Entrepreneurship is not a dirty word, says KETS Quantum Security co-founder
“We combine the power of quantum technologies with the scalability and practicality of integrated photonics to fix some of the biggest security problems facing some of the largest organisations on the planet.”
In summer 2021 we talked to KETS Quantum Security Co-Founder, Chris Erven, who participated in CyberASAP in 2017, about the commercialisation journey of his company and the lessons learned along the way. Discover more about KETS Quantum in the next of the CyberASAP Alumni Series.
What were your key motivations in commercialising your research?
I attended the University of Waterloo in Canada which is known as a very entrepreneurial university with a unique IP policy where all researchers own their own IP, as well as a co-op programme that allowed me to work in a number of start-ups as an undergrad. So it has always been part of my DNA to work with companies and/or consider the commercial value of our research. Entrepreneurship was pretty much hard-wired into our thinking.
I had built rudimentary quantum communication systems for my PhD back when quantum was very new. I was keen to get these out into the real world making a difference and even set up a start-up in Canada to do this, but it was quickly apparent we were making them on the wrong technology platform. To make the tech practical I joined QETLabs at the University of Bristol who were pioneering a chip-based approach to quantum technologies. With the first demonstrations under our belt as academics, we created a team in Bristol to commercialise these developments in KETS.
Technically, I was part of a company when I started CyberASAP and we had also done SETsquared’s R2I and iCURE programmes. CyberASAP was the next stepping stone.
What challenges did you think you might face?
Too often technology innovation is characterised as being a solution looking for a problem. We were very conscious that the biggest challenge for us would be to find and build a robust commercial proposition: one that addresses a real problem and where the fit between the need and the opportunity is really strong.
Why did you choose to apply to CyberASAP to progress your project?
We were probably more advanced than many of the other cohorts on CyberASAP, having done iCURE. But through SETSquared I knew some of the people setting up CyberASAP and it was very valuable in that it allowed us to develop a second product. Having the funding to create another prototype was incredibly beneficial, as was the exposure we got at the Demo Day.
Tell us about the current status of your project?
We’re in a good place having completed two funding rounds which together have raised £4.6m plus we’ve been very successful with grants and are very lucky to have so much support early on from Innovate UK. We’re doing field trials and small production runs and are focused on getting early solutions out into the wild with customers for feedback and iterations, and to start generating income.
Of course, we’d like to move faster – we’re in a competitive market and our competition is working hard and fast too. Other challenges include export controls, particularly in light of protectionist governmental policies around quantum technology and the fact that ours is a dual-use technology. The UK has great quantum tech start-ups, quite a bit of government funding, but less early commercial pull; while the reverse is true in Europe.
All of this is causing us to carefully consider how to shape the company and the geography of the company.
How would you summarise the impact that CyberASAP has had on you?
The programme was a key enabler in developing the prototype for our second product. It was also really useful in honing our pitching skills and for a number of intros at the Demo Day.
What advice would you give fellow academics considering commercialising their research?
- Entrepreneurship is not a dirty word!
- You’ll have to move at a pace that you’re not comfortable with. In academics, it’s perfectly alright to take a month to respond to someone. When you’re a commercial company, you have to respond to investors and key customers within 24 hours max!
- Find some mentors/team mates who’ve done it before, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. This will help you find short-cuts, confidence in your plans, and accelerate things.
- Tech is easy – building and managing your team is hard.Don’t discount the importance of your team. While a single engineer could have probably got us to the moon, it would take them a million years! You need a team to deliver it quickly. Also, don’t discount the incredibly important skill set it takes to manage a team well. Techies often forget this.
- Setting up a company requires some real emotional intelligence as it’s all about teamwork and there’s all sorts of difficult conversations along the way.
- Be prepared to deal with failure. Academics really are not used to this – most of us were high achievers, embarrassed by anything less than an A. But it’s essential to be able to handle and build back from setbacks: failure is only failure if you don’t learn from the experience. Grit is a key skill you need to cultivate to be successful.
- Be flexible: being able to pivot is a key requirement for the start up.
- It can be a lot of fun! The amount of support we’ve had from entrepreneurs, worth 7 figures and up who should be relaxing on a yacht somewhere, has been phenomenal.These are really successful people who’ve given up their time to come and talk to us just because someone helped them back in the day. The pay-if-forward culture of entrepreneurship is one of its best parts!
What are the key lessons you’ve learned from the process of commercialisation?
In the UK a paradigm shift is needed. Here academics still think that filing a patent is the key commercialisation step to success. But the commercial landscape is littered… in fact, overwhelmed with great ideas that went nowhere. It’s the execution, not the idea, that really matters ie. everything that comes after the patent.
More dialogue between academics and start-ups would be great. Universities taking a hard look at their commercialisation policies and seeing whether they genuinely are helping to deliver the goals they’re setting would be even better.
And if you do go down this path, pretty soon you’ll have to choose.You can’t be both an academic and a CEO! And the sooner you choose, the more hair, sanity, and sleep you’ll be left with!
CyberASAP (Cyber Security Academic Startup Accelerator Programme) is the only pre-seed accelerator programme in the cyber security ecosystem which provides expertise, knowledge and support to convert academic research into commercial products and services.
CyberASAP is funded by the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK and KTN.
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CyberASAP Demo Day – Year 5. Join us on Thursday 17 Feb 2022 and be the first to preview a range of highly promising cyber security products and services from leading UK academic teams. Hear their pitches and assess their offerings in this unique showcase of ready-to-commercialise cyber security innovations. Register here.