Cambridge Quantum Computing’s Ilyas Khan has found fertile ground to launch the start-up in the UK. (Image courtesy of Ilyas Khan)

Quantum computing and the English Football League may not appear to have much in common, but they are two of the passions of charismatic business leader Ilyas Khan, founder of UK start-up Cambridge Quantum Computing (CQC) and former owner of League One Lancashire football club Accrington Stanley.

In fact, Khan is something of a renaissance man with a successful track record in international banking, investment and entrepreneurship alongside founding a literary review, owning a football club and maintaining a profound interest and respect for academia and all things innovation.

Academia’s role in quantum computing

Some would say quantum computing is the ultimate embodiment of the symbiosis between academia and innovation. Every quantum computing ecosystem is guaranteed to have a top-tier university nearby. It is no surprise, then, that the eponymous CQC had deep links to Cambridge University right from its inception in 2014.

At the time of founding CQC, Khan was the leader in residence at the university’s Judge Business School and a founder of business incubator Accelerate Cambridge as well as inaugural founding chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation. “These links led directly to the founding of the company and all our original team was essentially from the maths department at the university,” says Khan.

CQC was formed on the view that within a decade or so, quantum computing would become relevant in the mainstream.

Of the 100-plus scientists on the payroll, more than 70 have PhDs in subjects across the board from quantum computing, chemistry and molecular electronics to physics, maths, computer science and nanoscience. “We have the highest concentration of quantum technologists anywhere in the world,” Khan proudly states.

The importance of leadership

CQC is a deep tech start-up without a technologist at the helm. Debates on whether this is the most effective route to success are ongoing. Despite a background in the cerebral branch of mathematics known as category theory – another of Khan’s passions – he says he would never second-guess his department heads and has a deep reverence for the science.

Furthermore, Khan’s experience as an investment banker and business leader means he possesses something many technologists or academics wouldn’t necessarily have: a keen eye for market opportunities. In 2014, inspired by the work being done at Accelerate Cambridge, which served as a catalyst for the company’s creation, Khan knew the timing was right. “CQC was formed on the view that within a decade or so, quantum computing would become relevant in the mainstream,” he says.

While the creation of many start-ups depends on funding and subsequently requires some relinquishing of control from the founders, Khan was fortunate enough to self-fund the company without angel or seed investors. And going forward, finding financially heavyweight ‘believers’ willing to put their faith and money into the project was not difficult. “Funding has never really been an issue and being here in the UK has not hindered this aspect of our growth,” says Khan. “At our last round the company was valued at close to $500m.”

The large majority (more than 66%) of the company is owned by the board and employees, giving it a strong founder-focused direction. It also allows CQC to remain purist in its aims and ethics, which include never making unsubstantiated claims and remaining transparent about its work. Khan credits support from an active group of friends and family, which includes many individuals who are entrepreneurs and business people in their own right. British businessman and philanthropist Jim Mellon, for example, was an early investor. “This happened at significant premiums to the usual angel or seed venture capital stage,” says Khan. What has inspired further confidence in the start-up’s prospects is that a number of clients and partners have also subsequently become shareholders.

Khan says CQC’s funding model was inspired by fellow deep-tech UK start-up DeepMind, which appealed to high-net-worth investors on the basis of “the beauty and the power of the ideas” rather than any short-term profit. DeepMind’s founder and CEO, Demis Hassibis, is also a Cambridge alumnus and CQC appointed former DeepMind research scientist Professor Stephen Clark as its head of artificial intelligence in April this year.

Why the UK is a world leader in quantum

Despite its Cambridge roots, CQC has expanded to London and beyond, setting up operations in San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Tokyo. “Our locations are driven primarily according to where quantum computing has been adopted early and also by the location of some of our early clients and shareholders,” says Khan. JSR, the Japanese conglomerate, for example, was one of the first corporate investors in CQC.

Funding has never really been an issue and being here in the UK has not hindered this aspect of our growth. At our last round the company was valued at close to $500m.

Most scale-ups end up deliberating over whether a Silicon Valley presence is a prerequisite to global success, and while CQC established an office in San Francisco, its US presence is predominantly in Washington, DC. Khan maintains that it is entirely possible for a tech company with international ambitions to establish its global footprint without a dominant Silicon Valley presence. “My sense is, at least for quantum, that the US is not the centre of gravity. Quantum computing expertise is truly diversified and global – the UK is just as powerful, if not more, than the US in this regard,” he says.

Indeed, Khan credits the UK for having a policy framework that enabled the creation of CQC, particularly the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP). “As a company, the simple fact is that if it were not for the far-sighted NQTP, our company would not exist,” he says of the programme established in 2014 by Sir Peter Knight.

How soon is quantum coming?

Khan believes that in the area of cryptography quantum computing is already meaningfully contributing with unhackable, non-deterministically generated strings of digits. “That is not next year or next month, it is now and it is commercial,” he says.

In the area of quantum simulations, Khan envisages a five-year timeline. “There is an informed consensus that this is coming,” he says, adding that the quantum advantage over classical computing power will revolutionise anything from drug discovery to carbon capture. CQC has signed commercial agreements with companies including Roche (working on drug discovery and development), Total (looking at carbon sequestration) and CrownBio (looking at multigene biomarkers for oncological drug discovery). “These large multinationals are doing this now because they also believe in this timeframe,” says Khan.

Where he is a little more cautious, and perhaps an outlier in his view, is in the area of machine learning. He characterises large-scale applications where quantum computers are competing with classical processes for machine learning as “some way off”. Whether Khan will see the advent of these profound changes in his lifetime or not, he may rest assured that that he has played some significant part in the trajectory of their development.

At the beginning of the CQC journey, Khan was inspired by the cohort of brilliant young people he met at Cambridge University whom he describes as “fearless and yet to be infected by negativity”. He remembers thinking “maybe there is another trick left in me yet” having notionally retired. Perhaps CQC will remain his most important legacy after all.

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