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Quantum in Context: Quantum Companies Rotate in New Leaders

Quantum in Context: Quantum Companies Rotate in New Leaders

The News: In the last several months, several quantum computing companies, including Atom Computing, Infleqtion, Oxford Quantum Circuits, and Quantum Circuits Inc., have replaced their CEOs. Two others, Pasqal and IQM, have shifted to co-CEOs. This is a quickening but not unusual trend among startups in high-profile deep-tech areas that require significant investment.

Quantum in Context: Quantum Companies Rotate in New Leaders

Analyst Take: It’s not unusual for startups to replace their CEOs. Some reasons are financial, some are personal, and some are about having the right person or people at the helm at the right time. It’s worth examining why the quantum industry is undergoing this leadership transformation, beyond the normal reasons and “happy talk” that often accompanies company announcements.

The New CEOs

The companies that recently announced new CEOs include:

Also, in February, neutral atom computing company Pasqal announced that it had promoted Loïc Henriet to co-CEO with Georges-Olivier Reymond. In the same month, IQM Quantum Computers announced that Mikko Välimäki would join Jan Goetz as co-CEO.

The company links are to press releases or articles announcing the changes.

I deeply admire anyone who would find or accept the mantle of CEO of a quantum computing company while we build this industry over the next several years to reach Practical Quantum Advantage.

Why Startups Change Leadership

Here are some reasons why any startup might replace or supplement its top leadership. To be clear, I am in no way ascribing any of these reasons to any CEOs mentioned. This is a general list that applies across all tech industries. I’ve listed them alphabetically by first word since they can all derail a leader’s job security:

  • Burnout
  • Establishing an internal echo chamber that fails to provide honest feedback
  • Ethical or legal violations
  • Failure to develop products and drive revenue
  • Failure to make critical hires or make the hard choices to have the correct people at the company
  • Failure to meet internal metrics and milestones set by the Board of Directors
  • Failure to pivot from a failing business model
  • Failure to secure necessary private or public funding
  • Hubris
  • Inability to prioritize correctly or at all
  • Incompatibility with the Board of Directors and not seeking their advice
  • Irrational optimism instead of optimistic morale-building
  • Lack of people skills
  • Lack of understanding of industry competition
  • Loss of faith by the Board of Directors
  • New and better job offer
  • Not seeking advice or mentorship from paid or unpaid external advisors
  • Overspending
  • Personal, family, or health-related situation
  • Poor public image in speaking and media opportunities
  • Problems transitioning from an academic to a business role
  • Rapid pivots and inconsistent messaging
  • Slow decision-making
  • Wrong leader at the current stage of the company’s evolution

Just do all that right, and you are home free!

I want to emphasize the last point, “Wrong leader at the current stage of the company’s evolution.” While a founder or early CEO may dream of becoming the next Michael Dell, Jayshree Ullal, or Jensen Huang, most do not last that long or become billionaires.

It is perfectly fine to start as a professor, become the first CEO, get equity, and turn the reins over to a more seasoned business professional to take the company to the next level. Besides, you might really want to do research and teach.

Just as some investment firms specialize in funding companies at the individual seed, A, B, C, and beyond series, a CEO might do best at steering the company toward each series and then exiting. Company valuations change at each level, and the CEO, leadership team, and Board must consist of the right people to accelerate growth and revenue. There is no loss of pride in saying, “I can get this company to its Series A funding and then hand it off to another person,” or specific later rounds.

Business Forces Affecting the Quantum Industry

Is there anything special about the quantum industry related to my reasons for failure above?

We used to joke that practical quantum computing was ten years away. We would say that every year. Things have improved! Now, we say it is three to five years away. I’m being humorous, and we may indeed see some significant breakthroughs soon beyond the steady innovations. However, people tune out when you constantly promise something and don’t deliver. Investors may decide that the ROI in a suitable period is insufficient for their strategic profiles. If you, as a leader, spout hyperbole and do not deliver, you may be looking for a new job.

AI, specifically Generative AI, is pulling in a lot of private investment dollars. This is money that potentially will not go to quantum. The time between funding rounds may increase. Quantum CEOs must spend wisely and frugally on people and other resources. There is a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Frugal means intelligently and strategically spending as little as possible on necessary expenses. Cheap means cutting spending arbitrarily. “No more travel!” may quickly mean “No more customers!”. There is a cost to diminished morale caused by overt cheapness, often expressed as decreased productivity or loss of key people.

Finally, quantum is deep tech, and many founders come from academia, especially physics. Consider being a serial academic entrepreneur and replacing yourself early on with business professionals if you are not committed to personal excellence and focus in that area. It may be time for that VC on the Board to step in as CEO. That said, many genuinely excellent business CEOs started their careers as academics. They applied the drive, curiosity, and search for learning that made them successful scholars in their new careers.

Key Takeaway

Quantum computing is an exciting but sometimes over-hyped new technology with great promise for use cases in modeling physical processes, chemistry, materials science, financial services, and possibly AI and optimization. Many companies have entered the field, and some are more successful than others in progressing through their funding rounds. We are seeing turnover in the leadership of some of the better-known companies. This is natural and not a reason to fear for the future of the technology.

Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this article. The author is a former employee of Infleqtion and holds an equity position in the company. The author does not hold an equity position in any other company mentioned in this article.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.

Other Insights from The Futurum Group:

Quantum in Context: A Qubit Primer

Quantum in Context: Pasqal Is the Latest to Publish a Roadmap

The Case for On-Premises Quantum Computers

Author Information

Dr. Bob Sutor

Dr. Bob Sutor has been a technical leader and executive in the IT industry for over 40 years. Bob’s industry role is to advance quantum and AI technologies by building strong business, partner, technical, and educational ecosystems. The singular goal is to evolve quantum and AI to help solve some of the critical computational problems facing society today. Bob is widely quoted in the press, delivers conference keynotes, and works with industry analysts and investors to accelerate understanding and adoption of quantum technologies. Bob is the Vice President and Practice Lead for Emerging Technologies at The Futurum Group. He helps clients understand sophisticated technologies in order to make the best use of them for success in their organizations and industries. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo, New York, USA. More than two decades of Bob’s career were spent in IBM Research in New York. During his time there, he worked on or led efforts in symbolic mathematical computation, optimization, AI, blockchain, and quantum computing. He was also an executive on the software side of the IBM business in areas including middleware, software on Linux, mobile, open source, and emerging industry standards. He was the Vice President of Corporate Development and, later, Chief Quantum Advocate, at Infleqtion, a quantum computing and quantum sensing company based in Boulder, Colorado USA. Bob is a theoretical mathematician by training, has a Ph.D. from Princeton University, and an undergraduate degree from Harvard College.

He’s the author of a book about quantum computing called Dancing with Qubits, which was published in 2019, with the Second Edition scheduled for release in April 2024. He is also the author of the 2021 book Dancing with Python, an introduction to Python coding for classical and quantum computing. Areas in which he’s worked: quantum computing, AI, blockchain, mathematics and mathematical software, Linux, open source, standards management, product management and marketing, computer algebra, and web standards.

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