Dr Zhanet Zaharieva, a St Cross College, Oxford alumna (DPhil, 2018), is the Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Quantum Dice Ltd. Founded in 2019, Quantum Dice Ltd is pioneering the world’s first compact and completely embedded self-certifying Quantum Random Number Generator (QRNG) for wide commercial applications ranging from encrypting highly sensitive data to performing simulations. Their unique innovation produces high-quality, certified randomness from an on-chip device with a unique combination of speed, live quantum assurance, and versatility of integration through their patented, quantum-enabled DISCTM protocol. Quantum Dice’s QRNGs will improve encryption protocols by mitigating the issues with the current algorithm-based (bias) and physical-true methods (hardware attacks on devices). As a company, Quantum Dice aims to secure a connected future by safeguarding data and communications networks.
Alongside managing operations, Zhanet is part of the business development team where she is actively working on developing the hardware/cloud encryption, quantum computing as well as government and defence sectors to enable the commercial adoption of Quantum Dice’s QRNGs in their direct and end-user markets by setting up key collaboration opportunities.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
As a Quantum Nanotechnologist, I have long years of extensive academic experience in designing nanomaterials for a wide variety of applications ranging from biotechnologies to clean energy and clean water. During my PhD, I specialized in the development of novel quantum nanomaterials with unique optoelectronic and physicochemical properties for applications such as thin-film solar cells and bioimaging agents. I am naturally passionate about translating quantum scientific discoveries into real-world applications. Stimulated by my PhD research resulting in a patent application as the inventor, I have started thinking that we as scientists have bigger responsibilities than just simply getting a degree. Making discoveries and being recognized by the scientific community is a great and important achievement for scientists, but I think that the scientific discoveries we make should not only have personal but a wider benefit to society. This is how I started considering founding a company based on my research.
I started looking for specialized entrepreneur’s programs in Oxford but none of the programs back then were offering these exclusive courses. One month before my graduation, I took part in Oxford University Innovation’s Student Entrepreneur’s Programme (StEP Ignite). Attending StEP allowed me to apply my skills from my previous academic experience and was a stepping stone for me to develop my commercial skills and further my growing interest in technology venture creation. As a result, I co-founded Quantum Dice with an amazing team of early-stage entrepreneurs equally dedicated to commercialising quantum technologies because we are eager to see our innovative QRNG technology come to life addressing some of the most pressing security obstacles of modern-day encryption.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is applying critical thinking for solving business challenges by combining knowledge, circumstances, requirements, organization of resources, and analysis of risks to achieve a certain vision with a bigger impact on the world.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The best ideas and discoveries don’t necessarily get realised if you don’t have the support from the right team who share similar passions and drive. Throughout the StEP program, I had many chances and various situations to be convinced that my team members are the type of partners with whom I share the same passion and drive for transforming our technology into an actual commercial product. Therefore, we have been able to get along with one another very quickly, although we had never met before, identifying the strong translational skills that each one of us developed throughout our studies and previous experiences, and very precisely identify our strongest areas which helped us to distribute tasks accordingly. Being able to make this analysis from the very beginning of our work together, helped us first, win the StEP program and receive small equity funding for the company and afterward, decide to pursue this innovation further dedicating our full-time to exploring the full potential of this great opportunity that has been given to us by OUI.
Since starting Quantum Dice, I strongly believed that our technology is superior to what we have seen on the market providing a unique combination of features such as speed, security, and embedded design that are valuable across various sectors where RNs are essential and therefore, this is what makes me excited about bringing this technology for wider commercial adoption.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
It is very difficult to just pick three! Entrepreneurship is related to transforming ideas, knowledge, scientific discoveries into real-world commercial applications or products. Therefore, my interpretation of entrepreneurship can be described as a combination of a few important drives or skills that each entrepreneur should possess. First and most important, entrepreneurship starts with an idea or an innovation in mind which can then be translated into an actual product. However, to turn this hypothetical innovation or vision into something real, you must be able to overcome various obstacles related to the commercialising process. Learning from the previously generated knowledge of other great entrepreneurs can help you overcome the obstacles you face setting up your own business. Therefore, the ability to research, quickly analyse, and synthesize new information at the highest level is key for developing the right strategy and vision.
You should always be pushing yourself to be creative and thinking outside the box. In other words, imagining something that has not been discovered yet or finding a solution that hasn’t be applied yet can be the game-changing factor for translating your hypothetical vision into a viable reality, because the potential for realising an idea goes as long as our imagination can go.
Of course, this whole process is not necessarily going to be straightforward no matter how innovative or critically thinking we are, and as such entrepreneurs have to be persevering and keep going if they believe in the success of their inventions.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite part of being an entrepreneur is having the freedom of being innovative and creative by applying my transferable skills which I gained through my previous academic and personal experiences to solving business challenges and navigating my work. This is what I have enjoyed doing the most throughout my academic studies which helped me to innovate by further developing my creativity and from there my ability to find various solutions for challenging scientific problems allowing me to make significant scientific discoveries in the field of quantum nanomaterials.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I will not answer this question with a specific name of an individual or organization because they are too many. I would rather share a more general description with you. People that inspire me the most are the ones sharing the same vision we have at Quantum Dice—the vision of securing our society from malicious attacks being related to compromising personal data, national security, and infrastructure, communications, etc. providing a safer place for everyone where they can live, work, create, innovate, inspire other people and most importantly feel safe. My main goal as an entrepreneur is to create trust in our society and public support for the humanitarian-development of our society. Therefore, I will be more than happy to meet with anyone who shares a similar humanitarian vision and to learn from their expertise and experience.
I would also like to thank all our partners for recognising the benefits we are bringing in with our innovative QRNG technology by supporting us to realise its full potential in sharing in our vision.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would love to create a strategy through which we could work together to bring our vision into reality.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
There have been many! I am very proud of myself for not being afraid to jump into a new field and quickly learn to get my hands-on experience with both the technology as well as the business side of the venture. I am also proud of the way me and my co-founders have handled the running of our company throughout the pandemic. We have been very dynamic in designing new strategies for growing the business. I would say that one of the most successful moments for me was bringing Quantum Dice’s QRNG technology to life—from the lab to the hands of our customers.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Luckily, there haven’t been any major mistakes. However, I do think that you need the ability to adapt to unexpected situations and have the willingness to devise and test new ideas. Also, having resilience with respect to your business goals and making correct initial analyses, will almost certainly prevent potential failures.
How have you funded your ideas?
We have been able to access different funding resources through government grants, prizes, and investment funding to accelerate the work we are doing at Quantum Dice.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Since we started Quantum Dice, we’ve reached some important milestones. We won the StEP pitching competition receiving equity funding from Oxford Science Innovation which helped us to start the initial R&D work on our first commercial device.
In terms of government funding, we have been awarded an Innovate UK (IUK) grant to participate in a consortium led by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to develop standardisation protocols for QRNG standards.
In addition, we won a few other IUK grants to conduct a tailored QRNG market study across various sectors as well as a customer discovery grant generating leads within our key markets.
In addition, Quantum Dice has also gained access to world-leading incubators such as the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre at the University of Bristol and Creative Destruction Lab’s Quantum Stream in Toronto.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Being in Oxford is great! Oxford has this special energy which is generated by all the people coming across different fields. It provides you with a lifetime opportunity to engage with world-leading academics, scientists, industry experts as well as visitors from across the globe through various events. Being part of this wider Oxford community can help entrepreneurs access the right resources and help by engaging and learning from people with the necessary expertise.
Assistance with funding is also an advantage of being based in Oxfordshire. Many government funding consortia require accreditation partners from either academia or industry for their grants. And what better way to make your application stand out than to have an Oxford academic credit your idea!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would strongly encourage early-stage entrepreneurs to take advantage of the wide variety of incubators and accelerators that are available for early-career entrepreneurs, which can provide them with the basis for accelerating their ideas into viable ventures. Therefore, the first stops I would recommend would be OUI and their StEP incubation program and the Oxford Foundry’s OXFO Elevate acceleration program. Some of these programs would usually do a small equity investment in return.
If an equity investment is not desirable, I would point them in the direction of equity-free programs like the Creative Destruction Labs (CDL), based at the Saïd Business School. The newly started CDL-Oxford program is the first CDL site in Europe and aims specifically to assist science and technology start-ups. There are various streams that you can take part in such as AI, Health, FinTech, and Climate, all of which act as great opportunities to accelerate ideas.
Alternatively, entrepreneurs can apply for government funding. Forming consortia with accredited partners both from academia and industry could help them increase their chances of securing government grants and funding their ventures. What could be an easier way for forming a consortium than having access to Oxford academics?
Attending events and showcases where founders can get exposure of their technologies to the wider public expanding the visibility of their companies is key. For example, this is how we got the invitation by the NPL to participate in a consortium by showcasing our QRNG at the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Showcase.
Last but not least, I would encourage entrepreneurs to become members of some community platforms expanding their network. Oxford Entrepreneurs Networks is a great example. For those interested in quantum technologies, I would recommend exploring the OneQuantum community which is a platform providing a specifically designed package of opportunities both for women and men.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
There could be a wide variety of challenges for becoming an entrepreneur and they are not necessarily gender-specific. I think that taking the first step towards becoming an entrepreneur could be the most challenging; have the courage to try something different going outside your specialties, going outside your comfort zone. For example, many scientists especially those who have spent years in academia, including myself, might feel more comfortable to continue pursuing academic careers although their willingness or interest to “experiment in a new field”. I would say that taking this first step is always the most challenging.
Fortunately, I don’t feel that I have experienced any challenges as being a woman entrepreneur. What matters most to me is how I am performing and challenging myself as a person; using my knowledge, skills, and experiences (from academia and industry) to enhance my personal growth in line with my values. We as human beings irrelevant to our gender possess a unique combination of skills gained throughout our academic, industrial, and personal growth. Therefore, I am opposed to thinking that there are certain benefits that only women or men can bring into the business but rather there are benefits that we as individuals possess and can let other people benefit from.
However, I would like to share a personal motivational thought for which I got inspired by having a conversation with my dad: “Just as every woman is called to be the bearer of the future, so is every successful woman an example of the future of all women”. I hope that my thought will inspire other women to be strong and confident in pursuing their career goals.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I would encourage women to become members of some community groups expanding their network of individuals. I am happy to say that I have been able to meet and engage with many inspiring women and men across quantum through the OneQuantum community platform, for example, which is accessible for anyone active or interested in Quantum Tech regardless of their background, skills, origin, gender, race, etc. who are actively contributing for the development of this emerging tech field.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Support can be interpreted as the catalysis for success and the most valuable remedy for treating stress especially in the early stages of entrepreneurship. The University of Oxford is already doing great initiatives providing Oxford’s students (both female and male) with entrepreneurship opportunities through their incubation and acceleration programs.
According to me, we don’t have to create tailored gender-specific support only for women entrepreneurs but combine our resources for the development of support initiatives for entrepreneurs. Instead, I would recommend the development of more programmes that aim to tailor ideas into business opportunities. Personally, I think a good initiative for the University of Oxford would be the creation of knowledge transfer groups with MBA students at Saïd Business School. Something that is provided through the Liber Project but taking a step back where Oxford’s students (who are at the early idea stages) can get advice from the MBA students on the business side of the commercial opportunity helping them first, understand the basis of the commercial process and second, help them tailer their ideas and technologies into business propositions. This initiative could be realised by organising more frequent entrepreneurial events, regular discussion groups, and webinars with invited key-note speakers (i.e. business experts) allowing Oxford students to expand their networks thus immersing themselves quickly into the business world.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
There will be many challenges along the way, but based on my experience, I would like to say that women are more than capable of overcoming those challenges and being equally successful to their male colleagues. They should believe in their capabilities and just keep going, taking it step by step each day, towards their entrepreneurial goals.
Any last words of advice?
Future entrepreneurs have to be certain in why they want to become entrepreneurs and what they want to achieve as becoming entrepreneurs. In my opinion, what better inspiration and motivation than bringing their unique ideas, research, and technologies for wider commercial adoption which can help our society keep innovating across various fields.