Max Sich, co-founder and CEO of Aegiq, a quantum photonics company is interviewed by Yuval Boger. Max and Yuval talk about Aegiq’s first product, a single-photon source, and its potential applications, their business model, the impact of governments in quantum – beyond funding – and much more.
Yuval Boger: Hello, Max, and thanks for joining me today.
Max Sich: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
Yuval: So who are you and what do you do?
Max: I’m Max, I’m CEO and co-founder of Aegiq. At Aegiq we are accelerating adoption of quantum technologies and we do so with bringing the most scalable stuff that’s out there, primarily photonics. And we help people find synergies there with their existing business and communications, computing and sensing.
Yuval: How did Aegiq, the name, come about? I’m curious.
Max: We were running an internal competition and the task was to name a company starting with the letter A, so it’s always at the top of the list.
But it also comes from the word aegis, which reflects on the security aspect of our approach.
Yuval: Perfect. So is Aegiq, you said, helping companies leverage quantum… You’re not a consulting company, right? You’re a product company, I believe.
Max: That is true. You need to help people use things as well. So, if you are a commodity company, you make user manuals and then hope people read them. If you’re quantum company you have to take a lot more care about it and it’s also a discovery process, for us and for people. So, different products, different services, they are different stages of understanding by people and users, and so they require different approaches.
Yuval: Excellent. And what is the product that you’re developing?
Max: We’re building a seat of tools and building blocks for just various quantum applications with photonics primarily. So, the first thing that we’re doing is deterministic single photon sources, but also ways to manipulate light and turn it into more sensible systems, such as communication, for example. So it’s basically a key thing, a linchpin, to build any quantum links and exchange any quantum information.
Yuval: You mentioned single-photon source, I guess the name implies that it’s a device that emits a single photon, but why is that a good thing? What is that used for and what’s so special about that single photon?
Max: Cause it’s quantum. quantum 2.0 or whichever way we call that, is anything to do with a single atom, or a single photon, or a single spin, with a single electron, anything. So, you need to have that entity at your hand and control it in order to leverage any quantum theory to your benefit, in terms of building a technology. So, having a single photon source means you can… And it’s controllable so it’s deterministic. So we know when we have it and we know when we don’t have it. In advance, so that allows you to build a range of applications really. And you can build entanglement with this, you can build quantum power sources, again deterministic, or build larger states as well. So take your proper quantum?
Yuval: Let’s try to dive into some of this so I get a better understanding. Let’s for instance talk about key distribution. Why would a single photon source be good for key distribution as opposed to..isn’t more better? I mean if I had more photons, would that be a better key distribution?
Max: When I talk about this I say exactly the opposite. Less is more. So you encode… It’s the same with quantum computers, right? So is it not better to have more electrons inside a computer? Well it turns out not exactly because you don’t explore the quantum properties, and that’s the ultimate thing. So having a single photon opens you a door to entanglement, controlling entanglement and therefore really building that capability, so that’s like in generic terms. And then if you look in specific implementations, say… For example, the best comparison maybe is between the most basic quantum key distribution protocols such as BB84 and it’s been widely implemented using techniques such as weak coherent pulse. So you kind of take the laser pulse, you filter it down to low numbers, and then it turns out that it doesn’t work as you want because it has different statistical distribution. So you have to play tricks, build decoy states and hide the fact that it’s not a true single hold. So you lose a lot of bandwidth, but just because it’s not real.
Yuval: So a single photon in key distribution… Is that just to ensure that if someone eavesdrops then basically they take your photon away and it doesn’t get to the other side? Is that the-
Max: Part of it. It’s part of it of course. And that’s ultimately like the theoretical background here. The closer you can get to a true single photon, there’s nothing else more than noise, the better your system is.
Yuval: Where are you in the process? How large is the company? How do you have funding? Does the product exist yet? Fill me in there if you could.
Max: So we started in 2019, end of 2019. To date, we’ve got our seed round funding through with some really good venture capital firms. We’re really focusing on deep tech. We’ve also received… By now, we’ve got five UK government grants where we collaborate with others on R&D projects. And that was to great benefit because we could grow a team which is now quite substantial for our age and science and the stage. Also it locked us a lot of the supply chain, for us and also you know, end-user engagement as well, to develop technology and there’s been hardware, it’s expensive if you want to build all yourselves. So we require foundry services, we require other services to ensure that we can put it together and then we’re gearing towards the end of this year for something. I’m not going to spoil the moment, but I’m just saying that there will be something.
Yuval: And a single photon source, how large is the device? Is that tiny? Is that a fridge? What’s the physical size of the device that generates a single photon?
Max: So the device itself as based on something called quantum dots. So it’s a tiny lump of atoms inside a semiconductor structure, this tiny on its own. Now to operate it, you do need to cool it down. So we’re currently talking about tabletop boxes or a right mountable unit that has all of it, so control drive, readout, you have it in the fiber but altogether it’s not a fridge or the size of a building, but it’s not the size of a smartphone either. So somewhere in the middle.
Yuval: And the business model is to sell these components so they’re embedded into someone else’s product, whether it’s for computing or communication, or is the business model different?
Max: The business model is to help people use quantum things. And so these things are helpful for…primarily actually for people who are doing research and quantum information science. So we are helping them do better science, but we’re also developing other systems that help people solve more complex problems and help them build on and build better businesses overall. So I cannot talk much about these right now, but these are the things that are happening. This is the premise. So I think for us it’s enabling that and making it better. Not specifically focused on a particular product but single photon sources are really a unique thing apart from other things that we have where we started. And that is a thing that people really, really, really need to build large-scale applications in a lot of cases.
Yuval: If your technology can be used both for computing and communications and sensing and…assuming you’ve started speaking with some early customers about that, what’s your take on which of these markets is going to take off first? There’s been a lot of hype about computing, but is it really going to be the sensing or communication that’s going to lead in the near term?
Max: I wouldn’t break it down in this particular way. I would rather break it down into the scale of systems or the scope of systems. Things that going to pick up first are smaller isolated systems that have a limited interface into our digital infrastructure, and that’s already happening. You see some sensors being deployed, there’s some experimental content computers available in the cloud or you can buy them.
Same as with communication systems, again, it’s isolated links that operate for a particular purpose and some niche applications, and that is the first stage. So they do happen in fact simultaneously and they help each other. So it’s not like that one is sitting there and then the other is booming. And the next date will be, or the second generation is when we start seeing global systems but still isolated. That’s when it gets bigger. You’re moving away from high value manufacturing slowly into the mass production and until we reach the quantum internet where it’s just mass production and very well established technological set.
And so in that sense I would say that’s the way we approach or view it. Computing probably relies more on a particular breakthrough, so it’s less so a linear development whilst say communications and sensing and probably a little bit easier to anticipate in terms of how they develop. But I think roughly they follow the same path.
Yuval: And some say that perhaps a reason that sensors could take off sooner is that they don’t require very many qubits or very many components. You could build a very useful sensor, unlike a quantum computer where you say, “Oh I need thousands or hundreds of thousands of qubits to do something that I couldn’t do today in a meaningful way”, then you need a whole lot less for sensors. Would that be an accurate statement?
Max: To some extent, but then again, it’s within remit of a small isolated system. So you just make an improvement towards a particular sense in technology. But you haven’t changed the way you deploy the sensors, you haven’t changed the way you read out process information. And so it’s just a little taster of what it could be. Same with communication for example, you can build a very secure link right now, QKDs are working. There’s a number of systems out there that are being deployed. That doesn’t mean that it’s the way it will be scaled exactly into the next generation of technologies.
Yuval: Is there a significant software component to the products that you’re building, or is it primarily hardware?
Max: So we are building ground up. So a lot of our current focuses on key hardware blocks that enable, but software is increasingly a larger chunk of the work that’s been done. I mean you inevitably have to build interfaces with digital infrastructure that we have, processes that we have and human interfaces. So that is a huge amount of work as well.
Yuval: In terms of the people that work at Aegiq or the people that you’re hiring, do you feel they need to come from substantial quantum backgrounds or just good software engineers, good hardware engineers, good physicists, optical engineers and so on?
Max: It’s a mix. I think we really like to see a mix of experiences and cultures primarily. So we do need to have a core of people who really have deep, deep understanding of quantum physics, of quantum theory, of quantum mechanics, quantum information theory. But at the same time there’s a lot of work that needs more conventional so to say, skillset and yeah, so we need engineers on optoelectronics, optomechanics, just electronics and software as simple as Python but not as, Python is too simple if you get too complicated.
Yuval: How do you see the role of government in developing quantum technology other than funding and providing grants to businesses like yours and others? Do you see that whether governments have to play a bigger role or a different role than just funding?
Max: Apart from stimulating and recognizing the fact that quantum is a set of quantum technologies in general, it just depends the future for countries the next say couple of decades for sure, and they want to have that hold of the technological set of role, that’s their primary motivation. So they want to lead the pack in the framework of countries so they drag everybody in, and they put this money out on the table to help drive it.
The other important aspect which quite often gets maybe overlooked a little bit at this stage is the regulation because it’s not there right now but it’s coming, it will always be there and quantum has got a chance of being less regulated or it has a risk of being more regulated and that is probably the very important role of the governments that will always be there irrespective to funding, to procurement contracts or anything of that sort as regulation or requirement for people, for example, who use quantum as a government contracting of some sort. So, it’s indirect but super important, and this is where a lot of care needs to be taken by the governments and by the relationship between countries as well because for businesses it’s also critical that there was good liquidating capital, talent, technology, intellectual property. If it’s not there, we are all a little bit slower in development.
Yuval: As we get close to the end of our discussion today, I’m curious about your personal journey. How did you become CEO of a quantum company? Where did you come from academically and so on, what was your path to where you are today?
Max: So I’m a quantum physicist by training, experimental quantum physicist. I also have a degree in economics and finance. So I always was inspired by the entrepreneurship and the challenges and so at some point, I just felt it was a great time to do it, so to switch on and start building something greater than just awesome sciences that we were doing. And so this is how it started, and then I called my friends who are my co-founders now and we pulled through a lot of hard times together. You always read like team is important, everybody says that, but I cannot just say more to say that how important it is.
Yuval: Excellent. So Max, how can people get in touch with you to learn more about your work?
Max: I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, so I’m regularly checking my inbox there, so that’s the easiest way to reach me. Should check our website, some ways to get in touch there as well.
Yuval: Thank you so much for joining me today.
Max: Well thank you very much for a very interesting chat and I hope everybody enjoys it.
Yuval Boger is an executive working at the intersection of quantum technology and business. Known as the “Superposition Guy” as well as the original “Qubit Guy,” he can be reached on LinkedIn or at this email.
October 27, 2022