John Levy, CEO of the New-York-based Seeqc start-up, is the fifth nominee of the ‘Quantum Personality of the Year 2020’. He co-founded Seeqc in 2018.
John has worked at the intersection of technology and finance for more than 35 years.
From 2010-18 he served as the Chairman of BioLite, a distributed energy company. In 2013, he joined the board of goTenna, an ad hoc mesh networking company. In 2011, he was named Chairman of Hypres, a digital RF and low field MRI company, and in 2012 he helped create and became the founding Chairman of PlusN, a carrier aggregation software company.
Also in 2012, he joined the investment committee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation overseeing a $450m endowment and became Chairman in 2017. John was a founding partner from 2005-2010 of L Capital Partners’ where Mr. Levy led investments in the technology sector and served on seven technology company boards including WiSpry, OnPATH Technologies, HiGTek, Simparel, Evogen, Peek and Peek India.
Here is the interview of John with both personal and business questions he kindly accepted to answer.
John, could you summarize when/why you created Seeqc?
While serving as a chair at HYPRES in 2017, we conducted a strategic planning process to help each of our divisions imagine a scenario where they could pursue their most ambitious future. It became obvious, based on our unique capabilities in Single Flux Quantum (SFQ) chip design and manufacturing as well as systems engineering that we should focus on spinning out to build a Scalable Energy Efficient Quantum Computer — Seeqc.
I also had a key partner at HYPRES in building out this vision: CTO Oleg Mukhanov, with whom I had worked over the previous nine years. Knowing you have one of the luminaries in SFQ with the respect of his peers around the world as your founding partner, not to mention that he is such an excellent person, made this a straightforward and easy decision, and adding Matt Hutchings as CPO topped the cake!
When you look at the rearview mirror of the last 5 years, what are your feelings about the quantum industry?
We’re at a point where Quantum Computing is leaving the theory stages and entering practicality. Over the past five years, a small number of companies and universities have managed to build a quantum computer, run an algorithm (some useful) and prove technical quantum supremacy, but those achievements, fantastic as they have been, are not the end goal, just stops along the way.
The real goal is practical application — building computers not just for study and tests, but for real-world use. Seeqc isn’t trying to build and sell a general purpose, fault-tolerant quantum computer. We are narrowing our goals but doing it in an application specific way and with a roadmap that is potentially scalable to a large number of practical qubits. And we are doing this across specific verticals with an ecosystem of application developers.
How do you feel the competitive landscape in your quantum domain?
Though there is growing competition, I don’t believe there is a “winner-takes-all” in the quantum domain as there isn’t within the classical world.
There will be quantum chip companies, and quantum operating systems companies and quantum networking companies and quantum applications companies, and yes, quantum systems/data center companies, all supporting different segments of the quantum world.
It’s going to take time to figure it out but I’m confident that within the next 10 years we will see it all. Our technology is analogous to the progression from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits and eventually microprocessors and full systems that characterized the evolution of classical computing, leading to full scalable computing systems.
That’s what we are building in the quantum space and yes, it is a competitive network, we’re excited to be a part of it and look forward to sharing our results.
What is your best quantum achievement during this year?
We spun out of HYPRES in April 2019, and we’ve marked this with a series of important milestones. First among them, our team designed, built and tested the world’s first all-digital SFQ readout and control chip for a quantum computer.
We filed 23 new patents and added significantly to our foundry and test capabilities, having just completed construction of our new headquarters and milliKelvin test center.
However, I think our most important accomplishment is building our team — doubling our technical staff. Adding these people, with their new perspectives, ideas and experiences, is what will enable us to fulfill our vision in the coming months and years.
Where do you see yourself and your company in 3 years?
Within the next three years, we’ll have toy-level quantum computers that can generate meaningful algorithms but are built on an architecture that can ultimately scale to the complexity of the problems our customers are trying to solve.
We have partners and strategic investors that want these computers as soon as possible so they can start using them to solve those hyper-specific industry problems.
We spun out from a commercial business, so our cultural DNA is centered around operating as a business, not an academic institution, so we operate with business metrics, ensuring that we deliver chips on time, in spec, with high quality and for an affordable price. We will continue to operate on this basis.
Some people speak about a “quantum bubble”. From your point of view, is it real and does it impact your business?
There is significant venture interest because investors see a massive market and they are right. But we are also years away from reaching its highest potential and in that way, I often think of quantum computing in a similar way as many biotech companies.
What Seeqc is working on – and what makes us inherently different – is that our technology and business strategy are designed to avoid this theoretical bubble. We aren’t working on building a general-purpose error corrected solve-everything quantum computer. We’re working on computers designed to solve specific problems, for specific clients, faster and more accurately than ever before.
We’re aiming to fill the gap between the theoretical world and the lofty, distant goals of general-purpose quantum computers. Also mitigating against the bubble idea is that we operate a commercial chip foundry which grounds our operations and company culture in earning revenue by building and manufacturing chips and wafers with a margin for commercial, government and academic customers.
That keeps it all very real.
To you, what will be the next ‘quantum big thing’ in 2021?
I think the next “big thing” in quantum computing may not sound big at all but will be critically important: small scale tests and demonstrations of technology that will ultimately lead to millions of useful qubits.
Who has been the most influential person in your life?
I’ve been fortunate to have a series of mentors in the tech space.
Jim Cash started teaching IT at Harvard Business School just about when I arrived there and he piqued my interest in IT and programming when we were still using punch cards.
David Liddle, who ran Interval Research for Paul Allen, was a role model of someone fostering cross-disciplinary innovation in a Palo Alto-based think tank spanning core technology to ethnographic research of human behavior to cellular biology to dance, while Pitch Johnson, one of the founders of the venture capital industry and the board chair at HYPRES before me, reinforced the combination of patience, good judgment and practical business strategy informed by a strong, ethical backbone that characterized one of the best investors in the history of Silicon Valley.
If you could rewind your professional life 10 years back, what would you like to change?
I’d tell myself to work on the biggest and most important problems one can find that will have the most impact in the world. Don’t worry about funding or solutions; they will come if you focus on the right opportunity.
What are your strengths and weaknesses? Both pro and personal.
I am unfailingly optimistic which enables me to believe in our team, technology, markets, solutions, investors, and doing something positive for the world.
This, of course, is also probably my biggest weakness in that sometimes that same level of optimism can cloud my vision so that I can’t always see the problems. A healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism is something I’ve learned to internalize.
Your most hard learned lesson in business?
You can be totally right about a particular idea and equally wrong about the timing of that idea. Back in the mid-90s, I was the founding CEO of one of the first computer vision companies, a technology that seemed obvious for those of us working in that domain. Who knew it would take close to 20 years for the very same technology to begin to reach its potential.
Your bedtime book currently?
It may sound too on-the-nose, but I just finished reading “The Second Quantum Revolution” by Lars Jaeger. It’s a good look into the first quantum revolution, undoubtedly what brought us all here, and peeks into the second quantum revolution, which will shape the 21st century.
I’m in the middle of President Obama’s new book; it’s a big book and a great read.
Tell us about your hobbies
In normal times when my wife and I travel, we nearly always go to an art museum or gallery or site-specific cultural installation to get inspiration from those who push artistic and cultural boundaries. I read books about quantum physics and science history as well as well crafted fiction. I can’t miss watching a competitive game, whether basketball, football or baseball, and I love to hike, cycle, raft and ski.
I have a new passion enlivened by our Covid lock-down: cooking traditional Szechuan cuisine with authentic ingredients, courtesy of Amazon.
Say out any of your favorite quotes
I have so many of them, mostly from Groucho Marx, so here’s one: “Humor is reason gone mad” leading to “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
Which are your three magic lamp genie (personal or pro) wishes?
To see Quantum Technology reach its full potential.
While I am excited by the possibility of quantum computers developing new materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that will greatly advance the work within these domains, I am more interested in using quantum technology to accomplish tasks that we are completely unable to perform today.
For instance, I imagine a computer that can simulate complex natural systems to build an accurate climate model to manage the stewardship and growth of our planet in a way that ensures health, prosperity, equitable resources and climate science for a more ecologically responsible future.
This is my biggest wish for Seeqc.