The Art of the Pivot: Quantum Startup Makes the Most of I-Corps Training
“Everything I know is wrong.”
Mehdi Namazi, co-founder and Chief Science Officer of I-Corps success story Qunnect, says this was the best attitude to have when entering an I-Corps cohort for the first time.
“If you are starting a program like this and you are coming from any technical background, you are already good at something. But don't assume you're good at everything. On day one, just tell yourself, I don’t know anything, or everything I know is wrong, and I am here to learn.”
“We all come to these programs as experts in our fields,” Namazi explained. “I’m a quantum physicist, so it’s easy to assume that if someone else doesn’t understand my tech, it’s not me, it’s them. But that’s wrong. The customer understands what they need, and they understand their sector. It’s very important to come to these programs modest and understanding that you are entering a new world where you are going to learn.”
Qunnect is developing quantum-secure networking technology designed to be integrated into existing telecom fiber infrastructure. Earlier this year, Qunnect announced its Series A financing of over $8M, led by Airbus Ventures, with additional participation from Quantonation, SandboxAQ, NY Ventures, Impact Science Ventures, and Motus Ventures. Previously, the company had secured several million dollars in state and federal funding from agencies including the Accelerate New York Seed Fund, the US Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the US Air Force.
Qunnect facilitates quantum-memory applications at room temperature—which, brought to scale, would make for a huge leap for quantum technology. With this latest investment, Qunnect is now working to develop its product suite and launch a multi-node R&D quantum network testbed to demonstrate how its products work. This network, connected to existing fiber optic cable in New York City, will be the first of its kind in the US. As described recently in Fast Company, “unlike many quantum machines—often sprawling tabletop contraptions that rely on cryogenic cooling, vacuums, and other delicate equipment—Qunnect’s memory machine operates at room temperature and fits inside a box the size of a large desk drawer.”
Qunnect’s story began when Namazi was working on his PhD in physics at Stony Brook University. He was developing a device that would plug into a telecom structure, allowing for the pairing, or “entanglement” of photons—quantum particles—that are needed to enable quantum communications and encryption. Namazi knew that there would be great potential for commercial application, but also recognized that academia can sometimes have limitations. “I needed a diverse team of talent and entrepreneurial expertise, and for that I needed to get outside the lab,” he said.
Namazi participated in a cohort in 2017, put on by the NYC I-Corps Node, which preceded the NY I-Corps Hub, and in a national I-Corps session the following year.
“At that point it still wasn’t a straightforward path, but we had a better idea of what it could be,” said Namazi. “When you come from academia, you are married to your technology. You’ve likely spent many years on it, so you are biased. But you must be ready to pivot.”
Namazi described the vital role of the customer discovery process in enabling the development of Qunnect’s strategy. “We learned the art of listening, rather than just presenting. For example, we learned that having just one kind of device won’t change much, so now we have six different ones. That’s how the IP evolved.” Of all the patents that Qunnect holds, the company licensed one from the SUNY Research Foundation, and the Qunnect team developed the rest.
The I-Corps approach can be powerful if you are there to learn and get better,” added Namazi. “You must be prepared to receive that feedback, whatever it is. Getting to a ‘no go’ is a good thing because you learn from that as well.”