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Case study: ORCA Computing

Co-founder Richard Murray details the importance of “learning and evolving” to innovate successfully.

About your organisation

ORCA Computing is a spin-off from the University of Oxford, and now based in West London. ORCA has developed a completely new quantum computing architecture for machine learning based on single photons, optical fibre, and proprietary quantum memory technology. ORCA has 14 full-time employees across the UK, Poland, the US, and Canada.

What are the physics-based technologies that you are developing in your business?

ORCA is heavily investing in cutting-edge science to bring its technologies to market. The company sits at the interface of atomic and quantum optical physics, high-speed electronics and optical networking systems, quantum theory and computer science.

Unique to ORCA is a new photonic quantum computing architecture based on quantum memory technology. The memory stores single photons within a gas of atoms. It can also release them instantaneously, giving a very high efficiency source of high-quality single photons, which are a key resource for photonic quantum computing. ORCA also relates that hardware to quantum theory and computer science to create ways to process information faster and more efficiently than ever before.

What was your innovation journey like?

ORCA was founded based on academic work funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s National Quantum Programme’s investment in the networked quantum information technologies hub, bringing together quantum memory and quantum information science research activities, which identified an opportunity to use quantum memories for computing systems.

However, it was also the coming together of myself as ORCA’s CEO, and the two academics Professor Ian Walmsley and Dr Josh Nunn, that gave birth to ORCA Computing. To this day, ORCA seeks to bring very talented scientists and engineers together with commercial and industrial experts. In setting up the company, three patents were licensed from the University of Oxford. At first, a one-year ‘express’ licence was taken out, which will now convert into a full exclusive licence agreement in the next months.

There is a limit to the number of PhD physicists, engineers, project managers, and salespeople we can find. We find it a challenge to find people with experience working with highly technical scientific and technology-based projects, who have also spent a lot of time working in fast-paced start-up environments, bringing technical or highly scientific products to market.

ORCA Computing equipment with buttons and an information screen

The company is both privately and government funded on the private side, there are a number of investment firms and venture capitalists with an interest in quantum computing and on the public investment side, we have seven Innovate UK grants, which remain a critical form of support for the company. We have just applied to lead one more Innovate UK project. We have also applied for our first year of R&D tax credits this year.

ORCA continues to employ a highly collaborative ‘open innovation’ approach. We have partnered with several academic groups on certain technologies which are too long term for the company to be able to resource at this point in time. We try where possible to employ an ‘agile’ methodology to our research, looking to bring products to market quickly, and then relying on customer feedback to inform the next, quick iteration of the product.

“Being at the forefront of technology requires the company to never stop thinking, learning, and evolving to accommodate new opportunities.”

– Richard Murray, co-founder and CEO, ORCA Computing

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

Our approach is to be agile and customer-focused in everything we do. We are always looking for external validation of our approach and are keen to explore the likely external drivers on our work, for example, understanding the current high-performance computing industry, understanding current solutions, and understanding the requirements of future systems. We borrow techniques from the field of systems engineering, looking to, for example, define requirements before significant technical work is undertaken.

We model ourselves on the structure of innovative digital companies. We define each individual’s overall objectives and then provide ample space to allow them to be creative and find their own solutions. In this way, we empower employees to think for themselves and find solutions to the difficult challenges without too much top-down interference.

The challenge for any innovative business, however, is how to marry this freedom with a sense of focus and coordination. This is why we constantly discuss likely sources of distraction and what our priorities should be, which are then embedded in the objective setting.

It takes constant attention to keep the ship pointing in the right direction and to keep everyone focused on the next big company milestone, such as delivering a demonstrator to show to a customer or investor.

How have you gained the skills and knowledge to drive out innovation?

I believe that within an innovative company, the most critical skill is to be constantly hungry to learn. If the leadership want the employees to be curious and to learn, these learning traits must start with the leadership; they should be the ones who ask the most questions.

This might mean speaking to customers as soon as possible, or being confident enough to ask ‘why’ when no one else does. That learning applies as much to operational questions as it does to fundamental scientific and technical questions. I’m just as curious about minimising our risk exposure through a challenging technology project, as I am about finding a new material of component that we can source and test.

We give employees ample opportunities to ‘learn on the job’, which we prefer, where we can, to structured training. However, we still have a culture of providing feedback and providing reward that makes this an effective method of learning.

What has the result of your journey been?

We are still on the journey to build our first generation of the product (minimum viable product). However, already, ORCA has a very high output of patents (one patent filed, two more in preparation), and a high level of employee satisfaction and recruitment. Already the research outputs of the company have been excellent, achieving the same results in the ORCA lab in six months that would take three years in a usual academic environment.

The company has already secured significant interest from some of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies. This will lead us into our first round of venture capital financing in late 2021, which is already going well.

ORCA also won an Institute of Physics business start-up award in 2020.

What tips would you give to businesses developing commercial services underpinned by physics and requiring innovation?

Leaders must share a highly curious, ambitious and disruptive vision and culture with their employees in order to make sure that each individual is empowered to develop a new tool that will make a difference to the company, and the world. I have learnt to outsource work which is either more general or less central to the company’s strengths, which in our case has been finance, marketing, and legal, so that this culture is never diluted.

But never ever lose sight of the customer and what the product looks like, and what the value will be. That way you can adapt your assumptions and trial your route to market, way before the technology really ‘exists’ (in physical form).

  • These case studies were commissioned by the IOP from CBI Economics