Matt Versaggi, a senior leader in the AI space, is interviewed by Yuval Boger. Matt discusses his grassroots approach to integrating quantum technology in healthcare, emphasizing the need for educational programs and patenting initiatives. He also shares insights into the role of quantum business strategists, who can offer cost-effective, timely advice to organizations. Matt also highlights the geopolitical tussle between the United States and China in the quantum space, stressing its impact on the rate of technological maturity.
Yuval: Hello, Matt, and thank you for joining me today.
Matt: Good morning, and it’s a privilege to be here.
Yuval: So who are you and what do you do?
Matt: Well, I’m a senior leader in the AI space, with Fortune 5 healthcare experience, My main areas of digging deep are business, technology, entrepreneurial and academic backgrounds. I’m an experienced public speaker. I’ve done quite a bit of speaking on a global scale. Strategist mentor, holds multiple patents, quantum, AI, and cognitive as well. I’m a distinguished engineer and have international business experience, built an organization, what they call the College of Artificial Intelligence. And I’ve introduced both matured cognitive technology as well as quantum, which we’re talking about today, maybe fusing the two with healthcare. and chaired multiple patent review boards. So that’s kind of me in a nutshell. And a fun fact, I’m a seasoned pole vault coach. Of 15 years, two continents, three states, four clubs, and one high school. And we’ve produced national champions, state champions, regional champions, all that kind of stuff. And I did decathlon in college. I was D3 decathlete.
Yuval: Pole vault, that is amazing. And I think until recently, you were in the healthcare industry working on both quantum and AI, is that correct?
Matt: That’s correct. I was formerly from a large Fortune 5 health care organization, and now finding myself on the open market.
Yuval: And I always thought that was sort of an unusual interest in quantum. We see a lot of pharma companies interested in drug discovery and quantum applications on that. But why would a healthcare company care? Is that about electronic health records? Is that about insurance fraud? What is the focus of quantum activities in this market?
Matt: So I think you’ve got to look at, you know when we did that, we didn’t really have top-down decrees from upper management. There are a few of us in the organization, quite a lot as a matter of fact, that realized that quantum was going to happen. It’s an inevitable future and there are inflection points in which organizations really need to get moving in this space. So we took a grassroots approach. We did a lot of sweat equity and found an appetite for it in certain spaces, the educational space, the patent space, and even in some initial infrastructure spaces of merging quantum tech stacks and classical tech stacks in a production environment. We found appetites in all those areas and we just exploited them to the best we could.
Yuval: It sounds like quantum is not for the faint of heart or for people without patience. How long did it take you to build this interest and groundswell on quantum interest?
Matt: So the way we did it, we had a strategy. We wanted to attack the educational space first. We wanted to teach our constituency about quantum. And so we found good support there. And so it took me about a year and a half from scratch to develop a different kind of educational paradigm and regiment, a course about six months long that would teach software engineers in that healthcare space the basics of quantum computing. Now what we did with that was we used that as a precursor to pursue a patenting program. And I got the very first patent in the quantum and genomics space in that healthcare area, and we had subsequent patents after that. But that was our commission for being alive. And what we really wanted to do, our overall agenda was move the organization forward in its quantum journey, even though we didn’t have top-level support just yet.
Yuval: And that seems like an unusual approach, right? A lot of people who are starting in quantum actually go to the division heads and say, “Oh, here’s this quantum thing. What could we potentially do with it?” You’re basically describing that you started from the ground floor with the goal of generating patents, but essentially teaching the people who do the actual work, the actual technical work on what quantum is. Would you have done it again if you were in the same situation?
Matt: Absolutely, because a lot of times it is far better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Especially in a very conservative environment where they’re used to saying no to everything. Like the power in large organizations is the ability to say yes. And the illusion of power is those who have the ability to say no over and over and over again. So we took that tact, I would do it again. The other color that I have to throw in there is that we did it on a ridiculous shoestring budget. We made sure that we were under the radar in terms of costs. And all we did was add value everywhere we went. And that was helpful. And that can be done.
Yuval: If you were advising a friend who works at a large company, and wants to get into quantum, perhaps the field is not as saturated as, say, financial services where so many companies are doing that. How would they start figuring out their quantum strategy? And do you feel that quantum strategy is different for every organization or is there a one-size-fits-all there?
Matt: Oh, that’s a good question. So when it comes to strategy, and that’s a multi-part question, but when it comes to strategy, What we don’t want to do is peddle recipes, strategic recipes. And that’s really what most strategists do. They say, “Oh, I’ve got a recipe, kind of like a recipe in the kitchen.” And any person can read a recipe and follow the dotted line. But true strategy, and you need to read authors like Clausewitz, who wrote the book on strategy. He was the man on strategy and he wrote the book called “On War”. And he vehemently goes against the idea of parroting recipes as the strategist. He recommended a very different approach and we’ll get into that a little bit later. But that’s what we take. Taking strategically, I would recommend going under the radar, having a grassroots operation, rather than asking for top-down support for a number of reasons. One, if you can keep your costs low– and you can. You can get into this space for almost nothing. And there’s a groundswell movement to allow that to happen. And if you can show value, business, real business value, without cost, generally those things just get kind of ignored and you can continue moving along your agenda, which is to have the organization further its quantum journey, develop resources, get experience, build things, engage in things, get patents, get other accolades, those kinds of things. That’s what’s important to get started. And you can do that on the cheap.
Yuval: Sounds like you’re continuing the contrarian approach. So some companies, Quantum starts at the board level, “Well, what are we doing about Quantum? Let’s get a McKinsey or a BCG,” which do fabulous work but are fairly expensive, to say the least. And then on the flip side you say they could hire someone like you and do it, is it faster or slower? Certainly, it sounds like it’s less money. How would you sort of contrast these two approaches?
Matt: So you’re gonna always see the big consulting companies playing in these new spaces. Accenture, they’ve got some great guys, I know the guy that heads that over there. Many of these other groups have quantum spaces, but they make their money in consulting. And the game that we’re playing here is we are trying to conserve as many resources as we can. We don’t want to spend money frivolously in this space. And you can see it’s happening in AI. Gen AI is going to gangbusters and people are spending all kinds of money and going, “Where’s the return?” In this space, you want to spend as little money as you can, you’re playing a waiting game for the maturity of the quantum processors themselves to get to a point where other technologies can follow suit and build an ecosystem like a technological ecosystem to solve real problems. So there’s that waiting game and while you’re in that waiting game, strategically you want to move your organization as far as they can, which means they need to get experience, they need to code things, they need to build things, they need to understand how quantum might fit in the overall business process, and then get those projects prioritized along with conventional projects to help the business, but never going overboard, spending more money than you need to, and then having a black eye from that. So it’s a delicate balance.
Yuval: I’m familiar with the term hackathon, but when I was speaking to you the other day, it was the first time I heard of a Strathathon. Maybe I’m mispronouncing it. What is that?
Matt: That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? So hackathons are like anything. There are muscles that get built to do something. Whether you’re doing technological development, whether you’re doing data science and machine learning. You want an event that will allow you to develop those muscles. Now in graduate school, we would do case studies and those were the muscles that allowed us to develop muscles of analysis and solution application and prescriptions and all kinds of other things. The business case study, the Harvard Business Case Study, or anything else, was the vehicle to help teach those skills and flex those muscles to develop those as well. And that particular vehicle that you mentioned with many syllables in it, was that it was the first of its kind really on a global scale where they said you know what, quantum strategy is really fusing business acumen with the technology in a realistic way to help organizations further their journey in the space. And this was one of those exercises that allowed people to do that.
Yuval: Do you think that technology is there to go beyond the strategy? I mean I think the last thing you want in an organization is to set up these high expectations and then for people to be disappointed, oh I read that quantum is going to change the world but in fact, we only have so many qubits and they’re noisy and you can only do this and so you may be risking oh let’s put it on the shelf for five years and come back later.
Matt: Yeah, that’s a key thing. So there’s a couple of concerns there. The very first one is that we can no longer trust our media, whether it’s the external news media, or whether it’s corporate media that is articulating some new advancements like Gen AI or quantum computing. The hype gets parlayed out there because the media has lost its standards, even worse than in the ’20s and ’30s, and there was some colorful stuff posted back then. They really lost their way. So we have to go in to realize that there’s a gaslighting effect that’s inherently indigenous to all media communications, to parlay moving a constituency to a place where they’ll do something. So we know that that’s in effect. We’ve gotta always realize that we cannot trust the media. That’s the first, that awareness is the first step in that. The damage has been done. There’s been all kinds of crazy articles by people who used to pour coffee for you in the morning and now all of a sudden they’re writing articles for major news outfits on technology, which they know nothing about. So that’s already happened. What we found in the past to mitigate that is to stay close to the engineers who are actually making the tech. Because they can ferret out and see through the smoke and mirrors of media height to articulate what’s truly going on. So to answer your larger question, the maturity of the material substrates to hold subatomic particles long enough to do information processing on them is maturing. But it’s not there yet. It’s not completely there yet. but it is making leaps and bounds. As it matures, there are other technologies that follow up from that, like the development of quantum RAM, or a quantum operating system, or quantum debugger, or quantum integrated development environment. Those kinds of things are on the drawing board and they’re waiting, but that critical piece of holding electrons and protons and whatnot and doing information processing on them has to mature a little further.
Yuval: The other term I heard from you, perhaps for the first time, other than Stratathon, I guess if I said enough times, I’ll get the hang of it, is the quantum business strategist. Is that just a fancy name for a consultant or is that something that organizations should think about having as a sort of continuous service?
Matt: So I think that’s gonna be, the quantum business strategist is gonna be one of those, it’s sorely needed in this space. And that’s someone who can compete with the big consulting firms to provide the just-in-time, solid advice for senior executives without the massive cost of bringing in Accenture or bringing in, and Accenture’s great, and we’re bringing in Deloitte, and they’re great too. But as we play this waiting game, the other color to that is we need to play that waiting game inexpensively. And so rather than bringing in these high-dollar consultants, go get those quantum strategists out there that have some mileage behind them. They’ve got some miles behind them, they’ve got some experience, they’ve kind of done this before. And then they can come in fairly inexpensively, whether they’re on staff or you bring them in on a just-in-time basis, or just follow them and attend some of their lectures or whatnot, their socialization of public kind of presentations. That’s going to help keep the cost down, but then give you good solid strategic advice for how to cope with these new technologies. I mean, the key is organizations don’t want to be caught with their pants down. They don’t want to be left behind, and the technology is changing so fast, they’ve got to monitor it in certain ways, and they have to do that inexpensively. So in comes a quantum strategist. Now this person has a unique fusion of skills. In strategy in general, whether it’s a quantum strategist, or an AI strategist, or any other strategist out there, they have to have a fusion of deep business domain knowledge. And they also have to have a fusion of a lot of other things. Business skills, presentation skills, things like that. But they have other skills in the industry itself, where they’re looking at the quantum players, the trends, the cost structure associated with it, options, and more. And those are kinds of things that they will need to have and they’ll bring to the table.
Yuval: You’ve been doing this for a number of years and I’m curious, what do you know today professionally that you didn’t know six months ago? What’s new?
Matt: In the quantum strategy space? Well, in quantum and AI or the combination of both. So, we have to tease that apart a little bit. There has been an education, an immersion in how organizations are using this, the technology itself, the major players out there, the entire quantum ecosystem, geopolitical trends, innovation, and all of that. Those are all kind of fusing together. There’s a renaissance kind of a scenario that occurs when that happens that gives you what we call foresight or situational predictive awareness that one would not ordinarily have unless you had that mix of things. So for instance, one of the things that we found in the last six months or even more is that there’s a huge geopolitical tussle going on between the United States and China. So you would think quantum was just sort of a passing fancy until all of a sudden there’s this space race going on that two of the world’s largest powers with means and capabilities and money and education, scientists and all of that, academic, military, industrial, they’re going loggerheads, but they’re going to loggerheads for a reason. And that reason is going to be geopolitical dominance for decades. Now, if you pay any attention to what the World Economic Forum is talking about, Klaus Schwab comes out and he goes, “Hey, those people who dominate synthetic biology and artificial intelligence will rule the world till 2021 or something of that nature. So what he’s talking about is a larger scale, the attempt to dominate certain areas that will have geopolitical ramifications for decades. Quantum is absolutely right in the center of that, along with AI and other supportive technologies. But this is where the fight’s going. And that’s what we’re we’re really looking at is that dominance at a global scale for decades or more. That’s a big deal. What that does is force more technologists and physicists to work to fix those inherent problems that are plaguing the industry and they’re getting to work and we’re seeing things fixed and we’re seeing an increase in the rate of maturity and progress in this space. And that matters. It’s going to change things. And it changes things because there’s a big issue behind it pushing that forward. That’s important to note.
Yuval: You mentioned geopolitical and national motivations for quantum. What’s your opinion on the US national quantum strategy?
Matt: Well that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing to note is that it’s not just quantum that we have a strategy on, right? So we’ve got a strategy on artificial intelligence, we’ve got a strategy on quantum, we have the strategy on the bio-economy, right? Biden came out and instituted an executive order to establish the bio-economy. We’re gonna change and read and write according to that order to the cellular levels. Now AI and quantum have to play in that space, and particularly if you’re looking at weird biological things that are quantum friendly like epistasis. And so the strategies are there. Regular folks in the strategic realm of organizations need to be paying attention to these macro movements, or they need to have someone on their staff that are paying attention to these macro movements because they’re leading indicators of the local domestic changes we’ll have to make over time. And it also gives us an idea of how quickly we have to react to those because that reaction time has now shrunk. And that’s a big deal too. The reason it’s a big deal is that occupational disturbances generally occur when there are true disruptive technologies that come to market, like chat GPT or generative AI that are available to the common man or not the common man. But once they become available, that really kind of changes the job situation. You’re seeing a lot of that now. Look at what’s happening in Hollywood with Gen AI. There was a huge strike. So these things are important to keep note of.
Yuval: Going back to your experience in the healthcare industry, we spoke a lot about computing. But was there also interest in quantum communications or even quantum sensors in other areas of the quantum industry except computing?
Matt: So I would think in the startup space, what we looked at at the macro level was the opportunity to merge tech stacks and gain engineering experience at the production level for very simple quantum projects. So if I was going to give any company a strategy that needed to deal with random numbers, you know, had a random number generator, it is a really simple quantum problem to solve. But the integration of a quantum tech stack at large with a classical tech stack of a big organization, there are engineering learnings that can occur from just doing that simple task. And those are things that need to be done with regular organizations to move them far along. The quantum part’s easy, the rest of it’s not, but that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s a big learning for organizations and that’s what I would have them do. The quantum sensors and communication, I think you’re gonna see those relegated to different domains just yet then say, you know, healthcare or something like that, logistics. But also keeping in mind everything we do, we have to move that experiential needle forward in these organizations to help them mature and get ready for an inevitable quantum future.
Yuval: As we come to the end of our conversation, I wanted to ask you a hypothetical. If you could have dinner with one of the quantum greats, dead or alive, who would that be?
Matt: Oh, boy, there are so many. But I’d have to have dinner and drinks too because it just wouldn’t be enough to simply dine. I’d have to have dinner and drinks, maybe a cigar or two. Who knows? Boy, oh boy. Heisenberg, maybe. Might be an interesting character to talk to. Feynman, for sure. Richard Feynman. Particularly because he’s a character. He’d be fun to hang out with. Sometimes deep scientists are a little bit more on the muted side, but he is absolutely not. So he would be my first choice.
Yuval: Wonderful. Matt, thank you so much for joining me today.
Matt: It’s my privilege, and I hope to come back soon.
Yuval Boger is the chief marketing officer for QuEra, the leader in neutral-atom quantum computers. Known as the “Superposition Guy” as well as the original “Qubit Guy,” he can be reached on LinkedIn or at this email.
November 28, 2023