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October 12, 2020

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An interview with a quantum entrepreneur – Araceli Venegas-Gomez

Having worked for six years as an aerospace engineer for an international aerospace company, Araceli Venegas-Gomez decided this was no longer for her and took the plunge to swap her career in aerospace for one in quantum. She undertook a Masters in Medical Physics while working at Airbus and then a Master of research and subsequently PhD in Quantum Optics at the University of Strathclyde, before launching her start-up company QURECA (Quantum Resources and Careers). We caught up with Araceli to find out more about what inspired her to take the leap, her journey so far, and her hopes for the future:

Can you tell me a little bit about how you moved from working in industry to be working where you are today, what interested you in quantum and encouraged you to take the leap?

I’m an aerospace engineer, I worked in countries all over Europe. I did research, learned English and worked in Germany for Airbus for 6 years, but, I found that working full time in my job was not enough!

I started off doing engineering activities at work, then I moved into project management and then strategic level work termed resource management. I found I’d moved from doing something very specific to something that gave an overview of the whole company. During that time, I wanted to learn more things, I did a Masters in medical physics, by distance learning. While I was learning that, I started learning about magnetic resonance imaging, this required a little bit of quantum but I wanted to learn more. This was also at the time of the start of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). I really enjoyed the first one I did and I ended up spending almost all of my spare time studying quantum, I even took holidays to attend conferences!

It was a time in my life where I asked myself, “what do I want to do with my life?”, I just decided that what I was really enjoying at that time was learning quantum, I could come back to work in industry at any time, but if there was a time to change paths it was then, not in 10 years’ time. I started to apply for PhDs in physics but people everywhere told me I couldn’t do it as I was an engineer! It took a long time; however, I met a professor on an online training course and he put me in contact with different people. One of the people I met was moving from the US to Glasgow, we spoke for over a year by email and when he moved, he invited me to Glasgow. I spent a week there and he gave me exercises in quantum physics, at the end he asked if it was still what I wanted – I said yes! He told me I was the most motivated person to study quantum physics he’d ever met, however, he said if he gave me a PhD position then, it would require 3 or 4 years of studying and would be a risk for him, in case I left after a year. He hired me for one year to do a Masters by research so that if I changed my mind and wanted to go back to industry, I would still have achieved something. I quit my job to move to Glasgow for one year to do the Masters, towards the end of it he asked if I still wanted to do a PhD, I did and he offered me the PhD position, I started in 2016 and finished earlier this year (2020)!

You are an executive fellow at the University of Bristol Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC), can you tell us more about how you came to have this affiliation?

When I moved, I was older than most people doing PhDs and wanted to catch up with everyone, so I got involved in everything: outreach, public engagement, conferences and events. What I found when I was going to events was that there was a shift between people doing fundamental research and those pursuing quantum technologies as a business. I was coming from business and I realised this was a big challenge, as most of the people had never been in business and didn’t understand it. There was a big gap but I felt I could fill this and discuss things with people on both sides, and also the general public. I started to think maybe I could create something new, where I would be in the middle, and communicate with everyone and try to help the community, that was the idea.

Two or three years ago, I started to shape my idea but didn’t really know how to make it happen. I started to ask people what they thought the community needed so I could materialise that, although, I wasn’t thinking about a company at that time. I became really active on Twitter and built a big network, I met people who suggested to me that I should apply for the OSA Milton and Rosalind Chang Pivoting Fellowship which is about changing careers. This sounded perfect for me, I applied and found out I was successful last year. This was the push I needed to do something new that was for the whole community and global. Some of my mentor’s advice was to create a company to provide these services people were asking for.

During this time, I spoke with people who told me about the Fellowship programme at QTEC, which aims at supporting quantum scientists with business know-how to become quantum entrepreneurs. I visited them, they liked my idea and, while the programme is usually more aimed at developing products, they offered me the executive fellowship path, this means that as an executive fellow I can stay in Glasgow but take advantage of the mentorship and sessions on offer.

You are the founder and CEO of QURECA (Quantum Resources & Careers), can you tell us a little bit more about it, what inspired you to set it up and what the goals of QURECA are?

I had a feeling that there were gaps within the community and I felt I could fill these. People were saying how difficult it was to find employees with the right skills and others were telling me how difficult it was to understand quantum, they were interested but didn’t know where to find the information they needed. There are resources out there but they are very specific and technical, I decided to continue what I was doing in public engagement but specific to business.

My first idea was to create a recruitment company, but I didn’t want to just become a recruiter! I realised the things I was doing before in Airbus would be applicable to quantum technologies. I packaged it all together and that’s how QURECA was born, it means ‘Quantum Resources and Careers’. I registered the company in June last year (2019). It has been shaped through having conversations with people globally. The online training part of QURECA came about because people were asking for it and while I’m not an expert in everything, by partnering with experts then the community can be built and together we can create the online training programmes. By September/October we should start to see the online training programmes on the QURECA platform.

Right now, when you go to the website you can see information, services and registration, and once you register everything is free! You can decide whether you are individual looking for a job or training or both, or whether you are an organisation looking to hire and/or for training. It could be for individuals who are interested in learning something, or those looking to move careers into quantum, or PhD students who don’t know where to look for resources. I want to support people like me, I want to try to match people, their skills and what they enjoy, with what companies are looking for.

Have you experienced any barriers due to your gender, being a female entrepreneur?

Being an aerospace engineer and then being in physics, I’ve always been surrounded by men and for me, that was normal. It wasn’t until later on in my career that people started to point things out and I started to realise that these things happen to me. At one point I was a foreigner, I was an engineer, I was a woman, I was young, I had to tell men, 20 or 30 years older than me, what to do and it was difficult. I ticked all the boxes but I think if I was a man, it would have taken less time to do the same things. That was my feeling, which is really sad, but in Physics, I was really surprised, I felt there were a lot of girls in physics, as undergraduates, it is a leaking pipeline though. I took part in different initiatives at Airbus and at the University and I’m now part of the gender (balance) group at the Quantum Flagship, we are looking at what we can do at European level in the quantum and physics communities to address these ‘issues’, let’s say. Right now, as an entrepreneur, I don’t think I have experienced any barriers, there doesn’t seem to be the issue that only 10 percent of people are women, it’s more 50/50. Of course, you are still in a technical field and in physics, but if you look right now at my team we are almost all women, but all of my mentors are men, and this could change. At the moment it’s mostly that these are the people that in the past have had the experiences but I think this is changing, luckily.

Alongside being CEO of QURECA, you are the coordinator of the International Graduate School in Quantum Technologies, what does this entail?

I knew that after my PhD I wanted to do something global, but I was still in Glasgow. I was offered this job and I work part-time which means I can still have my own adventures. This is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University, the University of Strathclyde and the University of Glasgow. It’s a graduate school, so PhD level, and I organise activities between the three universities and discuss collaborations with industry. This year, a lot of things we had in mind can’t be done but I am still looking at what other activities we can do. The aim is to bring people to Scotland as it is a really nice place, with different universities and industry, it’s kind of a hub by itself, and the scenery is amazing! The idea is to work jointly to bring people together in the quantum technologies community, in Scotland. We collaborate with a range of companies and industrial partners and continue to look for new collaborators. Students looking for PhDs should come and talk to us, there are a lot of opportunities there!

You are also a quantum ambassador, what does this involve and what types of thing have you been able to do through this role?

So, this was the OSA fellowship I mentioned, it was the push I needed to realise my ideas into something. They called me the quantum ambassador, this requires me to talk to people, find out what they need and provide for them. Now I need to work globally, and I literally went around the world and spoke to people in industry, academia, outreach and policy, as I think the government and general public are key pillars in this system.

What would a typical day at work be for you?

There isn’t really a typical day, I love this question! This is what I really enjoy right now, every day is completely new. I have to prepare different talks for different audiences, I talk to different people at completely different levels in the whole ecosystem and all over the globe, I am completely in the middle and this is what I wanted. A typical day – no! I put on different hats all the time but I think it’s amazing!

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

I feel like we are in the 50s of the last century, we had computers with lots of tubes and we couldn’t envisage that we’d have something like a mobile phone, it’s the same now. That’s what excites me the most, we know that we are going to have quantum sensors, one day quantum computers that are going to evolve to tackle amazing problems, and quantum communications are going to change business, but we are still early on in this. Everyone around the world is working on quantum, I think that’s really amazing, it’s not a race between nations, everyone is a part of it. We think about different use cases, every week I learn about different applications for different sectors. The unknown is my answer, we can’t know what is going to happen!

What are your hopes for the future?

At a personal and company level, I’d love to think that in the near future, anyone that wants to know anything about quantum will come to QURECA, we will be the centre of where people can find all of the resources they need. I want to keep being a quantum ambassador and bring more people on board to QURECA. I also hope that all of this continues and we don’t enter into the quantum winter! We know that the global economic situation is hard but we need to think about innovation. I know that to go to a company now and say we have a technology that will be ready in 10 years would be hard but I hope that people won’t lose hope!

What advice would you give to young people who hope to pursue a career in STEM, particularly quantum physics in industry?

One thing I want to say is that not only physicists will make up the quantum workforce and this is a message that needs to be spread. We will have a new degree and jobs in quantum engineering. So far, we have physicists and engineers working in quantum, but if you work in finance or even marketing you can be part of the quantum workforce. My advice is that you need to like quantum, not just because it sounds and looks good, you need to understand it, at a certain level.

For people already doing degrees and those who want to switch to being in the quantum workforce, come to me! Just keep an eye on what is going on, ask questions and attend events.

If you want to learn about quantum or are looking for certain specific resources, come to QURECA!

QURECA is hosting a Quantum Careers Event, in conjunction with the IOPQQQ, on 28 October 2020. For more information visit the event website.