An interview with a quantum entrepreneur

Dr Maksym Sich


Originally from Ukraine, Max undertook an undergraduate degree in Physics, with a specialism in quantum physics, followed by a Masters in quantum, before moving to the UK to undertake a PhD at the University of Sheffield with Hub Investigator Professor Maurice Skolnick. Alongside his degrees in Physics, Max studied remotely for a degree in finance and economics from the London School of Economics. Max subsequently held postdoctoral positions at the University of Sheffield, before leaving academia for a career in business and eventually launching quantum start-up, Aegiq. We caught up with Max to find out more about his journey in quantum, what it’s like to be a quantum entrepreneur and advice he’d give to others hoping to do the same.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today? Quantum is an optional direction, so what attracted you?

I'm from Ukraine originally and during undergraduate degrees there, you choose a subspecialty in your final year. This is when you choose to work closely with a large, long established research group within the University. My undergraduate degree was in physics and when I was making my sub-specialism choice a lot of great and interesting people were going into quantum and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to go for it too! I didn’t have any experience of quantum prior to this, of course, you only get a course or two about quantum physics in your first years anyway, but I enjoyed it and so went on to do a Masters in the field. After that, I did a PhD at the University of Sheffield, which was a crossover between quantum and non-linear physics. I then began a postdoctoral fellowship and stayed on at the University of Sheffield for several years as a postdoctoral researcher. Alongside this, I did a degree in Economics and Finance as distance learning at the London School of Economics. This is something that I began during my undergraduate degree, so it took some time. At some point I during my time at the university I realised I wasn’t keen on doing teaching in the long-term and so I decided to quit academia and start my own business so I could focus on things I liked most in technology development. I am a serial entrepreneur with experience across different sectors including aerospace and hi-end manufacturing and cryogenic microscopy. However, currently my focus is on Aegiq.  

You are co-founder and CEO of Aegiq, can you tell us a little bit more about what inspired you to set it up?

Aegiq came about when I was chatting with Professor Maurice Skolnick about how to translate some of the interesting work being done at Sheffield out of the lab and into industry. As is always the case in the world of business, you have to be looking for opportunities and adventure and grasp them, so I did, there was an opportunity to create something truly novel and big. It was quite an easy decision to make because the field of quantum is really exciting right now and it’s a nascent sector with rapid growth.

What is Aegiq working on and what will the technologies be used for?

Fundamentally, it's about translating quantum science into technologies that make people's lives better. Our aim at Aegiq is to move the world’s information resources into the quantum era. We are on a mission to radically change data communications both in space and on the ground and make the world more secure using quantum technologies. We are a deep tech company and so we are still doing a lot of R&D, including working with members of the Quantum Communications Hub.

What does your role as CEO involve? Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?

My main job is to make sure that the company is up, running and growing. A lot of it is about fundraising at this stage, of course, but alongside this goes developing our business and establishing sales. In terms of time, it needs to be carefully managed to be efficient, as there’s always a lot on the plate at the same time. With COVID, the days do seem to look quite same, but “under the hood” there’s usually something different going on.

You mentioned that prior to founding and becoming CEO of Aegiq, you were a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield. How did working in academia help you on your path to becoming an entrepreneur and what obstacles did you face, if any?

The knowledge and understanding of the insides of technology that I gained in academia was crucial and is one of the things that helped the most. If you don’t understand the technologies it would be incredibly hard to launch a business in the field. In terms of obstacles, I can’t think of any in particular that would come from being a researcher. You just need to do it, and your best bet is to count on yourself and your team. I think if you do that, you’re more likely to be successful and people will then be more interested to work with you or help you.  

What do you think are the most important skills for a quantum entrepreneur?

As I mentioned before you must have good foundational knowledge and understanding of physics and the technologies. Engineering skills are also very beneficial, being able to understand how to make things and how devices actually work is helpful. However, you must be able to dissociate from the technical and physics side of things too. There are so many opportunities and exciting things to do with technology, however, you really have to think about what they mean in terms of business opportunities, whether it’s possible for them to generate money and how. You must have an understanding of how to take your idea and build a business out of it. The technology is a starting point, but it's a small part of running the business. Also, business skills are extremely important and people must think about those and develop them in advance. It’s a good idea to attend start-up accelerators, of course they don’t teach the technological understanding but they do help people to develop key skills and logic. It’s important to be selective when it comes to these accelerator programmes, you need to be careful and do some research to help you to make the right choice. Critical thinking is another essential skill, you must think critically about everything. As an entrepreneur you also need to be open minded and willing to consider new ideas.  

Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?    

For me, there’s not one single thing, it’s the whole field. There is a vast range of new technologies and new approaches, essentially a new generation, being developed which is very exciting. It's a little bit like the step change that happened when we transitioned into digital communications, for example, when the Internet came about and moved us beyond the landline phone. Obviously, this change didn’t happen overnight, it took some time, but it really dramatically changed how we all operate. The same is happening with quantum and that’s what I find really exciting about it all.

What advice would you give to someone hoping for a career in STEM and in particular for someone considering becoming a quantum entrepreneur?

For those already in the field, I’d say start thinking early about the applications and use cases for your technology, validate your ideas with potential customers or users and how you would pitch it to investors. You don’t have to have a finalised pitch before you approach them, you can, but it’s also possible to speak to investors who can advise you as to how best to develop things to attract investment.

One other very important aspect is to be sure to have the right people around you with whom you have trust and understanding. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to build a great business without a great team. And with deep tech it is even more important, because you’re set to run a long distance.

For younger people, I’d say you need to get a solid understanding of physics, without it things would be much more difficult and you could become lost. It’s also good to gain skills or experience in engineering and product design, learning how things work and are built. It’s also really important to have an understanding of business and society and how they work. Generally speaking, in a business like this, the physics element is a smaller part of the operations, it’s important to understand it and you must have a broader skillset.  

We need to reach the ‘critical mass’ of people in quantum in order for more exciting things to happen, so, if you’re interested, go for it! If you have an entrepreneurial mindset you will succeed. You don’t have to run your own business, but you could fill a critical role in a company and be extremely successful.