Starting a business nearly always employs some degree of imitation.
Even if your idea is original, there are likely to be certain tracks you can follow that have already been laid. You’ll have your brand heroes – either in your sector or beyond it – those whose strategies you can bend and adapt for operations, finance, marketing, or people management. Besides that, you’ll have picked up your own lessons, theories, and beliefs on how to bring a company from nascent concept to growth through previously navigated structures.
But what about starting a business in an industry that is so new, so undefined, that all the usual processes, benchmarks, or targets simply don’t exist? Where there is no market proof, no pipeline, and no product? To many, defining these are key tenets of a business plan, without which, the chances of getting anyone to take you seriously, let alone securing funding, are small.
They do, however, exist. Often, they are thriving. In new industries like quantum computing, they’re vital. Such is the anticipation of what quantum can bring, products need to be developed now, even if the computers themselves are not yet commercially viable.
We spoke with Riverlane, a business that is building an operating system for quantum computers.
“The issue, in a nutshell, is we are building an operating system for quantum computers at the same time as helping build a new industry” Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Rebecca Simmons tells me. “The consensus generally is around 5 years before we have something commercially useful; that can demonstrate actual value. To put it into context, we need more than thousands or even millions of qubits to make a quantum computer of value and for the moment the best machine has 53.”
This sizable gap leaves Riverlane and its few peers with some serious challenges. How do you know if this ecosystem will be successful, let alone lucrative? Indeed, for all its challenges, quantum is widely regarded ‘a given’ and its future existence has few and vanishing detractors. Why?
“For one thing, there’s money,” explains Riverlane’s Senior Business Development Manager, Dr. Maria Maragkou, “globally, there’s so much quantum funding available.” But, while interest from VC funds is significant, it is early government support that has become crucial to quantum’s development. “Every government is rushing to invest in quantum because they have well understood the potential here,” Maragkou continues. “If it does work out, which is now very likely, they must be ready and they want to have some sovereign ownership of it, ideally to not rely on everybody else.”
So, how has Riverlane navigated working in this nascent industry?
Put education at the core
Even though the capital may be plenty, starting a business in a totally new realm is hard. Attracting talent and identifying partners to help build this new ecosystem is still a huge challenge.
“We have no problem attracting quantum scientists to come and work for us because they understand physics, says Simmons. “But we’ve struggled much more to attract software engineers. They’re excited by quantum but sometimes they feel like they can’t work for us because they have no background in it.”
It starts with education, says Maragkou. “We have to tell people again and again: ‘No-one has experience in quantum: you can add a lot to this company without it.’” Even though there is no commercially viable quantum computer, the hardware and software co-development needs to start now. And because everything is so new, education is absolutely the first step.
“Government grants for quantum weren’t always available, she continues, “we had to educate them first. Now the venture capitalists are coming on board. We are preaching about something that doesn’t yet exist, so we’re trying to convince people that we will create something of value in five years from now. We’re also trying to convince them that the time is now—the time to develop, the time to invest, the time to get excited.”
Networks and partners are crucial in quantum says Simmons. “We cannot do what we’re doing without working with other people and right now, that means a lot of hardware partners. We can’t keep everything in-house and a big fat secret and never interact with anyone else and present our product to the world. It’s never going to work in quantum. It’s a very collaborative space and it has to be.
We’re still in the phase of collaboration because the ecosystem is so small and everything is under development. The phase of hard competition hasn’t kicked in yet. It’s a way to show our value, to show that we have some credibility. It matters a lot.
That’s something peculiar to this industry at this stage. To all the senior people I would say: go and speak to everybody you can and make connections and get them involved. That’s what we’ve done and it’s been invaluable.”
Patent, patent, patent
Patents are massive, says Simmons. Trying to patent up and down the quantum computing stack to create future value is crucial. If you’re not doing it now—start, it takes a lot of time. There’s a finite number of people or companies doing this who understand quantum and do it well, so you need a critical mass of them in the same place to get the tech going, which is what we’ve got here at Riverlane.
Get some business experience
Finally, it’s worth noting that for companies like Riverlane, it’s not uncommon to find that while academic experience and expertise is second to none, business experience may be lacking. Simmons explains: “Many quantum companies are academic spin-outs. We’re all highly accomplished in our fields, but many of us have not run a business before, so we’ve worked on bringing that into the team to help us.”
At the same time, somebody without a quantum background cannot start a company like this,” adds Maragkou. “Someone who has no connection to quantum cannot have credibility and influence in this field. An executive just coming from the business side saying, “Okay, I’m going to start now a quantum company.” No way. It is not enough. But the business experience can come later.”
“It’s a very exciting space, says Simmons, “We’ve got more money now, of course, and our reputation is growing. It’s very unusual to have 40 amazing people who can do what we do. Now we’ve got that core of quantum expertise, we can start to attract even more experienced business people to come and help us. And we’ve got some great ideas, so we can dare to be bolder and accelerate further.”