Having loved humanities at school, Laura Foster studied Law, Politics, History and English Literature at A Level, before embarking upon a degree in History. Upon graduating, Laura worked in conference research and production and subsequently chose to pursue a career in technology and innovation policy at techUK. We caught up with Laura to find out more about her journey into quantum, what excites her most about quantum technologies and what her role involves.
You have a background in History and a keen interest in politics, what inspired you to get involved in science & technology policy and community building? Can you tell us a bit more about your journey to working in your current role?
I ended up working in the realm of tech and innovation in a very roundabout way. At high school, my passion was very much in history and politics and I didn’t really pursue anything scientific. I did well in the sciences at GCSE but did not study them beyond then. I studied Law, Politics, History and English Literature at A Level and then studied History at Durham University. Like most people when they leave university, I was looking at different jobs that I thought I might like. I discovered that one thing you can do having studied history is go into roles that involve research and so I ended up becoming a conference researcher and producer for a big conference company, working on the topic of emerging technologies. I started working on a big international conference called IoT (Internet of Things) World, which was co-located with other conferences such as the AI (Artificial Intelligence) Summit, which is big at London Tech Week. My role was about taking information around emerging technologies, dissecting it, and then putting it out in a way that people could understand and engage with it. I fell in love with learning about these new technologies. I worked with techUK at one of the conferences that I was organizing, really liked what they did and decided I wanted to work for them. So, I bunkered down, looked at the kind of skills that are needed to work in a policy role around different forms of technologies, and thankfully managed to get a job with them. I have been here ever since!
You are currently Head of Programme – Technology and Innovation at techUK, can you tell us more about techUK and its role in the UK quantum community?
techUK is the UK Technology Trade Association. We are a member organization with nearly 900 members from across the UK tech sector. Two thirds of those members would fall into the startup or SME category, although we do have the usual big players as members too. Those companies are tech agnostic and work across a whole array of technologies, which of course includes quantum, and they also work across different industries and sectors. We facilitate conversations happening across industry and government with regards to policy that affects technology; that can be anything from the UK data strategy to the innovation strategy. We also get involved in market development across the sector.
What does your role at techUK involve and what is a typical day like for you?
I am part of the tech and innovation team, which started when there were very specific policy issues surrounding emerging and transformative technologies that were becoming increasingly prevalent in conversations happening across our market work and our members wanted to understand more about the emerging technologies and what they might mean. For the last 18 to 24 months, a significant part of my role has been about understanding the UK quantum ecosystem and how we can get the UK tech sector engaged in this world.
No two days are the same for me, I really love my role because of the variety it offers. Typically, my day would involve talking and working with our members to understand their thoughts and opinions and some of the issues that they are facing around, in this case, quantum technologies. This happens through different means of engagement, such as conferences, roundtables, workshops and so on. It involves trying to find different ways of understanding what the UK tech sector wants in order to drive forward quantum technologies in the UK and to really help the commercialisation process of quantum technology.
There is a clear policy element to my role too and at techUK we have a Quantum Working Group. This is a group of members who are at the heart of the quantum ecosystem and together we work very closely with the UK Government to make clear recommendations of what the UK tech sector needs. Recently we published our quantum commercialisation report which has 20 recommendations of how we can unlock commercialisation of quantum technologies here in the UK. If you want to gain a good understanding of what the UK tech sector thinks about quantum I recommend you read it!
I think it is useful to say that people often think that quantum as a sector is highly technical, which it is, but people often forget that you do not have to always have the technical skills to be involved. While I do not have a technical background, it is my role to understand as much as I possibly can about this technology and digest and communicate it in a way that helps UK policymakers or businesses to be able to make informed decisions about that technology. It is not my job to explain how a quantum computer necessarily works but it is my job to explain what will happen when these machines arrive and the benefits they will unlock, alongside any challenges.
Your portfolio includes emerging and transformative technologies such as Quantum Technologies, High Performance Computing and Cloud Computing, but what is it that excites you most about quantum and is there a particular aspect of quantum technologies that you are especially excited to see commercialised in the years to come?
One thing that really excites me about quantum is the opportunities it is going to unlock more broadly across the UK tech sector. I am excited about how quantum is going to work with other technologies such as cloud computing, how it is going to advance machine learning and AI, and what it is going to bring when it converges with high performance computing. I am not only excited by the new use cases, such as for pharmaceuticals and drug discovery, but about how it is going to take technologies that we are already working with to a whole new level.
I am also excited about how these technologies can mitigate climate change. Technologies can really help with this issue and there is fantastic work happening with companies looking at how quantum algorithms and quantum technologies can help through things such as battery research and carbon capture. Riverlane, which is a UK company, has been doing significant amount of work on this for several years now, and whilst a lot of that is still in its early days, the UK government is investing in how quantum technologies like this can help mitigate climate change and it would just be fantastic if this is something that can be scaled up.
As you mentioned, techUK has released the report ‘Quantum Commercialisation: Positioning the UK for success’, what were the biggest take home messages for you after compiling this? Which of the 20 recommendations do you think are most important for the government to consider when writing the next UK Quantum Strategy?
I would say every recommendation! However, if I had to choose one is that across all technologies and especially quantum, we are experiencing a skills gap and there are things that we can do now and in the long term to make sure that we are getting talented people working here in the UK. Firstly, we need to make it as accessible as possible for startups to attract and hire talent into the UK. A permissive visa process would help with this and would also help startups to offer internships for people who are still in education across the world. This would help talent to be able to get a taste of the UK industry and understand what is happening here. We also need to build greater connections domestically in the UK between industry and academia. I think we are already good at this but we need to consider how the government can support industry placements within companies. Crucially, and more long term, we need to get more people into STEM careers generally. There is a problem in this country where some schools are unable to offer physics GCSE courses because there are not enough specialist teachers to teach them, this limits who can enter careers in quantum and we need to try to rectify this and help to get people from under represented groups, and women, into careers in tech. We need to get more people into STEM early on, however, we also need to make sure that those who did not go into STEM originally but who want to transition across either at university or later in life have the opportunities to upskill and do so.
What transferrable skills do you think you have gained throughout your career and which are the most important ones for someone hoping to fulfil a similar role?
As I mentioned, technical skills are important, but there are other paths into quantum. We need people with what I’d call ‘socio-technical’ and ‘socio-ethical’ skills and by these, I mean business development skills, good communication and writing skills and so on. For my role specifically, it is key to be able to articulate and communicate all the fantastic work that those at a technical level are doing to those who do not have a technical background.
In the techUK report, we talk about the concept of responsible innovation and how companies can take practical steps to bring ethical and social considerations into their work. I highly recommend that all businesses working in the quantum space have someone who can look at responsible innovation and practicalities around this new technology. As part of this, I think there is a huge role for people who can bring those socio-ethical skills and understanding of ethics to the sector to unlock innovation in the right way.
What experiences would be valuable to someone hoping to move into a role like yours in the field of quantum?
I think it would be useful to reach out to organisations like techUK, which are bringing the tech and innovation world and the policy world together. We have lots of resources on our website which will help people to develop the base level knowledge around these technologies and which will help them to understand what is happening in this space. I would also say, have a look at some of the work and resources produced by the UK Quantum Technology Hubs because they are great at bringing together industry, academia and policy too. From the policy side of things, if you are interested, nurture that interest. Gain experiences by joining societies, getting involved in politics and even writing articles as all these things will give you valuable skills.
What advice would you give to young people interested in taking up a role like this?
I would say your path is not fixed. I am still quite young and so I don’t know what my future career is going to be like, but if you told a 15-year old me that I would be working in tech policy I wouldn’t believe you as I didn’t even know this type of job existed – and it’s now my dream job! There are always opportunities to upskill, and especially for women in tech; people are here to help to get more people involved so keep a lookout for opportunities and keep an open mind!
You can read techUK’s “Quantum commercialisation: positioning the UK for success report” here.