On your wavelength

Interactions: Niccolo Somaschi

Niccolo studied physics at the University of Milano-Bicocca before joining a Marie Skłodowska-Curie PhD program at the University of Southampton and the FORTH research institute in Greece and then joining the group of Prof. Pascale Senellart at the Centre of Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies (CNRS & Université Paris-Sud) in Paris as a postdoctoral researcher. In 2017 he co-founded Quandela, a spinoff company from the same institute, that  fabricates and commercialises top-class quantum light sources to boost the development of quantum technologies from quantum computation to quantum communication and quantum sensing, and contribute to their spread outside the academic world.

How did you decide to embark on the adventure of creating a start-up? 

The choice of creating Quandela came directly and pretty naturally following the reaction to  the dissemination of some scientific results we achieved in 2016 on a new kind of semiconductor quantum light source, the core technology on which the group of Prof. Pascale Senellart works since 15 years. The reaction of the international quantum optics community was really unexpected: while people at conferences were taking pictures of the results, requests for collaboration were filling Pascale’s email inbox. The performance of our devices was in fact much better than that of the technologies (laser based) that researcher were using on a daily basis for their experiments, which normally last for several hours and in some cases even weeks. Their excitement was due to a simple fact: switching to the new technology would allow them to reduce the measurement’s time to few minutes or hours, allowing the design of more complex experiments to explore new regimes and new science.

As I was directly involved in the development of these devices and excited about the possibility of actively contributing to boost the field of quantum technologies, I tried to explore ways to continue working for the group as a permanent researcher. As for many others postdocs, this route proved to be non-viable. The creation of a self-sustained company aside the research group represented a good choice for two reasons: I could work to improve the technology, and at the same time we could assist the numerous interested researchers by providing them with devices without turning the research group in a fabrication facility. When I went to see Pascale proposing this idea she simply replied with a big smile, which was the best answer I could get.  We then asked Valerian Giesz, who together with Pascale and myself was at the origin of the latest developments, to join us in the project; and this is how the adventure started.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to start the company? 

I would say that luckily we didn’t really have to face any big challenge. For me, the challenge was more psychological. Compared to the standard academic path, with well-defined projects and a clear progression with bachelor, master, PhD and postdoc, a start-up requires a totally different mind-set. I had to mentally prepare to achieve ‘multi-tasking on multi-domains’; dealing with unexpected, quick changes of any sort (bureaucratic, scientific, legal etc…); learn how to face good and bad news on a daily basis with the consequent sudden mood  changes; cope with uncertainty (“it will fail! No, it will be a success!”, “I will be unemployed soon! No, we will become …”) never knowing on how long it would take to reach our objectives. Besides, Valerian and I didn’t have a permanent position in any university or a job in a company, unlike several other quantum ‘start-uppers’, nor a big investor group that could safely fill our pockets from day zero while we learned how to move the first steps. At the same time, we were self-conscious that we were leaving academia for something that most people would define as ‘crazy science fiction’. But excitement and motivation never lacked and this temporary stressful situation ended when some pieces started to get into place, clearing the path ahead.

Can you share one positive and one negative side of the experience that you weren’t expecting? 

Most probably the negative experience I was not expecting is yet to come — hopefully I may never have to discover it. But surely the positive one is related to the human side of the adventure. In particular the personal relations constantly developing within Quandela, together with new unexpected ones with people we connected with during this first year and new people we keep meeting. Besides, I could not expect at all the great excitement of the first users who are taking advantage of the capabilities of the devices working at full regime; this was the best reward for the hard work of a year.

What are your tips for academics who are thinking of starting their own company? 

Very few tips, but very clear. Discuss with as many people as possible who have launched a company or participated in the process. Listen carefully to all the good, negative and scary stories while focusing on what is your actual final goal. Finally, find someone you trust and share your vision, and actually do it. Because at the end, wherever the adventure may lead, it is always fun to go, and the experience of doing it is already worth the journey.

Finally, what is the origin of the name Quandela?

The toughest part for sure! To quote a colleague, “getting a good name is much harder than finding the ones of my three children”…
We had few months of brainstorming putting down keywords and names, sometimes in a  totally random way; we got some nice ones, but most of them were bad. We got also several names with unwanted, embarrassing double meanings, resulting from mixing French, Italian, English and Greek. But finally Valerian came up with Quandela, and that was it. Because Candela is the unit of measure of light intensity and the word for ‘candle’ in Italian. The micrometre shape of our device is cylindrical, looking indeed like a candle, with quantum light emitted from its top, like a flame. Besides, the actual intensity of the emitted quantum light is one of its top features. Shortly afterwards, while we were in the middle of the process of officially creating the company, we read a report of the European commission on quantum technologies where someone was suggesting a new unit of measure for quantum light…. Quandela.

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