By Matt Swayne, The Quantum Insider
Quantum computers are built on uncertainty.
Quantum computing companies must be built on focus.
Distractions are everywhere for leaders trying to steer their companies in a rapidly emerging industry during an extremely uncertain – if not perilous – economic time and that’s why Rob Hays, CEO and President of Atom Computing, and his team are intensifying their focus on the ultimate goal of building quantum computers that will let their customers tackle the complex computational challenges they face.
Hays’ strategy for leading his company that is designing and developing a neutral atom approach to quantum computers can be reduced to a simple equation: Focus creates velocity.
“What differentiates us – or helps us stand out – from our competitors is, first, that we have a different technology, but, also, at the company level, the differentiation is that we are focusing on one mission, which is building scalable quantum computers,” said Hays. “We are not trying to focus on going too far up the stack into software, algorithms and applications. Those are important, but we like to work with partners on that so we can just focus on our piece of the puzzle.”
Atom Computing’s piece of the puzzle – neutral atom quantum computing – may be the cornerstone of a quantum computing industry that can tackle real-world problems in fields as diverse as climate science to financial management. Quantum devices that use neutral atoms are designed to pack qubits in extremely small areas where they can be manipulated by lasers. The approach offers several advantages: For example, the devices do not rely on large cryogenic refrigerators and intricate wiring systems, which superconducting models require. This enables straightforward scalability to large numbers of qubits. Further, Atom Computing’s unique choice of alkaline-earth metals for their qubits enables long coherence times, which means that quantum states can be maintained to be able to run deep circuits.
These advantages will allow Atom Computing’s devices to move from prototype stage to larger commercial systems their customers can use to tackle important, complex problems.
Challenges remain, but Hays thinks that the neutral atom approach has more manageable challenges.
“We have different challenges,” said Hays. “We don’t have chips, we don’t have massive numbers of cables, we don’t need fabs, we don’t have any dilution refrigerators, we don’t have to wire up every qubit with an RF tone. We basically control our qubits with pulses of light, and we scale up with more spots of light and precise control of that light.”
Technologically, Atom Computing is paving the way for scalability, said Hays, but he said the key to the company’s own ability to scale rests in a team laser focused on its mission. Focus leads to the velocity necessary to build a company that is competing in a complex, competitive industry, like quantum.
“When you get a team that’s highly skilled, like the one we’ve built, and they’re focused on one very clear mission, they can run very fast,” said Hays. “That’s how you create high velocity. I know from my 20 years of experience at Intel, and my experience at Lenovo as Chief Strategy Officer, that the computing industry is a race. Companies are continually reinventing the state of the art on computing performance and this is a race that never ends. Quantum computing will be no different. It’s going to be a step function in performance improvement and then exponential performance gains relative to classical compute, but among the quantum computing players in the industry, we’re going to have to have high velocity and continuously push the envelope on performance. That velocity is the result of a focused, highly skilled team and making the right technical choices. By making technical choices that also allow you to scale, then I think that’s the winning combination.”
New Research and Development Facilities
We could add on to Hays’ focus-equals-velocity equation. Focus and velocity create interest and excitement, as news about Atom Computing’s new research and development facility in Boulder, Colorado demonstrated.
The quantum community, policymakers – and even some competitors – were encouraged to see Atom Computing taking this step.
“Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado, was there helping us cut the ribbon on the R&D facility, which I think shows that this is important to the state of Colorado and the region in general,” said Hays. “He said that the addition of Atom Computing helps further position Colorado as an economic leader for the next big wave of technology development.”
Atom Computing will join other quantum tech – as well as other tech and business – giants that are building or expanding their presences in the region. The site is also close to leading research institutions, such as University of Colorado Boulder and NIST
Hays believes Atom Computing will contribute to this growing “center of gravity” for the quantum industry.
The move helps Atom Computing tap the talented workforce in Colorado, too.
“We think that, by joining there, we will get access to incredible talent in the region that’s already looking for the opportunity and we’ve been quite successful in attracting people to Boulder from both coasts,” said Hays.
Roadmap Versus Compass?
While some companies share roadmaps that try to predict in intricate detail their moves in quantum, Atom Computing relies on – let’s call it – an internal compass. That compass works a little like this: As the company’s focus intensifies, it builds velocity for its customers. Its customers, then, help intensify that focus by guiding the company from where they are at now – a working prototype – to eventually build production systems that enter the marketplace.
That compass is pointing in the right direction, said Hays.
“I think we are on the right track,” said Hays. “I think if you talk to the people who walked through the labs, saw what we’re doing and talked to the engineers, they would say that we’re on the right track. I think our customers and our partners have faith in our ability to execute and what we’ve already demonstrated and I know that they’re rooting for us, because the world needs larger scale quantum computers.”
While the quantum industry has its hands full with scaling rapidly to meet expectations of an – at times – wildly enthusiastic and – at other times – deeply skeptical public, leaders also recognize the uncertainty in the macroeconomy that is playing havoc with many facets of the broader technology industry.
Hays returns to the company’s “focus first” philosophy.
“I believe that the customers will be there to use the systems and we’ll get paid for the value that we deliver over time,” said Hays. “There will be macroeconomic conditions that will cycle in the future, just as they have historically. But, as a company delivering the promise of exponential computing performance and, we believe, setting the pace for the industry, we look at this as a real opportunity. If we focus on delivering that promise, I am not too concerned right now about what the macroeconomic environment is.”
Hays, who was named Atom Computing’s chief executive in the summer of 2021, said that his first year at the helm was less of a learning lesson and more of a reaffirming lesson.
“Personally, I think I learned that what I already knew is true, in some respects,” said Hays. “Focusing people on very clear objectives, and manageable scope, gives you velocity. Driving a collaborative culture, where open communications and a winning environment are where people want to work, attracts talent and makes the talent that’s here want to stay, even if there are challenges. But if you have that collaborative, open minded, open communication culture, and people can see what the end goal looks like, and what winning looks like, and they feel like they are winning, they will be able to work through anything.”