum basically being used synonymously with magic. You hear it in like the movies—“Oh, it’s the quantum something,” and suddenly, that quantum something makes it all possible. So I applaud the various governments that have taken on this idea that you need people who can be very clear in helping to navigate what’s real and what’s not.

One particular buzzword we hear a lot of right now is the notion of the “quantum workforce,” and how to develop the talent for quantum technology. I’d be curious, given your feet in both the academic and commercial sides of where quantum is going, about your perspectives on that.

Yes. Just to be clear, I’m speaking with my own opinions, of which I have many, and I’m not reflecting necessarily the views of governments on this one. But there’s a lot of consensus emerging from different sectors.

One is, yes, we need more people coming up through the ranks. But … we don’t need buckets of more 20-year-old, 25-year-old Ph.D.s; that’s not going to be the thing that gets this over the line. We need to do a lot of sideways integration of existing engineering disciplines. That isn’t going to happen just within quantum computing companies or quantum technology companies; it has to really come in from broader educational development and upskilling programs or side-skilling programs.

So we need a lot of computer scientists; we need a lot of electrical engineers; we need whole new areas of engineering, like cryogenic engineering, that don’t really exist in the absence of a space like this. That whole side needs working. And that’s not just the 25-year-old Ph.D.s—though we need them, too.

There’s also, I guess, the customer-facing side of things.

Right. One of the things that academia is really good at is going very, very deep on one thing, and not necessarily being systems level. At the moment, I think that’s where the biggest opportunity for workforce development will be—on the systems level, or maybe application engineering. The top end of the stack, customer facing.

And there just really isn’t too much academic programming around that side. But as a consequence of the maturity of the sector, we’re going to get a lot more of that as time goes on … There’s a lot of people that are being trained to produce one shiny qubit [quantum bit], or think very deeply about how one qubit could be improved. But it’s not the same thing as, “Okay, well, what does this mean for oil and gas? How can we take an oil and gas sector and get them ready, and actually identify and quantify the upside for them, so that they move into more of a procurement mode?”

This is, again, one of these opportunities to look at historical trends and see how disruptive technologies actually play out. It’s actually a pretty well-worn pattern. You get this “Cambrian explosion” of startups, looking for opportunity. And then eventually, some consensus emerges on what a winning structure looks like. And then there’s a mass consolidation event and a giant talent shortage.

And that’s where, if you’re looking to do really exciting, really hard things in a very lucrative role, then you go into that industry, and you tackle those kinds of challenges. And I think that’s one of the reasons people are ringing the bell on workforce development and how important it is—because the countries that have that workforce will be able to capitalize upon that event in a way that others can’t.

And it’s not just about training them inside. It’s about having the right immigration policies and the right quality of life overall to be able to bring in the world’s best to do certain things. People want, at some level, to be part of the winning team.

Let’s talk a bit about the company you founded, Photonic Inc. I know that Photonic is currently in stealth mode, and you may not be able to go into a lot of detail. But perhaps we can talk a little bit about the broad silicon-based technology Photonic is pursuing. You have worked on this for years—how did you first come to recognize the potential of spin qubits in silicon for the whole quantum enterprise?

When I first got into this space, it became very clear that the holy grail of quantum is “trustworthy” quantum technologies. You have to be able to tell the computer to do something and trust that it’s going to do it. Otherwise, it’s just essentially a very expensive random number generator to some level …

“When I first got into this space, it became very clear that the holy grail of quantum is “trustworthy” quantum technologies … And it was also evident in the early years that for that to be true, you’re going to need buckets of qubits—just buckets of them.”—Stephanie Simmons

And it was also evident in the early years that for that to be true, you’re going to need buckets of qubits—just buckets of them. Because all of the strategies that had been invented to do quantum error correction, the thing that makes the computer fault tolerant or trustworthy—all of those strategies require buckets of qubits.

So when I came up through the ranks as an academic, I looked at the kinds of platforms that are out there that had seemingly an easy way of putting down buckets of qubits. And surprise, surprise—silicon had that going for it. It also had two completely separate groups of people working on it that almost didn’t even know each other’s names—one on the pure photonics side, and one on the spin-qubit side.

With spin qubits, the wiring is very similar to transistors. In the same way that we could put billions of transistors down, you could put billions of qubits down on silicon—the density is really tight.

Photons are a different story. It’s also silicon—because the whole silicon photonics industry, and everything around telecom and communications, actually leverages silicon to print fiber optics on the chip. And it’s also easy to get buckets of qubits—you turn on a light, and you have lots and lots of qubits, right? The issue, though, is that the photons don’t have memory. If you lose a photon, you lose a qubit. And that’s a challenge; you need memory to some level.

So we went up the spin qubit route. But it became evident to me that at some point, we can’t be constrained to the size of a box. No matter how good your chip is, you can’t have a truly scalable system if the “quantum-ness” of it is stuck inside some physical space. To have something that “wins,” it has to be truly horizontally scalable—you have to be able to put lots down and connect lots together.

And thus I got very interested in this photonic interconnect—because the only really good qubits that send information around at room temperature are photons. And it’s going to be telecom wavelengths—there’s no way we’re going to reinvent the entire world’s communications infrastructure.

So I went looking for something in silicon, that you could print at scale, that talked to telecom photons … We went hunting for them. And I was buckled in for a 20-year career, because I just knew that that was the kind of thing where, if you found it, it can go the full distance. It’s telecom, it’s silicon, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, you can just rock and roll.

I didn’t think it would be easy to find. We found them in about three years. I’d started the company in anticipation—in the event that we found something, it would have been really good to collect the IP. And we found what we were looking for.

That’s interesting—you founded the company before you had the technology in hand.

Photonic Inc. logo

Well, in some sense, every quantum computing company has founded a company before it has fault tolerant, trustworthy quantum tech.

But it’s more that these things aren’t going to be built in academia. They’re such large scale efforts that unless the world’s governments came together and made it a CERN-like project—which I don’t think is the right model either—they are going to be built in an industry. The structures in academia are amazing for figuring out answers to the questions that need answering to build the thing. But that’s not the same thing as building the thing.

So we went hunting, and we were collecting the IP. Truthfully, it was a bare-bones company collecting the IP for a few years, which is fine. We got angel funding to do that, because it is such a high-risk, high-reward picture. We found what we were looking for, and we hit the go button, really, starting in 2021.

And now we’re at more than 100 people. It’s the biggest quantum computing company that you’ve never heard of, by design. We are stealth, because we know what we need to do, and we have the resources to do it, so we’re just going to get on with it and make the most of our first-mover advantage in this space.

On your lab website, you say these spin qubits in silicon are arguably the best quantum bits in the industry. What makes them so good?

Well, there are obviously commercial reasons to be excited about silicon. But silicon is just really clean. We’ve had 40 years of making it cleaner and cleaner and cleaner.

I guess there are some numbers about the spin qubits having long coherence times …

That’s right. And that’s a by-product of both an esoteric bit of physics—the fact that it has low spin-orbit coupling—and also that it’s just really clean. We know how to make it cleaner than any other solid material. So much so that it’s actually been used to redefine the kilogram—the kilogram is now defined by a specific number of silicon-28 atoms …

Silicon can be float-zoned and therefore purified. And it just has all these wonderful properties that make it phenomenal, not just from a commercial perspective but from a quantum perspective. And if you’re going to be integrating all these things with photonics, it’s the best in the business. There’s a few other platforms that do integrated photonics, but really to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants, silicon just gives you almost an unfair competitive advantage.

“[Silicon] just has all these wonderful properties that make it phenomenal, not just from a commercial perspective but from a quantum perspective.”—Stephanie Simmons

It’s not that it can’t be done with other things. But right now we’re in a race.

One interesting recent step in that race was the paper you published last year in Nature about optically addressing these spin qubits. That seems like something that would be pretty important to figure out.

Yeah. Right after that paper, by the way, we printed a million qubits on a chip—just to do it. I get to carry the chip around with me in my purse.

But the optical-addressing side means that you can put this into real working devices at some level. It’s all well and good to have the ability to test these things experimentally. But you need to put them into working computers. And that means using integrated photonics. You can go and talk to them optically; you don’t need to have all these crazy wires that require millikelvin temperatures. There’s all these details that matter with these kinds of technologies—really, really fun puzzles at the highest level.

OK—you founded the company in 2016, collected IP, and “pushed the go button” in 2021. Could you talk broadly about that whole experience, and the things you have learned over the course of it, strictly from entrepreneurial side of things?

I think one broad point is that there are many, many ways for a company to fail that have nothing to do with the technology—way more failure modes than people imagine.

In the quantum space, people are in it because they love the challenge, they want to solve the technical puzzle, they want to make the thing work. But it requires a completely different skill set to operate a 100-person organization effectively, and think about communication channels and organizational structure and making sure you have the right HR practices and documentation practices and tax and all these things that can really tank a company and have to come in at the right time.

“There are many, many ways for a company to fail that have nothing to do with the technology—way more failure modes than people imagine.”—Stephanie Simmons

That’s the other observation—there’s certain practices and processes that you need to put in to avoid failure. But if you put them in too soon, then you basically strangle the productivity of the team.

So it’s really interesting, and not really quantum-specific—it’s true for many deep-tech firms. But it’s an interesting case. It’s underestimated just how challenging it can be, where you can’t point to a known answer. People that are in this space are used to getting 100% on all their tests; they’re used to thinking, “Oh, there’s the answer; let’s optimize the answer.” When you’re working with all of these other aspects that don’t have playbooks like that, but that can absolutely tank a company, it’s an interesting skill set to learn.

Your company, Photonic Inc., is in stealth mode, as we talked about previously. What can you tell me in a broad sense about how you and your colleagues think about the market for this technology?

There is, I guess, one particular observation that I’d share with you. And that is: We believe that quantum networks and quantum computers will ultimately be the same technology.

I think that’s an outlier view. But it kind of points to why we’re so excited about this technology. Because if you can get something that allows for the networking of computers, it allows for the kind of horizontal scalability that I was talking about. If you’re no longer constrained to the size of a box, and you can essentially distribute entanglement through lots of different computers, you have the backbone of a quantum internet right there. And that actually gives you the buckets of qubits you need to do the fault-tolerant piece—that kind of unlocks the scalability that makes it easier to add qubits.

Scalable means that it has to get easier to add things, not harder. And for a lot of the systems that are out there, it’s harder to add qubits, not easier. If you have this kind of modularity, it really does change the engineering game, because these are truly engineering challenges at some sense. There’s lots of great qubits out there; it’s systems engineering that is blocking us from commercial value.

“We believe that quantum networks and quantum computers will ultimately be the same technology.”—Stephanie Simmons

But if you have that backbone, and you flip the way you look at it, it’s the sort of thing you need to unlock networks. And that becomes even more true if telecom is the thing linking all of these. So even if you have a scalable, fault-tolerant technology, if it doesn’t click into the telecom quantum internet, you’re going have a hard time competing with those that do.

Therefore, in terms of priorities, a lot of the emphasis is being placed on computing. But quantum technologies, I’m pretty sure, are going to have this kind of “networky-computery” vibe, and it’ll be one technology that underpins them all. That is, I think, a bit different from the way most people in this space are thinking about it—trying to take their quantum computers and then “tack on” telecom interconnects.

That’s interesting, because what you describe is very analogous to the classical world right now—the connections between computation and the internet have become pretty seamless.

That’s exactly right. If you look at how supercomputers work, they’re not monolithic supercomputers; they’re modular. And the performance of those systems is absolutely dictated by the I/O and the communication between them. The communication dictates that computer. So we’re learning those lessons and trying to leverage that.

People talk about a lot of potential applications for quantum computers. What are the ones you tend to think about?

Well, there’s a laundry list of algorithms out there that can in principle provide an exponential speed-up from quantum; you can go and take a look at them on … But one thing I try to make clear to people is that there have been massive breakthroughs on error correction in this field that aren’t being recognized outwardly, especially at the user level. I think it’s the reason why the governments are paying attention. The error correction has moved the goalposts a decade closer, and people aren’t thinking about that.

Simmons at government announcement event

In January 2023, Simmons was tapped as co-chair of the advisory council to the government of Canada&rsqo;s National Quantum Strategy. [Image: Photonic Inc.]

First off, people aren’t thinking about changing their cryptography fast enough, because Shor will be available pretty quick—certainly sooner than what has been predicted before—because of the moving of the goalposts. So that’s one thing; we should absolutely get that message out.

But another is thinking beyond that about the upside, and actually grinding through and doing work on the application engineering, to make the most of these resources when we have them, and having that information be publicly available … I think there’s a lot of opportunities to get win-wins out of this. The cybersecurity thing will be a transition; we’ll get through it, it will be done. And then we have these quantum tools, right, and these tools can do things that just can’t be done any other way.

The one that I’m most excited about is catalysts. We have a lot of energy aspects that we really need to think about in the next 50 years, and energy processes are ultimately chemical processes. But right now, we have no design tools for catalysts—we just try out what sticks on the wall and run with it that way. [Quantum could provide] a design tool where you can actually help navigate that whole shift in thinking about energy, and even chemical processes that aren’t energy related as well—they use catalysts. It’s a very exciting opportunity.

One last question that I can’t resist asking. When I read about Photonic Inc., inevitably people bring up your title with the company, chief quantum officer. What does a chief quantum officer do?

As the name suggests, I’m the prime quantum person. In some sense, it’s technical strategy. So when we’re thinking about different product offerings on the networking versus the computing side, you need to have somebody who’s equivalent to a chief technical officer. But there’s other aspects to it—the different quantum opportunities that exist, and other technological sides that can be added on later.

“Other major firms, I think, are going to have their own chief quantum officer—in a similar sense, for example, that there’s a chief information security officer at many firms. There needs to be some point of authority for this quantum transition.”—Stephanie Simmons

So I like the title. Other major firms, I think, are going to have their own chief quantum officer—in a similar sense, for example, that there’s a chief information security officer at many firms. There needs to be some point of authority for this quantum transition, especially for the firms where it will be disruptive to their workflows. They should have that body of knowledge at the C-suite level to help them navigate those transitions—whether it be a security firm or a chemistry firm or whatever. It is, I think, a role that will need to be filled.

Publish Date: 19 July 2023

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