‘You will be great cashed out to have’. Benno Broer (47) heard this from many people around him, after it was announced last Tuesday that his Amsterdam tech company Qu&Co was merging with the French computer manufacturer Pasqal. But unfortunately, Broer sees “not so many gingerbread cookies” from the deal he concluded with his co-founder Vincent Elfving, he says in an hour-long video call – just over a week after the announcement. Pasqal and Qu&Co merge and Broers shares are converted into Pasqal shares, a company that is not listed on the stock exchange. “In practice, my bank account is still as empty or full as before.”
Qu&Co is one of the European forerunners in one of the most hyped technologies of the moment. The company, which does not disclose turnover figures, is building software for the quantum computer: a device that has only recently taken its first steps outside the university research labs and is still far from mature. Google, Alibaba and IBM, among others, are investing billions in technology, which has the potential to revolutionize cryptography, drug development and our financial system.
It works something like this. While computers currently still consist of bits that can take on a value of 0 or 1, quantum computers consist of qubits, which are partly 1 and partly 0 and thus can perform multiple calculations at the same time.
This means that a future quantum computer will in theory be thousands of times more powerful than the computers as we know them today. In June last year, a Chinese prototype already managed to solve an extremely complicated calculation, which now takes a computer eight years, in an hour.
This potentially entails great new applications (think of much more detailed weather forecasts or climate models) – and at the same time also major risks. If the current pace of innovation in the quantum world continues, it is not inconceivable that the most commonly used forms of electronic security will soon be within reach. no time can be cracked by a quantum computer.
The technology is not that far yet. It is even unclear which type of quantum technology will win exactly. Scientists and companies around the world are now investigating the most appropriate way to squeeze as many qubits as possible into a working device and ways to do those calculations without error. That means: a lot of activity, many start-ups and a lot of interest from investors looking for a participation in a potentially new billion-dollar company.
Ask Broer about the latest developments in quantum technology and things quickly get complicated. The conversation goes from neutral atom qubits nasty multi-qubit gates, from the quantum internet to horizontal (and vertical) scaling, cloud processors, cryostats, photons and cooling wafers to -273 degrees Celsius. Something of which Broer himself notes that this “may not mean much to the readers of your newspaper, but it can potentially change the world”.
It is clear that Broer took a remarkable step by merging with Pasqal (together they have more than sixty employees, fifty of whom have a PhD). A step that was welcomed with relief in Europe, which has few large tech companies and tries hard not to miss the boat with quantum technology. Because if Broer had opted for ‘pepernoten’ and sold his company to American parties, who knocked on his door ‘with a big bag of money’, Europe would have been put back again.
Pasqal’s goal is now, with Broer as the new commercial director and headquartered in Paris, to create ‘a European champion’, who builds both hardware and software in order to be able to compete with the Americans. Broer will continue to lead the Amsterdam office, which is now part of Pasqal and aims to expand from 15 to 75 employees in the coming years.
How do you make such a choice?
“We were approached by some major American hardware makers who wanted to take us over. We noticed that they were especially interested in our patents, in the developers we employ and in our customers. Then you know that you are not going to last in such a club as a small player. After six months, all your employees and customers have been swallowed up and you can close the door behind you. I thank you for that.”
How hard is that? You would have become a millionaire if you had been bought out by a large American company.
“It’s nice to have a million in your bank account, but if you have to give up your dream for that, that’s… yes … a bit of a shame.”
Broer studied physics at TU Delft with ‘Quantum Transport’ as his expertise, but then worked for nearly twenty years as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group and the consultancy firm Het Strategiekantoor he founded. “I started Qu&Co because I was intellectually bored as a consultant,” he says of that period. “As far as I’m concerned, the new challenge that I have found in quantum will continue for as long as possible. And if this is a big flop, something else will come.”
Does your environment understand this? The culture in the world of start-ups is: you have succeeded if you get out and sell your company for a lot of money
“I think that’s quite a narrow view. You want to achieve something, set something up, don’t you? It’s great that your company is worth something in the meantime, but that shouldn’t be your main motivation. The quantum sector holds the promise of having a real impact on the world. We were there early and can continue to play at the top. We really have influence. I would never have been able to do that if I had started the twentieth Facebook or the umpteenth webshop.”
More about quantum research: ‘Delft researchers are taking a step forward with their quantum computer’
Getting rich shouldn’t be a goal in itself, you mean?
“During my studies I knew a few guys who started a snack bar next to the station in Delft. After a few years they were completely gone. I see people in my area who were involved in crypto a few years ago and are now very rich. I’m just saying, there are easier ways to get rich. Very nice, but I don’t find it that intellectually challenging. I live in a world where things either really work out or nothing at all. If that’s the case, I’m left with nothing and I’m going to do something else.”
There are hardly any large European tech companies. How can Europe win the battle against the Americans? Take more risks? Burn more money?
“It depends. When we started in 2017, we made a profit in the first few years. I thought: let’s see how long we can last without investments. You never see that in start-ups, that they earn money and support themselves. That was possible then, but a lot has changed in recent years.”
“The Americans have an enormous amount of money and in recent years have been looking more and more for companies to buy. As a result, we in Europe have to participate in that game. By raising a lot of money, you as a company are worth a lot of money, it is more difficult to take over and you can become the acquiring party yourself. That can be a good strategy. But raising money blindly and burning it because that’s the way it is supposed to be as a start-up, I think is very stupid. You have to know why you are raising financing.”
How is it possible that Europe is bursting with top scientists, but the largest tech companies are not European?
“Being European has many advantages, but there is also a lot wrong with our ecosystem. There is little willingness to take risks and everyone is allowed to talk about everything in the workplace, which means that companies are less likely to take risks. And Europe is not one Europe. They are all countries. That is a huge hassle just to attract talent. We have employees all over Europe and have to set up a legal entity in each country to handle that.”
“Then there is the culture problem in the academic world. Publishing is very important here. When you talk to scientists in Europe, they have an attitude like: ‘I’m just a scientist and I don’t have much to do with the outside world.’ You are a scientist, you were the king of quantum research for years, and then you see people messing around in a lab in America. They put some screws in it, call it a system and then you shout: ‘That’s not right at all and will never work out.’ We sometimes suffer from academic arrogance and that stands in the way of entrepreneurship.”
There was a lot of anger when Shell and Unilever decided to withdraw from the Netherlands. Now you do the same, you are blamed.
“I have heard that comment with some astonishment. We started this business ourselves. Have never asked for or received a subsidy from the Dutch government. Then I find it interesting that I should apparently feel morally obliged to remain Dutch. That is different from Shell and Unilever, which have enjoyed major tax benefits for years.”
“If we want to succeed as Europe, we have to think differently. This is a global market and we should be happy if we can win it at European level. If we do it at country level, it will never work. If we had not merged with the French, we would have remained a small SME. Soon we will have a department of a very large European company in Amsterdam. What do you prefer?”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 22 January 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 22, 2022
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