When Jan Goetz starts to talk about quantum technology, his tone rises. As a quantum physicist and the CEO of Helsinki-based quantum computing company IQM, it’s a topic close to his heart. It is also a topic he is used to explaining, a lot.
It wasn’t always this way. Goetz wasn’t “a young scientist” growing up in Germany. Yes, he was good at maths and physics, but sports were his passion. Goetz rowed at a competitive level and trained nine times per week. His excitement for science began at university and blossomed into quantum physics only with a late change to his post-graduate thesis after being inspired by his professor.
That decision took Goetz down unexpected paths. He came to Finland in 2016 to do post-doctoral research at Aalto University. At that point, entrepreneurship hadn’t even crossed Goetz’s mind. Still, here he is today, running a technology startup that has raised 71 million euros in funding to date. In four years, it has built a team of over 130 people spread across Helsinki, Munich, Bilbao and Paris.
Goetz approaches entrepreneurship like a scientist: as a problem to solve. Part of this problem solving is being present where decisions are made. Consequently, Goetz has a lot on his plate. He is a founding member of the Scale-Up Europe initiative and a member of the German Federal Economic Senate. He also serves on the boards of the European Innovation Council (EIC) and European Quantum Industry Consortium (QuIC). The way Goetz sees things, building a thriving quantum ecosystem in Finland and Europe is paramount for everyone’s success.
We met with Jan online to talk about the future of quantum computers, the importance of a strong team and how a PhD is actually great preparation for entrepreneurship.
You are the CEO and co-founder of IQM but also a quantum physicist. What led you to make the leap from a scientist to a deep-tech entrepreneur?
In a sense, I was thrown into cold water. I never planned this. After my PhD, I thought about what my work life should look like. I had several options in industry consulting, but then I realised that, actually, I like science so much that I want to pursue a scientific career. So I decided to do a postdoc, which brought me to Finland.
Usually, you do your postdoc abroad and then settle somewhere as a professor. This was my original plan as well. So I did my postdoc at Aalto University with Mikko Möttönen, professor of quantum technology and one of IQM’s founders.
Back then, there were no plans of starting a company. But during the two years I was working as a postgrad, Mikko was in the background starting the spin–out plans. He wanted to keep his professorship, and, to do both, he needed someone to lead the company.
Around that time, I approached Mikko to discuss where to go after my postdoc. When I went into that discussion, Mikko basically asked me, “why don’t you join me in starting this company and become the CEO”? I thought it was a good opportunity because he had big plans already then. If I stayed on the professor path, maybe I’d have gotten myself one or two PhDs and a little bit of money here and there, but Mikko’s plans were a completely different thing. So I said, okay, let’s try it.
Did you have to think it over at all?
I was already excited about the opportunity during the discussion. Still, I asked Mikko for a night to sleep on it.
I also wanted to discuss with my wife if she was okay with me staying in Finland. She lives in Munich, while I live here and spend 70 per cent of my time here. But IQM also has an office in Munich. So I get to go there from time to time in any case.
We [four co-founders] then started the company and started pitching without any real preparation. It was really learning on the fly. If you are in science, you know how to adapt to your problems because this is what you do all the time. To me, this was just a new problem to solve, a fundraising problem.
So do you see many similarities between working as a scientist and being an entrepreneur?
Yes, there are many similarities. One is working independently on unforeseen problems. Usually, if you work in science you try completely new things and enter uncharted territory.
In a sense, you do a similar thing in entrepreneurship. You go your own way and you get new challenges every day. Also, solving these challenges is similar, either by asking people or getting the skill sets yourself.
This is why a PhD is excellent preparation for becoming an entrepreneur. It doesn’t depend so much on the technology you have studied, but the most important thing is the way of thinking and approaching problems.
Something that isn’t happening so much in science but you need a lot as an entrepreneur is the people aspect. If you lead a company, at some point it becomes all about people. Because you are leading people who are leading people again. You don’t get much education for this during a PhD thesis.
Sounds like it has been a learning process. Any tips to someone new to a leadership role?
Listen to what others are saying and trust people. But the right people, not everyone blindly. So the challenge here is finding the right people.
Anyway, you have to really listen to others. Often problems arise because of miscommunication or misunderstanding. People don’t typically completely disagree, they just tell things in a different way. Being able to understand different parties is a great skill to have.
The listening and trust aspects are very important because it becomes easier to delegate tasks if you do them well. And that is something you’ll have to do. In the beginning, you do everything yourself. You do the financial planning, you talk to the lawyers, you speak to the scientists, but at some point you have to delegate these tasks to people who can do them for you. Everyone has to learn to do this to some extent at least.
Quantum computing is a complex topic and hard for most people to grasp. How do you see it will impact our lives in future?
It will impact everyone’s lives both directly and indirectly. Basically, quantum computing is a novel way of computing to solve the hardest problems in society. This means topics like climate change. We need new solutions and new ways to, for example, harvest energy.
There are many problems so complicated that classical computers will never be able to solve them. This is where quantum computing comes into play. It promises to solve these problems. Some of them will directly affect our lives. For example, imagine yourself in a megacity where you are always stuck in traffic. Then a quantum computer starts in the background to optimise the traffic flow. Now, instead of spending one hour every morning in a traffic jam, you have a smooth way to work. As a result, you are happier or have more time to drink coffee with your colleagues.
The indirect impact comes from quantum computing bringing new solutions. For example, I mentioned climate change. Let’s say quantum computers find new materials for better solar cells or for better heat insulation of buildings. This way they indirectly affect your life because they affect other things, like carbon emissions.
What is IQM’s part in all of this, how are you making this future happen?
We build the systems enabling this future. Quantum computing is, as the word says, based on a machine that computes something. What we currently have is quite a lot of known algorithms [for solving problems with] quantum computers, but the computers we have, also the ones we are running at IQM or others are running, aren’t powerful enough to execute the algorithms at scale. So we need to scale computing power, and this is what we do.
Quantum computers are like classical computer processors, they will grow over time. This is like in classical computing, where there will be a new and more powerful processor every year or so. We are now able to deliver full-stack systems, which means independent computers that work and can compute something. But this ‘something’ is just proof–of–concept algorithms for scientific purposes. They show the system works, but you could still run them on a classical machine.
You can also use them to educate more people. This is actually very important because there is a huge shortage on the people side. There are very few quantum physicists who know how to build such systems. This is why we need real hardware to educate the next generation of talent. This is what we are currently doing. We sell these systems to scientific supercomputing centres or research organisations, like VTT [Technical Research Centre] here in Finland, and they use them to do their own science and educate more people.
They also make the computers available for the whole ecosystem. The idea is that we grow locally an ecosystem containing new industry players.
The nice thing is that this is already happening in Finland. When we were pitching this project, we said when we install this computer you [politicians and decision makers] will see new software startups forming in or coming to Finland. Now we already have two new software startups founded, Quanscient and Algorithmic, on the back of this and another coming from Oxford to Finland. These new quantum systems act like a seed or a cluster for a whole ecosystem to grow.
Are quantum computers ever going to be available for everyone?
You need quite a lot of cash for these systems, they aren’t cheap, but there are hundreds of supercomputing centres worldwide that buy these systems. They can provide computing time to end-users who want to run their applications on quantum systems.
This will happen once the computers are powerful enough for these applications. Then we can open the market of selling computing time, and even small companies or individuals can access these systems remotely and buy computing time. Then it’s affordable for everyone.
Let’s talk a bit more about you. What do you see as your greatest achievement?
IQM is a great company, but I didn’t have to build it myself. I’m one of the contributors. I’m thrilled to be part of it and bring in my ideas. I’d say my greatest achievement here is to work in this team and to make sure we all work together.
This is something that we enjoy doing. It isn’t just some work for us, but there is so much fun in it and all the newcomers who join the company get into this spirit fast. But again, it isn’t that I’m the person who creates this nice working culture alone. There are so many people in it. So I consider being part of all of this as a great achievement for me.
In addition to IQM, you serve on various boards and organisations. Do you have any free time left?
I do work a lot and that’s no secret, but I think I have a sufficient work-life balance. I do quite a lot of sports still. I don’t go rowing anymore, but I do a lot of running and other sports.
I often go hiking in the Alps and in Finland, either in the metropolitan area or in Lapland. Usually, this is how I spend my time off, going into nature running or hiking. Also, seeing my family, which lives in Western Germany, is important to me. I travel regularly there and see my sister, brother and parents and spend time with them.
This brings me back to the beginning, as this only works when you have a good team in place which frees you up, leaving you time for leisure. I really have a great leadership team behind me who takes care of the company [when I’m away], so I don’t need to worry about that. That gives me the freedom to also do other things, which is very important. It all comes down to people.
You’ve lived in Finland since 2017. Is there something that living here has taught you?
Finland has a very similar culture to Germany. The way we approach things, especially on the technical side, is very similar. Germans and Finns have a very analytical way of thinking and implementing plans. I think this creates a lot of trust in the work we do and the technology that we build.
In a way, Finns are happier [than Germans] with their lives. For example, it is the heart of winter now, but Finns are still very good at making the best of it. It is very nice to see that you will always find a good thing or a good angle to different topics. Even though it’s freezing cold, you just kind of drill a hole in the ice and go fishing anyway.
That’s nice to hear, as Finns are often perceived as pessimists
Actually, it’s true. I often see things more positively than my Finnish colleagues in terms of whether we will reach our milestones. But, anyway, they work for it and then we reach those milestones.
Still, with the status quo, they always see the positive things. Maybe they are happy because they have a more pessimistic view. Being pessimistic but still achieving your goals, that is better than if you are super optimistic and then get disappointed.
What are your ambitions or goals for the future?
On the personal side, I’m quite happy with how things are. I did participate in the Helsinki Marathon last year. We did the relay, so I did a quarter of the marathon. Maybe this year I will participate again and beat my time, although I don’t remember what it was.
With the company, we want to keep on building this story. We want to continue bringing in more people to Finland and help them to create their own stories. That’s the main thing. Continuing this work and ensuring everything is running smoothly into the future.
As the last thing I have to ask, do you own a dog? You mention on LinkedIn you love them.
I had a dog during my PhD time which I gave to a good friend in Germany. She is now taking care of her because I just travel too much. Having a dog just doesn’t fit into my lifestyle, but I do visit her whenever I can.