Born in Moscow during the space race, Alexei Marchenkov’s childhood dream was to be an astronaut. Today, he’s competing in a different race: to bring quantum computing out of the lab and into the real world.
Alexei Marchenkov likes a challenge. In fact, he arguably needs a challenge. Thrives on it, even. Why else would he leave a coveted, tenured professorship at a leading U.S. engineering school to launch a risky venture rooted in a nascent, exceptionally complicated field at the cutting-edge of science and engineering?
In this Backstories interview, we learn a bit about what makes Alexei Marchenkov tick, why he made the bold decision to found Bleximo, his quantum computing startup, and how he landed here at Cyclotron Road.
What’s your earliest memory of what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Well, I grew up in Russia, and in Russia, you want to be an astronaut or a scientist. Plus, when I was a boy — back when it was still the Soviet Union — the space race was still on. But I also remember always being interested in what makes things work; I was a technical kid.
Tell us about your childhood.
My parents are both chemists and they worked in a Russian national lab, one that was created around the same time as Los Alamos and Berkeley Lab, and for the same purpose: to harness nuclear power. My parents didn’t work on bombs, but on what was officially called “peaceful atom”, — so power plants, medical isotopes and those sorts of things. I had a natural curiosity towards math and I was interested in physics from very early on. Partly, perhaps, because of a popular saying: “If it moves, it is biology; if it explodes, it is chemistry; if it does not work, it is physics.” That was enough to get my interest, but also in physics you get to design, build, measure, calculate, find an explanation. And no other science, including chemistry, was mathematical enough for me.
Before launching Bleximo you were an early employee at the quantum startup Rigetti Computing. Before that, you were at Georgia Tech, where you achieved tenure as an associate professor and set up a lab for studying nanostructured materials, sensors, quantum circuits and computational physics. But how did you start on this trajectory?
In Russia, most people get a higher education that is very specialized. So, at my school, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, they teach you almost exclusively physics, math, and engineering. You really didn’t have bachelor’s degrees in Russia back then. You end up with a master’s after five and a half or six years.
In physics, a very small percentage of graduates, and only from the top schools, end up being faculty members. Some people end up in national labs but a lot of physicists get engineering or computation-heavy jobs; they are typically trained to do this really well. I initially decided to pursue a purely scientific career and I was really encouraged by my scientific advisor. He said, look, you can really do it. But back then, from an economic point of view, you had to leave Russia because researchers could not get equipment and supplies to do advanced experimental physics. I was accepted, with my advisor’s help, to the Kamerlingh Onnes Lab in Leiden University, in Holland. It’s the birthplace of modern low temperature physics; helium was first liquified there, and superconductivity was discovered there as well. My advisor there, Giorgio Frossati, is the world’s top expert in cryogenics.
UC Berkeley professor Richard Packard visited Leiden and he suggested I come to Berkeley for a post-doc. The economic situation in Russia had not improved, and everyone told me, “look, Richard is a very strong scientist and he’ll take care of you and if you really want to know what it’s like to work in America, just get there.” The project was extremely technical and scientifically interesting, so I accepted the challenge. I came here in ’97 — five days after I graduated — and instantly fell in love with the place.
From there you went to Georgia Tech. Did you start your own lab there?
Yes, started from scratch in 2001. Georgia Tech is a top engineering place and I had very good collaborations across different science and engineering departments. Professionally, it was an excellent time for me. However, getting tenure is an arduous process, there was a lot of pressure to publish, get grants and graduate students. Georgia Tech was excellent in terms of providing help and I had very good graduate students. But overall, you’ve got very limited time to do research hands-on. And over time I realized that I was not doing what I wanted, i.e. lots of R&D work.
You can blame partly the burn-out and, maybe, some personal issues. But I definitely thought that I had to switch to something that was more applied and having impact in real life. Once I got tenure…in a way it was more difficult to continue because it was far less challenging.
And was that a turn-off?
In a way. I wanted to go on a sabbatical, change my subject a little and explore the possibility of starting a company in parallel with an academic career. However, life turned out in a way that I temporarily had to go back to Russia to take care of some family things. And then, being outside of the usual academic environment, I realized I needed to move with much faster speed and on much more applied things which can only be done in a startup.
Risky move, though.
It is, yeah. But it was a very clear conscious choice. With tenure you have a road map to your retirement. You can calculate your salary, predict your life. But, that really frightened me.
And around 2010–2011 it became clear that superconducting quantum computing technology was real, it became more of a set of engineering problems than a scientific curiosity. Before that, quantum bits were so fragile you basically could do nothing with them. But you could see steady progress of technology and material development; a road map to much better qubits. And this, to me, meant it was time to start building integrated circuits. So, in 2013 I returned to the U.S. to do something in a startup environment. In 2017, after spending a couple years at Rigetti, I founded in Bleximo. I joined Cyclotron Road’s Cohort Four in early 2018. By September, we closed a $1.5 million seed round, led by Eniac Ventures.
Last question: What do you do for fun?
Any time I’m not building quantum computers, I’m skiing or doing something outdoors.
You were a competitive skier when you were young. How did you get into that sport?
I started skiing as a way to recuperate from an accident when I was a boy. I slipped on the ice and got a very serious concussion, it took half a year to recover. It just happened that the national lab where my parents worked had an affiliated sports club. I joined the club, which offered skiing and other sports, to get back into shape. I tried skiing and loved it, and, thankfully, my patents did not object. I was about 11. It was not recreational; they expect you to compete, and for me it was actually a bonus.
Nowadays, skiing for me is the best way to recharge my batteries. During this — and any — winter I plan to have a few “work from home days.” You’ll find me up in Tahoe.