After obtaining a PhD in ultrasonic signal processing and subsequently working as a postdoctoral research associate (postdoc for short) at the University of Bristol, Caroline Clark left academia to work as a consultant in the civil nuclear industry. She had a career break when she had children and retrained to become a sports therapist focused on manual therapy and rehabilitation. On returning to work, Caroline held a position at Science City Bristol, supporting academics, entrepreneurs and SMEs to obtain funding for collaborative projects. Caroline then moved on to work at the University of Bristol and subsequently co-founded start-up KETS Quantum Security where she is now Chief Operating Officer. We caught up with Caroline to find out more about her career path, her role at KETS and the advice she’d give to others hoping to pursue a career in the field.
You have a background in mechanical engineering so what encouraged you to take the leap out of that field in order to pursue a career in the field of quantum, firstly as Chief Operating Officer of the research group QETLabs and now as Chief Operating Officer of KETS? How easy or difficult did you find this transition from classical engineering to quantum?
My time as an engineer really came to an end when I left my role in industry to take a career break to look after my children. During that time, I retrained as a sports therapist, but I found that I missed being directly involved in science and technology, so I took up a role at a company called Science City Bristol where I worked to bring entrepreneurs, SMEs, and academics together to work on interesting and innovative projects. Sadly, the company closed after a year or so, but at that time I was lucky to get an opportunity to work at the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol alongside Professor Jeremy O’Brien. At the time there were around 15 to 20 people, including students and postdocs, in the group, but I spent four happy, challenging years growing it, winning grants and building it into what is now QET Labs, with 100 people doing a variety of things from fundamental technology and science research to enterprise and entrepreneurship training at QTEC, for example. I decided it was time for me to move on and I was about to go it alone, starting my own company, but somehow, I spent the next year managing the Department of Chemistry at Bristol while also working at KETS. I left the University as KETS grew and I’ve been here ever since. KETS started off with four of us working for free and now we have 13 paid employees all working to commercialise quantum communications technologies.
The overlap for me, between my engineering career and my work at the University and at KETS, is research, because I’ve done engineering research myself and when I moved into quantum I managed research. Even when I was a PhD student and a postdoc, I preferred overseeing other people doing research and seeing the big picture, rather than doing it myself, so it made sense to carry on doing that. The opportunity arose at Bristol and actually it was meeting Jeremy that made me move into quantum, his work and his vision were really inspiring, I thought I could learn from him and so I took the leap. Even though the work that I do now is not engineering or anything close to anything technical, I am still an engineer at heart!
Can you tell me a little bit about KETS? What does your role at KETS entail and is there such a thing as a typical day at work for you?
The University of Bristol has been really successful at turning complex experiments with lasers and photons that would historically be done in a large lab into something that can be done on a tiny little silicon chip. The team at Bristol have done this successfully for many different quantum applications, whether it be quantum computing, simulation, sensing or communications. KETS is focused on building secure communications systems, and we’re taking the chip-scale technology developed at Bristol and creating commercial products that allow us to communicate and share information securely. With advent of quantum computing coming, the world’s current cryptography methods will be at risk, however, KETS technologies will enable us to communicate in a way which is ultimately secure and not threatened by quantum computing.
I don’t really have a typical day in the office but quite a lot of my work is fundamental business management. I handle finances, make sure that everything we do conforms with various government regulations and I do strategic work breaking down a big goal or objective into small manageable steps. I make sure that all the people that we have in the team are working effectively and have everything they need to get their job done and I also make sure that we have effective ways of doing things, whether that’s through a process or company culture.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
For me, variety and challenge are really important. I find that if I’m in a job where there isn’t an opportunity to challenge myself, learn and grow then I get a bit bored. Working in quantum itself is challenging, but it’s also super exciting, your boundaries are pushed because it’s all new, it’s the next big thing that’s going to happen that will change our lives. Working at the forefront of technology is amazing and the variety and the challenge it brings every day is what I love.
Were you ever divided between following an academic career vs. an entrepreneurial one? What won you over to the industry/business side? What did you mostly struggle with moving from academia to industry?
No, I was never divided because I had already left my academic career behind. I feel that if there’s something in front of you that looks like a really exciting and interesting thing to do, then you should seize the opportunity and do it, and that’s what I did. For me, joining KETS was a natural step in helping to get the technology out of the lab and into the real world. Leaving academia is not to be underestimated, it’s really, really hard existing outside of the comfortable bubble that you have in a university and building a technology where the market is new is very difficult; but that’s why government created the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, to push that process forwards. The fact that things are challenging shouldn’t be something that’s off-putting because actually, it’s only if you’re doing something challenging that you are able to learn and grow. Most problems can be broken down into smaller chunks, and there are always people who can help you.
What transferrable skills have you obtained throughout your career and what skills do you think are most important for people working in the field?
That’s an interesting question because it would be very different for me compared to someone in our team who is focused on the technical side of things. For them, the skills are very specific and studying maths, physics or engineering before specialising in quantum engineering or similar would be beneficial, but you can get into quantum engineering from a computer science background or electrical engineering and so on too, it doesn’t have to be just physics. On the other hand, to do my job, I think you really just need to be tenacious, willing to learn and put yourself out there and not be frightened of being out of your comfort zone. To do my job, you need to be willing to figure out how to do things and take an objective view of challenges as they pop up. I think communication skills are key in many roles, investing in the people around you and building strong working relationships is really important.
Alongside your role at KETS you are also a co-founder of Zebera, can you tell us a little more about this and the aims of Zebera?
In the world of technology there is a balance to be had between the focusing on the technology itself and the people who are going to deliver it. My interest is in the people and how you can motivate them, retain them and keep them enthused. This applies to how we run our business of course, but I’m also interested how you do this for young people too. A lot of young people are leaving school or university with anxiety problems, stress and a general lack of confidence in themselves, all of which can mean they struggle in work and in life in general. For me, I think having someone that can help you turn that cycle around, someone that can support you and say “give it a go, if it fails, it’s OK, try again, I’m behind you” is incredibly powerful. It can be uncomfortable sometimes to try things you are scared of, but when you do this your comfort zone grows. Zebera is about working through this process with young people of high school age. One way to describe it would be ‘Kickstarter for good, for young people’. It’s essentially an open innovation platform which encourages young people to solve real world problems and hopefully obtain funding to take their products through to market. We pose challenges that exist in the real world, or that an organisation might have to young people, we support them through the problem solving and design cycle in the way I described and help them to solve the problems. They come out the other end of it, not only having learned something about what’s happening in the world and perhaps practiced some science or creativity, but also with an understanding that it’s OK to go through that cycle of ‘try, fail, iterate, try again’ and be more able to put themselves out there in the future.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career in STEM, particularly in quantum?
I think we get a little bit hung up on the term ‘STEM’. I think if you are interested in solving problems, whether they be big or small, some kind of logic or scientific thinking will eventually come into that, so find your niche and what interests you, even if it’s just one aspect of physics, chemistry, maths or whatever, pursue it and try your hardest at it. There are many routes into quantum, but if you’re interested in solving problems, any of those disciplines could take you into a career in the field. Of course, they fall under the STEM acronym, but ultimately, they’re all just about problem solving.
Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?
I think quantum computing is a really interesting area, of course KETS has an interest in how it might be used in a way that threatens our communications and information security, but at the same time quantum computers could be used to solve really complex problems that impact our lives for good, particularly for pharmaceutical companies and drug discovery. If we can speed up a process that would take 10 years to execute at the minute by modeling it with a quantum computer in a week or so, that will have massive implications for things such as cancer research and so on. I will definitely be keeping an eye on quantum computing and will always be looking to see what progress is made.
What are your hopes for the future?
It’s an interesting time just now and I think it’s really important to balance technology development, especially in fields like quantum which is at the forefront of what we can really achieve and do as humans, with finding ways to live more sustainably and not harm the planet. So, my hopes are that we get the right balance between developing life changing technologies and living more sustainably. We’ve moved so far technologically, perhaps it will be technology that helps us to develop more sustainable ways of living.