Ever since the release of the movie „Oppenheimer,“ different terms around quantum physics come up in the public discourse more often than usual. However, non-experts usually find it tricky to explain what most of the terms mean.
Luckily, in a recent podcast, we had the privilege of speaking to Sabrina Maniscalco, a leading expert in the field of quantum technology. She is one of the „BOLD Minds“, a representative of the BOLD Community, an initiative of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich or WKO).
Not only is she a professor of quantum information, computing, and logic at the University of Helsinki, but she is also active as a member of the scientific advisory board of several international institutions. Additionally, Maniscalco is the CEO and co-founder of Algorithmiq, a Helsinki-based startup, founded in 2020. It uses quantum computing to revolutionize life sciences. With expertise in quantum information, the startup has raised €3.6 million and focuses on molecular structure prediction, drug development, and materials design. The goal is to accelerate drug discovery and bring real-world impact to the field.
Through insights from this interview with Sabrina Maniscalco, we gain a deeper understanding of the profound impact quantum technologies can have on industries and the inspiring journey of individuals who dare to explore the quantum realm.
Discovering the beauty of nature through science
Reflecting on her journey, Sabrina Maniscalco shares how her fascination with quantum physics started from an early age: „The decision to study quantum physics dates back to when I was around 16 or 17 years old. It all began with my passion for stargazing through a small telescope, spending evenings and nights exploring the starry sky. As I delved deeper, I started reading about topics like black holes, star formations, and the universe, igniting a strong interest in astronomy and astrophysics. When the time came to choose what to study at university, I was initially drawn towards astrophysics. However, my academic path took a different direction as I began my journey as a physics student.“
She adds: „It was during my first quantum physics course that my plans took a significant turn. I found myself falling in love with the beauty of quantum physics and the profound laws of nature it uncovers. This subject fascinated me deeply. In addition, I always loved math. Math is an interesting language, different from what we are used to speaking, but it is a language! Having a good teacher in school and being eager to engage with this language can be fantastic, as it allows you to uncover more about our universe and truly appreciate the exquisite beauty of nature.“
Quantum technology for dummies
As an expert, she is of course able to effortlessly simplify the term quantum physics, which many non-experts out there struggle to define. She explains that quantum technologies stem from the principles of quantum physics, a foundational branch that examines the behavior of tiny particles constituting our universe. Operating at a profound microscopic level, quantum physics reveals the fundamental laws of nature and the deep mechanisms of our universe. While it has marked a significant turning point in scientific history, notably in the last few decades, about 50 to 20 years ago, humans began harnessing quantum mechanics to create new technologies with the potential to revolutionize society.
Practical technologies with the power to reshape society
This emergence is relatively recent in the timeline of quantum physics. Notably, these advancements represent a second quantum revolution, transitioning from an abstract theoretical science to practical technologies with the power to reshape society. As she goes further she reveals that examples of these technologies include quantum computers, quantum communication devices, and more. When discussing this second quantum revolution in comparison to the preceding one, it’s happening because we are focused on harnessing properties like entanglement or superpositions.
From academia to entrepreneurship in one moment
But how did someone with a long-standing career in science transition into an entrepreneur? Transitioning to her role as the co-founder and CEO of Algorithmiq, Sabrina Maniscalco recounts her journey from academia to entrepreneurship. She shares how a chance meeting with a business co-founder during an event led to the creation of her startup.
Before her position at the University of Helsinki, particularly in 2020, amidst the pandemic, she had held a professorship at the University of Turku. Throughout that period, she had the opportunity to lead a team of proficient researchers. They ventured into the realm of quantum computing with increasing fervor. Engaging in events like unconferences, camps, and hackathons orchestrated by tech titan IBM for fledgling quantum computer developers, they made notable progress. These encounters unveiled crucial components that bore the potential to open the gateway to tangible quantum computation, paving the way for the programming of these quantum computers.
During the interview, Maniscalco recalls one special moment that changed everything: “Just by chance, we encountered a business-minded co-founder who had faith in our vision. While my academic background was in contrast to his business expertise, his belief in our potential was unwavering. He proposed the idea of starting a company, seizing the opportune moment. This convergence of the right people at the right time was pivotal. Amidst these transitions – moving between universities and cities – and fueled by my appetite for challenges and new experiences, I embarked on this journey. It has been a remarkable and fulfilling experience that I deeply enjoy.”
Revolutionizing medicine with quantum technology
As the story goes along, she became the CEO of Algorithmiq. At this point, one might wonder why the startup, given the numerous possibilities that quantum technology offers, has chosen to specialize in utilizing quantum computers for drug discovery and development. In the conversation, Maniscalco addresses and discusses this and adds how their discoveries in the field of life sciences could particularly help find cancer treatments.
“It’s a convergence of two key factors. First, we must explore the potential applications of quantum computing that are most feasible given the early stage of our technology. Among these possibilities, one stands out — the modeling and simulation of electronic structure problems. This involves using a quantum computer to replicate, or ‚mimic‘ molecules used in drug compounds. This application holds significant promise and disruption. Once we recognized its feasibility even in these early phases, we acknowledged the broad spectrum of opportunities it presented. These ranged from devising novel materials to innovating fertilizers, and extending into the realm of life sciences.”
She adds: „Our focus shifted towards life sciences, specifically drug discovery and development. This sector is grappling with a substantial R&D dilemma. Despite escalated investment in new drug exploration, the output of novel drugs or molecular entities reaching the market remains constant. A different approach is imperative. We firmly believe that the potency of quantum computers holds the key to catalyzing this transformative shift. This dovetailing of two pivotal factors—early-stage quantum computer applications and the imperative to address a critical R&D challenge—forms the foundation of our direction. This direction holds immense significance for society as a whole.“
Breakthroughs in the realm of life sciences and cancer treatment
She elaborates on their progress, mentioning, „We’ve achieved significant milestones. Our software platform, Aurora, designed for scalable quantum chemistry simulations, is currently available for commercial use. Collaborating with essential hardware providers like IBM is another notable accomplishment. Recently, we secured a substantial grant from Wellcome Leap, dedicated to advancing photoactivated cancer drugs through quantum computers, in collaboration with undisclosed high-profile partners. This step allows us to put our breakthroughs into action, particularly in the realm of life sciences and cancer treatment.“
Joining the BOLD Community
Reflecting on her involvement in the BOLD community, the scientist-turned-entrepreneur values the opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas with individuals from diverse backgrounds and says: „This is what I’m looking for! Exchange of experiences, life projects, crazy endeavors, all of it!”
When asked if she could recall a moment in her life where she had to be bold, she said it was related to the choice of becoming a co-founder while having already a successful academic career. “This was a big shift in my life. I had to start doing something I wasn’t experienced in. So being CEO is not something I’ve been trained for. I’m constantly learning. But I wanted to challenge myself to do something completely new. And I think we always have to take risks. If we live our too comfortable life too long, we don’t go anywhere. So I think that the true meaning for me of a life well lived is really to push myself out of my comfort zone and experience things that I profoundly think are calling me, but that requires also taking a risk. And so in this sense, I am BOLD and I would like to be even BOLDER.”
Finally, she shares a few words of wisdom for aspiring innovators: “A couple of years ago, I would talk about how you need to be passionate about what you are doing. But actually, I don’t know if passion is necessarily the right word for everyone. I think what is more important is to have a mindset that is open to exploration and curiosity. So I think if you want to explore quantum physics or start a career as a scientist, you should know that being curious is the key. Also, finding your own way of learning is important, which does not necessarily need to be the logical way. There are many ways of exploring and playing with quantum physics.”
The BOLD Community is a global network of visionary pioneers promoting innovation and collaboration. Through meetings of „BOLD Minds“ from all over the world, unconventional ideas and a lively exchange of knowledge emerge here, strengthening Austria as an innovation hub.