by André M. König

I arrived at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) Padma Vihar Guest House around 1:30 am with my colleague Dr. Satyam Priyadarshy waiting for me in the lobby.

Satyam obtained his PhD in Quantum Chemistry from IITB in 1990 – much had changed since, and much hadn’t, he assured me.

The guest house is typically reserved for international students, visiting faculty and other dignitaries. But, as I shall learn quickly, nothing is impossible when traveling with Satyam.

And this journey commenced 6 hours later when we had breakfast with the Director of IITB and Dr. Vikram Vishal – imagine casually drinking tea and eating an omelet with Larry Summers after 23 hours of travel and no sleep. Luckily,Professor Shireesh Kedare is a much kinder soul than I imagine Larry ever could be.

Around lunch it was time for our first official business – the Director had convened his heads of departments (science & innovation, chemistry, physics) and, on the tranquil campus of IITB that betrays the Bombay chaos, we discussed trends in quantum technology.

At least that was my plan but the Director had a different one, interrupting me after 20 min of presentation with a stern “so what should we do?”.

My learning journey took a steep climb at this point as I quickly realized that in India people want to get stuff done – so what should we do became a well rehearsed refrain in all our meetings throughout the week to follow.

Along with Dr. Tommaso Macri and Dr. Anshuman Singh from QuEra Computing, who had kindly accepted our invitation to join us on this adventure, we pivoted to implementation ideas.

The Director quickly delegated to his department heads, notably to Dr. Kasturi Saha, Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, which includes an impressive quantum sensing lab – as it turns out our counterparts were world leading quantum experts; another recurring lesson throughout our trip.

Together with Dr. Vikram Vishal, Head of the Department of Earth Science, and a rising academic and research star in India leading the national carbon capture and storage initiative, we started bouncing off ideas on how to partner and work on the Indian quantum revolution.

Vikram had also kindly arranged all the logistics of our stay, which gave us many one on one opportunities to further our conversation.

Quietly taking notes were Dr. Yogendra Shastri, the Professor in charge of the Centre of Excellence in Oil, Gas and Energy (CoE-OGE) and also Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Professor Ravi of the Department of Chemistry, Professor Sai Vinjanampathy, heading the quantum information theory group from the Department of Physics, who quickly peppered us with technical questions. Also, taking note was Associate Dean R&D  Professor Upendra Bhandarkar. Mentally still on the plane and barely acclimated to hot and humid Bombay, we were already in the midst of discussing concrete projects – and how to raise public/private funding for it.

A lot of work had gone into preparing this trip and it all started with a call that Satyam and I had weeks early with Dr. Ajay K. Sood, India’s Principal Scientific Adviser and direct report to the prime minister. In attendance with Professor Sood were a number of Scientists and leaders of NQM India. We had another couple more meetings over the following 36 hours, and 2 more breakfasts with the Director, further solidifying our strategic plan.

While I took off for 8 hours to explore Bombay, we were getting ready to head on to Indore.

Indore, known as India’s cleanest city (7 years in a row should you wonder) is somewhat of the up and coming 2nd tier city that is trying to modernize India – not unlike Austin or Miami post pandemic in the USA.

Our point of entry here was the Prestige Group of Industries, the world’s largest processor of soybeans.

When I found out, I had the same look on my face that you might have right now reading this but it turns out that 30 years ago they diversified into private education. Their colleges are ranked as the leaders in the country.

We were picked up at the airport by Prestiges’ head of security, a former Major of the Army, and immediately shown around 4 of their campuses, starting with the newest one, still under construction. Here we met our super host, Dr. Sanjeev Patni, CEO of Aspire Incubator, the leading Indian startup incubator hosted at Prestige.

Showing us around their beautiful new campus, he was accompanied by Dr. Rajendra Nargundra, Vice Chancellor, Dr. Arun Bhattacharyya, the Dean and a small handful of Heads of Departments (yes, they knew their quantum).

Here too, we quickly started to discuss quantum tech use cases that might bring together the National Quantum Mission (NQM) and regional needs (agriculture, logistics, machine learning, dual use) in a very concrete way. A jam packed day, not just intellectually but also with food – it seems that in India you eat every 2 hours and saying no is not an option.

The big event, however, was to follow the next day – “opportunities beyond visibility”. Our invite only mini quantum consortium held at the Indore Marriott. 

QuEra Computing joined again, as did the fantastic Dr. Yehuda Naveh, co-founder of Classiq, an Indian quantum student, a full cast of dignitaries and the Chairman of Prestige Group of Industries.

Dr. Davish Jain is one of those unassuming, quiet characters – until you realize that he built an industrial empire that exports into 50 countries and an educational behemoth with 35,000 students. He’s also a bold visionary – hence the quantum – and a smooth operator. 3 weeks earlier the Head of the NQM, Dr. Ajai Chowdhry, co-founder of HCL, a $13B tech company, had been with him in Indore.

He was scheduled to join us as well but had to decline at the last minute due to an official request by Prime Minister Modi that required him in Delhi. 

After introductions and some ceremonial words, I had the honor to kick us off with a 45 min “state of the union” on quantum tech – Dr. Jain and his colleagues did not hold back on questions. Our startup partners followed with excellent presentations on their products, and very specific and ambitious ideas on how to collaborate in India.

Dr. Chowdry joined for an hour via Zoom, answering questions and specifically inviting us to Delhi for follow up, expressing his strong desire to partner with all of us.

One key stakeholder of the NQM is C-DAC, India’s main HPC; its joint director, Dr. Amit Saxena, had joined us in person and provided an update on the latest developments as well as some insights on the partner and tender strategy.

We had several more hours of intense discussions, and, before dinner, we all executed MOUs to seal our partnership with the goal of becoming the leading quantum technology hub in India.

The next day, before heading back on an excruciating journey home, Satyam and I drove to Ujjain, a holy city of India with some of its most revered temples, and had the privilege to receive a private tour by the assistant priest. Spiritual quantum thoughts were abundant. 

As I headed to the airport amongst traffic incomprehensible to a Western brain, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past week and what a true privilege it is to be able to do this kind of work with amazing partners and national decision makers to make a difference in the world. And build a company like GQI.

And, most importantly, my guru Satyam – he is one of those people in your career, and life, that you will look back on and say to yourself “damn, was I lucky to be around him”.


July 8, 2024