Dr Daniel Twitchen, Chief Technologist of E6 (Element Six), part of the De Beers group, is the fourth nominee of the ‘Quantum Personality of the Year 2020’.
Daniel has 25 years’ experience developing and commercializing Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) diamond synthesis for optical, thermal, electrochemical and sensing applications.
His academic career started in Oxford working on defects in wide bandgap materials, and then moved to E6. He has led Element Six’s Quantum program since 2007. Notable milestones accomplished by the E6 team, together with its network of global collaborators, include: isotopically engineered CVD single crystal achieving spin coherence times of seconds at room temperature with Harvard; first successful loophole-free Bell’s inequality test alongside Delft University of Technology; world’s first continuous-wave, room-temperature, solid-state MASER with Imperial College London; first diamond-based quantum devices in GPS-denied navigation applications as part of Lockheed Martin’s Dark Ice program.
Here is the interview of Daniel who kindly accepted to answer to both personal and business questions.
Daniel, could you summarize when/why you joined E6 and this position?
A deep fascination with diamond and the desire to turn the research from my academic position in Oxford into commercialized technology led me to join Element Six in 2000. For over 70 years, E6 has been developing methods to produce and engineer synthetic diamond, working with end users to exploit the material’s unique properties such as hardness, thermal conductivity, and wide optical window.
My work at E6 initially focused on developing a CVD synthesis method to grow high purity single crystal diamond. The ability to make high purity diamond then opened new doors to industries across lasers, semiconductors and quantum devices.
Speaking of Quantum, in 2007 I led our first program on quantum applications – now seems like a lifetime ago. The program was aimed at developing a toolbox of materials and experimental techniques to exploit colour centres in diamond. These colour centres have particularly desirable properties, such as spin control and read out at room temperature with long decoherence times. During that time, I was fortunate to have worked closely with many pioneers in this field, both within and outside of Element Six.
Most recently, I led Element Six’s CVD commercial business, leveraging the novel properties of diamond. Now, as E6’s Chief Technologist, my focus is on building the medium- to longer-term pipeline of opportunities, bringing me in contact with academia, start-ups and large multinational companies.
Looking back at the past 20 years, I count myself lucky to have had a career that spans both the technical and commercial sides in Element Six, and I am proud to continue the work we started years ago with leading academic groups in Europe and the US, while finding new commercial paths for diamond.
When you look at the rear-view mirror of the last 5 years, what are your feelings about the quantum industry?
For me the standout things have simply been the degree and quality of progress. Results we see being published and commercialised today across sensing, simulations, software and hardware were merely the stuff of dreams 5 years ago. Progress in this field has been much faster than I would have predicted. The combination of technical advances, signs of a supply chain eco-system developing, and the dawn of end-user awareness about the potential quantum unlocks is really quite incredible.
How do you feel the competitive landscape in your quantum domain?
Just because it’s ‘quantum’ it doesn’t mean it’s a better solution. The competition isn’t really in quantum, instead it’s in all the usual, well-established, traditional solutions. Within quantum, the competitive challenge is more about how we work together to solve enough problems for our science to lead to truly compelling commercial solutions. The type of problems we are chasing means the collaborative element is critical for success.
Having worked in several fields over the last 20 years, a stand-out and truly rewarding characteristic of the quantum community is exactly this: the cohesive team-work approach to solve important problems. That’s not to say competition is not intense, but, on the whole, it is a positive environment, driven by the desire to come together towards achieving a greater combined result, rather than focusing on individual glory.
As bigger funds and ambitious investors with purely financial targets come into play, I only hope that the quantum ecosystem’s remarkable cohesiveness can continue to exist, as it is critical to maintain the current pace of innovation and ensure Quantum 2.0 can really lead to valuable impact on everyone’s lives.
What is your best quantum achievement during this year?
Bringing the first general-purpose quantum grade diamond to the market was a notable milestone for us in 2020.
While we had been providing engineered bespoke solutions across a range of applications to numerous groups for the past five years, we had yet to launch a standard material, which allowed those interested in the field to start performing quantum measurements from day one.
We plan to introduce at least one more product in the same range during 2021.
But, perhaps, the most exciting event was seeing one of the companies we had worked with over the last few years launching their first, complete solution into market. In 2020 Qnami, a Switzerland-based start-up, introduced their ProteusQ™, as an easy-to-use alternative to existing atomic force microscopy (AFM) platforms, offering nano-scale magnetic imaging capabilities.
Where do you see yourself and your company in 3 years?
Developing and nurturing diamond-enabled opportunities on the horizon have been a characteristic trait of my career.
Over the years, this passion has extended across a diverse set of industries, from optics and semiconductors to, now, quantum science. I suspect there are enough important problems out there, combined with diamond’s wide range of properties, to keep me busy for many decades to come.
From an Element Six’s perspective, in the next 3 years I believe that diamond quantum sensors will become a well-established product line with meaningful impact, initially in the sensing area. Diamond will be part of an ecosystem of solutions that will aggregate start-ups and established large companies alike, addressing a range of applications, from sensing for harsh environments to medical diagnostics.
Some people speak about a “quantum bubble”. From your point of view, is it real and does it impact your business?
I think industry is pretty good at spotting poorly thought-through concepts. Every day you are presented with decisions on how to address a problem and the decision matrix for doing so doesn’t include what type of science you are using, but only if it makes viable commercial sense. As part of the UK Strategic Advisory Group Quantum Program, I have been impressed by how clearly these questions are also addressed just at a society level.
I worry a little about some of the investors who might be looking to make quick profits by exploiting a community, which has, so far, been characterized by its openness, and I always recommend that any potential new founder to talk to as many experienced and trusted advisors as possible before signing the first check.
To you, what will be the next ‘quantum big thing’ in 2021?
I think there will continue to be two themes that broadly characterise Quantum in 2021.
The first is the sophistication and evolution of the supply chain, supported by an increasing engagement from large traditional semiconductor and optics companies. Within this commercial sophistication, quality standards and benchmarking will underpin most of the communication. No one will be able to just broadly talk about ‘numbers of qubits’: quality and its meaning will permeate the language, enabling the research community to play critical roles in improving those metrics further.
More related to what grabs the headlines, the second theme for 2021 I speculate at is that we will continue to see news stories of ‘quantum supremacy’, but also we will see the first real demonstration of this giving insights into an important problem.
I suspect these insights will most likely present themselves in the form of some physical simulation (e.g. some version of the Ising model) but they will, nonetheless, be significant in their own right, irrespective of how they have been achieved. In the area of diamond-enabled sensing, the technique has started to reveal new science over the last couple of years.
On a personal level, it is very rewarding to have been a part of this journey from the beginning, when the concepts were still pure science, and to witness how they are now being used to reveal and understand important problems in other fields.
Who has been the most influential person in your life? And state us the reason
I count myself fortunate to have had several mentors and peers who have, over the years, challenged me and taught me something across many areas, both in personal and professional life. When I look back, a characteristic of my most productive periods has often been working closely with one other person who challenged me.
If I had to suggest one influential person, it would be a local man in the village I grew up in. Having left school at 14, he had no formal education, but to make enough money to support his family he would fix any range of mechanical devices, from cars to lawnmowers and chainsaws. He was generous and patient with his time. I remember spending many hours as a kid working with him and seeing how he broke a problem down in order to fix it. Much later, I would learn his approach had many parallels with Karl Poppers’ philosophical attitude to scientific progress: in simple terms, proving by looking to disprove. Fixing these mechanical devices also required lateral thinking as, inevitably, we would not have the right tool or part and couldn’t afford to get it, so we had to find another way. That combination of breaking a problem down and then looking at it creatively probably influences me significantly to this day.
If you could rewind your professional life 10 years back, what would you like to change?
There is always the unfulfilled wish to have achieved more, but, when I break it down, it hasn’t been a bad 10 years: taking me from research to 5 years in Silicon Valley and then back to the UK, driving a business while still keeping a foot in the research community. However, on reflection, I should have taken more time to enjoy the journey rather than always being obsessed with the destination.
What are your strengths and weaknesses? Both pro and personal.
I am a very driven individual, always looking for efficiency and solutions to fix something faster, whether in professional or personal life. While the drive and relentlessness can be useful when trying to solve a technical problem or bringing a product to market, they can also be tiring and challenging for those around you.
Your most hard learned lesson in business?
Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ comes to mind here. The lines that particularly resonate, as I get older, are: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster // And treat those two impostors just the same’. In business, it is very easy, especially in the early days, to over-celebrate the successes and over-worry about the failures.
When first working in the US, I found it culturally bizarre how often, at the beginning of a meeting, people would introduce themselves by listing their successes alongside their failures. From a European perspective, that was strange to me – perhaps, on a cultural level, we tend to try to hide our failure or, if we do fail, we lose the willingness to try again. Working in the US has, perhaps more than anything, taught me about how to treat ‘those two impostors’, especially when you are bringing new technology and products to the market.
Success and failure are always linked. It is sometimes a mistake to climb, but it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. Sure, if you do not climb you will not fall, but you will never fly either.
Your bedtime book currently?
Had the question been about the fictional character who has inspired me the most, I might have answered ‘Jude’, from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Of course, for those who know, things didn’t turn out well for Jude or for those around him. However, I still ‘enjoy’, if that is the right word, the story of the underdog. One of my favourite authors, who tells the real-life stories of some of the world’s greatest underdogs in graphic art, is Joe Sacco. I am about to start his most recent book, Paying the Land.
Tell us about your hobbies
With two young daughters and a houseful of puppies, right now hobbies seem a distant memory. But, going back to my country village roots, my passion remains for traditional country sports. I find solace and great pleasure in being in the countryside with my dog and close friends.
Say out any of your favorite quotes
Perhaps a bit contradictory, but these are the words from my favourite artist: Vincent van Gogh. The first quote is to inspire, the second serves as a warning:
‘I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it’
‘I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process’
Which are your three magic lamp genie (personal or pro) wishes?
Just one, but if you can make it happen it will be more than enough to impact all of those you share time with, both at work and home – savour and take pleasure in the journey.