An Interview with Kimberley Brook, Programme Manager of the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC)
Kimberley Brook is a law graduate who has spent a number of years applying the knowledge, skills and experience she gained from her time and education in law to the commercialisation of quantum technologies. Kimberley is the Programme Manager of the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC), based at the University of Bristol, which has recently launched a new programme (QUEST) that aims to support researchers who are looking to develop their own companies by providing training and support to create their pre-seed technology ventures. We caught up with Kimberley to find out more about what led her from a career in law to a career in quantum, about QTEC and its QUEST programme, and advice she’d give to those hoping to become quantum entrepreneurs.
You have a background in commercial law, can you tell us a little more about your journey to working in quantum and about the skills from your law background that are beneficial to you in your current role?
Yes, my background is in law and previously I mainly focused on contracts and commercialisation. When I moved to Bristol in 2014, I joined the Quantum Engineering Technology Labs where I was an administration manager working to support them with a range of thing including impact and commercialisation of new technologies. When I was there, I helped them to apply for the grant which became the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC). Once QTEC was set up, I moved into the central University team to support the commercialisation and contracts activity from across the wider University research portfolio. During my time there, I would provide training to QTEC fellows in IP and Contract Law and in 2018, I was asked to return to QTEC as their Programme Manager. Since then, I’ve been helping with new venture creation from quantum research across the UK and supporting the design and delivery of the training programme for researchers which gives them the business skills and training they need to set up a quantum business.
Law is all about problem solving, it’s about applying your thoughts and the methodologies of the legal world to something that’s practical. Law enables people to develop problem-solving, negotiation and logistical skills as well as the ability to understand complex language, all of which are useful when supporting quantum technologies. In particular, the fundamental knowledge in intellectual property, contract and company law has been beneficial when supporting early stage quantum businesses as you have to know how the research translates into intellectual property and how that can actually be spun out of a university.
Although I don’t have a technical background, I have been working with quantum researchers for seven years and you do pick up quite a bit of the language and how things work. I now have a good understanding of what the applications are for quantum technologies and how best I can utilise my legal knowledge to support the burgeoning quantum technology industry.
What opportunities do you think there are for law graduates in the field?
I think it depends on the individual. If somebody is very focused on pursuing a career as a lawyer, then there are opportunities to work for solicitor firms who work with quantum start-up companies, become a patent attorney working predominantly in quantum technology or become in-house legal counsel or contracts specialist for a specific quantum company.
Another way you could get involved is by supporting research groups directly and helping them to understand how their research can be applied in the wider world, this could also be done in industry through things like contract management, which is similar to contract law. There are also opportunities to work on the translation of research into intellectual property .
Alternatively, law gives you a wealth of transferable skills to allow you to go into multiple fields which support quantum technologies such as operations, project management, grant or bid writing or even investment analysis for venture capitalists.
Can you tell me a little bit about QTEC? What does your role at QTEC entail and is there such a thing as a typical day at work for you?
QTEC was set up in 2016 as a skills and training hub for quantum systems engineering. It received funding from the EPSRC as part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and supports researchers to translate their research into commercial applications and develop new businesses around those technologies. QTEC historically ran a 12-month programme where it gave its fellows the training, business skills and mentoring that they needed to actually set up their own business ventures. Up to now, about a third of the UK funded quantum technology companies have come through QTEC. We have 28 active businesses who have raised over £57 million in grant, equity and contracts funding, and have developed 170 new jobs within the UK.
In terms of my role, I support fellows with the commercial aspects of their business. I help to manage the programme itself, so I make sure that all the individuals are getting the training and support that they need, I manage our mentor network and also our relationship with our entrepreneurs in residence and industry collaborators.
I don’t really have a typical day to be honest with you! When we have a programme running it could involve: welcoming a practitioner who’s going to deliver training; supporting fellows through their training; reviewing business plans or cash flows, supporting business pitch development and working with fellows on those on a 1-to-1 basis; or engaging with investors and industry to make sure that they’re familiar with what our companies are up to and ensuring they’re aware of upcoming investor showcases and events.
QTEC currently has an open call for applications for its new QUEST programme, can you tell us a little bit more about the programme and what it entails?
As part of our new offering, we have decided to run a shorter six-month pre-incubator programme called QUEST. The shorter programme means we can have two cohorts each year and support the creation of up to 24 new ventures per annum.
During the six-month programme we’ll be working with participants and helping them to set up their businesses. The idea is very similar to the QTEC fellowship programme I mentioned earlier in terms of what we offer and the training, business mentoring and the access to our networks that participants are given, but it’s predominantly an online programme. Participants will spend some time in Bristol to do some in-person training and to get to know the rest of the cohort, but the rest is incredibly flexible as it can be done online from their host institutions. This means people can access our programme wherever they are based and don’t have to move to Bristol to do so.
What can graduates of the QUEST programme expect to achieve?
The main outcome of the programme is that most people will be given the toolkit to leave the programme with an investment-ready business and will be put in contact with our network of investors to ensure that they can get that crucial first stage of funding. However, if the attendees decide during the course of the QUEST programme that having their own business isn’t for them, they will walk away with a suite of commercial skills and knowledge that will enable them to get a really high-level job either within another start-up or within industry. To date, 95% of the people that have come through the previous QTEC programmes are either running their own business as a CEO or CTO, or they have moved into high level jobs within industry and the remaining 5% made the decision to return to academia and easily found academic roles due to the wealth of other knowledge they have gained from the QTEC programme.
What sorts of companies has QTEC helped before and what have they gone on to do?
We’ve helped a range of different companies from the quantum area as well as deep tech companies that support the quantum industry. For example, one of the companies that we’ve supported is QLM which is based in Bristol and the technology for that was developed as part of the QuantIC Hub. QLM have developed a quantum gas detector for use in the oil and gas industry and they closed their second round of funding in April 2021. We also worked with KETS Quantum Security, a company that has developed quantum communications technologies – some of the research underpinning this actually came out of the Quantum Communications Hub. KETS also closed their second round of funding earlier on this year.
One of the biggest companies that we’ve worked with is SeeQC who is developing a new digital platform for quantum computing. SeeQC has gone on to raise over £20 million in investment so far and have over 25 staff members across the US, UK and Italy which is brilliant.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to become a quantum entrepreneur? What skills and experience would be of most benefit to them?
To people who want to come and participate in the QUEST programme, I’d say if you’re passionate about succeeding, then we want to hear from you! You don’t necessarily need to have an idea for technology to start on an entrepreneurial journey, you could come to us and we can help you to find a space within a start-up company to become a founder of that business.
If there are researchers who are interested in setting up a business, then it is vital that you have the drive to do something different with your research. It is worth understanding the commercial applications of your research because impact doesn’t just mean research publications, it can mean a whole variety of different things.
For those who want to start their own business, I’d say if you only have experience of doing research and working in academia, you need to start speaking to the right people to get contacts with business communities within investment networks. Setting up a business isn’t as simple as going to Companies House and registering a company, it’s about everything else. You need to make sure that the business is investor ready before you approach the investors, because otherwise you won’t have any success. In these cases, QTEC and the QUEST programme is ideally placed to give you the skills and networks that you need to succeed.
If there are people who are interested but don’t have a quantum background then they could go down two routes to becoming quantum entrepreneurs, they could either go down the route of actually learning about quantum technologies in depth, going to university and gaining relevant qualifications before setting up their own business, although, that would obviously take a few years! Alternatively, they could go and approach some of the quantum businesses that are already established and see if they’ve got any posts which would be applicable to them, perhaps even an internship. They could find out what it’s like to actually work within a quantum start-up and gain experience that way. There are a lot of people moving into the quantum industry now who haven’t got a background in quantum technologies, they may have an engineering background or another science background, or even an operations background. This shows there are a whole host of different opportunities available within the quantum start-up industry in the UK and that people shouldn’t be put off if they haven’t got a scientific background. There are also companies like QURECA (the founder of which is a QTEC fellow) who are really helpful in providing resources and careers advice to help people enter or further a career in quantum.
If anyone is interested in any kind of training for quantum entrepreneurship, we can help! Whether it’s a one-day event, an hour-long event, a quick chat, or anything really that people need, they just need to get in touch with QTEC and we can help create a tailor-made programme to suit them.
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?
I think there’s a whole host of applications for quantum technologies which are going to be really useful for the future. I think we can see what happened with the computation boom in the ‘80s replicated with quantum computing now. I think the drug discovery application of quantum technologies and also the quantum medical technologies that are being developed are fantastic. One of the companies that has come through QTEC recently is a company called NIQS, they’ve developed a quantum sensor for glucose monitoring which will revolutionise testing for people with diabetes as it is non-invasive meaning that they won’t need to do the regular finger prick tests to check their blood glucose levels. In addition, Siloton who came through our fourth cohort has developed a portable optical coherence tomography unit using quantum technologies which will help to prevent blindness for people with degenerative eye conditions.
I think those type of technologies are going to radically change healthcare and how we support the aging population, which is going to have a real tangible impact on the health of the wider general public.
What are your hopes for the future?
For QTEC, I think the most important thing is that we keep going. I think QTEC holds a very strong and important place within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, and I want to see it continue. I want to see another 20 plus businesses being set up from QTEC every year from now on. I also want to see the UK stay at the forefront of quantum technology development because, at the moment we have a great reputation and other nations are replicating things we are doing. It is imperative that we keep going, continue to build new quantum businesses and showcase what the UK has to offer.
To find out more about QTEC and for information on how to apply to the QUEST Programme, visit the QTEC website.
This interview was originally posted on the Quantum Communications Hub Blog 'Quantumness, Randomness and Endless Possibilities'.