When a recruiter from the quantum computing startup IonQ first reached out to Peter Chapman, he thought: “geeze, you must be able to find someone who has more quantum experience than I do.”
At the time, he was working as the director of engineering at Amazon Prime, the retailer’s premium membership program. After spending nearly five years at Amazon, he wanted to try something new, and started looking at the possibility of getting back to his startup roots.
But little did he know that he would end up becoming the CEO of a quantum computing startup. IonQ announced Chapman’s new role as CEO on May 21, as co-founder and former CEO Christopher Monroe takes the new title of Chief Scientist.
“After you conquer one thing, I’m always looking for something new to learn,” Chapman told Business Insider. “After five years at Amazon, I think I kind of mastered that. Now is time for something new. Quantum computers is definitely something new.”
Right now, the industry is preparing for the rise of quantum computing, the young but promising market in which IonQ will eventually take on companies like IBM, Google, and Microsoft, as well as startups like IonQ. To date, IonQ has taken in $20 million in venture capital funding, from investors including GV (formerly Google Ventures).
Although quantum computers are still in the early stages of development, they have special properties would make them exponentially more powerful than regular computers, opening the door to solving complicated problems in chemistry, drug discovery, finance, and more.
At the same time, IonQ has been in research and development mode for the past few years. In Chapman, the startup found a CEO with both an engineering background, and experience taking cutting-edge technology to market.
“The founders are experts in the field, but we were getting to the point where it was time to move from the lab to commercialization,” Chapman said. “That’s one of the things I excel at. They needed help there to make that transition. We’re taking the technology out of the lab and into the commercial world.”
Warming up the ‘quantum winter’
Experts say despite the hype around quantum computing, we won’t see quantum computers hit the mainstream for at least another five to 10 years. In fact, they coined a term for this gap between expectations and reality: “quantum winter,” the current period in which the technology seems so close, and yet so far.
Now that he’s heading a quantum computing company, Chapman says people in the industry need to be careful about setting expectations, as there’s a “tremendous amount of hype.”
He recalls a similar “AI winter” back when he was in school, at a time when it seemed impossible for artificial intelligence to match the hype. When he was 16, he worked at an artificial intelligence lab at MIT.
“I thought to myself that it was ridiculous that what people were saying could be done in AI,” Chapman said. “It was completely obvious that people were overhyping it.”
Nowadays, however, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Chapman’s former employers at Amazon are all betting big on artificial intelligence as the future of their businesses.
That being said, he believes IonQ’s founders have been careful about educating people and carefully setting realistic expectations around where the industry is at in quantum computing.
A chance to ‘change the world’
Chapman says that he’s still learning something new about quantum computing every day, and expects that to continue for years to come. Going forward, he anticipates that achieving profitability will be a challenge for IonQ, even as it goes up against the quantum computing efforts of larger tech titans like Microsoft or IBM.
“They have deep pockets and we don’t,” Chapman said. “My challenge is to turn those companies from enemies to frenemies.”
Although he had several offers, he decided to go for the opportunity to lead IonQ because he believed it would “do some amazing things,” and he liked the challenge of entering a completely new, little explored field — an opportunity to “change the world.”
“In most areas of science, they already have names associated with the leaders of that area,” Chaman said. “In quantum, that’s pretty much a blank slate. It’s a chance to make a mark on history. What you can do in quantum computing, it seems like it can change the future trajectory of mankind.”
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