Iris Schwenk

COO & Co-Founder at HQS Quantum Simulations

Talk to customers early, and find out what they really need. 

Q -Iris, what does HQS do? What’s the elevator pitch?
IS -At HQS our goal is to realise the potential of quantum simulations. This means we make use of quantum mechanical simulations to allow for the development of new and unique materials, which will be for example interesting for the search for new battery materials or for the pharmaceutical industry. Those simulations are based on conventional hardware and on quantum computers. With our software we unlock the immense computing power of quantum computers and bring them to an industrial application.
Q -Where did the idea for HQS come from?
IS -None of the founders wanted a university career. And with the hardware in quantum computing getting more mature we thought “this could really become something. We were beyond theorizing, now it can actually become usable and useful. How cool would that be to be able to bring that to an industrial application?” We thought that this would only be possible if we left the university environment and focused on it with a clear goal.
Q -You were in close contact with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and also participated in an acceleration program there. What was the biggest learning coming from KIT to becoming an entrepreneur?
IS -We didn't know much about entrepreneurship - we knew the technology. So the first step was to apply to the upCAT program, the accelerator program at KIT. We learned a lot about the different aspects of business: most importantly that we would have to talk to customers, which was very hard for us. We thought that we still have so much to develop, so much to do before speaking to customers. We were really stubborn. And upCAT kept telling us: talk to customers early, do workshops, find out what customers really need. And that is exactly what we then started doing and what helped us start and shape our company.
Q -What personality trait has helped you the most in your role as a founder?
IS -What helps me most is my strategic thinking. I can see different options very quickly and then decide which direction I want to go. And that's something we need at HQS all the time. External circumstances change, we grow, or something happens in the team; things are constantly changing. For example, my role now and my role a year ago has changed a lot. Strategic thinking combined with flexibility and agility helps me the most. This is very important for many things, especially when you are in a growth phase.
Q -What is your own personal leadership style? Has it changed, transitioning to a larger company?
IS -We have grown from 20 to 30 people this year which has changed our structure. I haven’t had much time to talk with some new employees yet. It’s quite different from the beginning, where we were all super tight. In terms of leadership style, our approach is actually still the same, sometimes the implementation becomes more difficult. My goal is for people to be self-organized with a high degree of responsibility - I only give direction and orientation. Maybe I’m also involved at the margins, especially when resources are needed to solve problems, but then I don’t get involved with the implementation. We hire people who are experts and know how to solve the problems better than I can.
Our role as the leadership team is to make sure that we don’t drift away from our overarching goals. And that is of course always more difficult with more people. You kind of need freedom to find creative solutions, but you also need a clear direction. And that's exactly what we try to give our employees.
Q -Do you have any daily habits that shape you and your work?
IS -IBefore our daily team meeting, I take the time every morning and go over my schedule: what appointments do I have today? What are the things that really have to be done today? What needs to be done by myself or where can I delegate? Over the course of the day so many things can take away your focus. If I do not have a plan, I can completely lose myself. That’s why this time in the morning is so important.
Q -Did you ever have a mentor? Any advice that you would like to share?
IS -I never had a mentor, but there are quite a few people who have inspired me. One really relevant piece of advice came from my mom when I was a child. "Keep your head up, even if your neck is unwashed." And that has really become so important, because you just can't be perfectly prepared for everything, all of the time. But you can still manage it.
Q -Is there a specific event in your life which made you decide that you want to build a company?
IS -I never thought I would start a company. That wasn't part of my plan, but this opportunity simply arose from my familiarity with this technology. And that it was a great fit with my academic training and with the other co-founders as well. And that's actually something I always do: I see the opportunity and tackle it head-on.
Q -Where do you see the biggest opportunities for quantum computing?
IS -Our main goal is to bring the quantum computer into industrial use. From our point of view, the first and best step is materials research. There are certain smaller problems that can be solved early and can then grow immensely. If, at some point the error-corrected quantum computer does pan out, then a whole set of new possibilities will open up and we will be there. And then the technology will definitely go deeper into more industries: from applications and use cases that are close to the simulation area, such as used in crash simulations. There are also other possibilities in the direction of artificial intelligence issues. And there's a lot more to come.
Q -Is there anything many people might not know about you that you want to share with us?
IS -When I'm trying to grasp or structure something complex, I have to write it down by hand. I did that when I was doing the math for my doctoral thesis and still the more difficult things get, the more I write by hand. But sometimes I think "Come on, it's a lot more efficient, I'll just write it in Confluence right now." And in the end I'm sitting in front of the keyboard thinking like “ok there's nothing coming out of this”. As soon as I pick up a pen it flows really easily.

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