Featured Prime Mover: Atom Computing CEO Rob Hays

Prime Movers Lab
Prime Movers Lab
Published in
7 min readJan 25, 2023

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Tell me a bit about your background?

I joined Atom Computing as CEO in mid-2021 after serving on the board and as an advisor to the founders. My career has been in the computing industry having served as Chief Strategy Officer of Lenovo and 20+ years at Intel where I was the executive leading the Xeon processor roadmap and data center silicon portfolio for seven of those years. I grew up near Atlanta and graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Computer Engineering.

What inspired you to join Atom Computing?

I knew several years ago that I eventually wanted to be in a more entrepreneurial setting and bring everything I had learned as an executive to an innovative startup that could disrupt a large market. Once I was connected with Atom, the quality and tenacity of the founders as well as the stellar board that our Founder Ben Bloom had assembled was a huge motivation for getting even more involved with the company. It felt like a winning team to me. I also believed in Ben’s sound technical approach and could clearly see how my experience could help him grow the company into a commercial success. Once I was on the board, I found myself falling in love with quantum tech and got very excited by Atom’s unique opportunity to leapfrog other quantum computing modalities and competitors.

What is the simplest way you describe quantum computing to people?

Quantum computing processes information using quantum bits, or qubits, instead of classical bits. Unlike classical computer bits that are either one or zero and require long strings of bits to represent any specific number, Qubits contain a special property that allows each qubit to hold a range of values simultaneously so that a quantum computation can consider multiple possibilities in parallel while determining the correct answer. As these systems scale, this will allow quantum computers to perform certain calculations exponentially faster than classical computers and solve problems too complex to compute on today’s highest-performance computers. Note that quantum computers won’t replace classical computers. Rather, they will work together in integrated application workflows to offload sections of code to quantum computers for further processing and user interaction via classical computers.

What sector do you think will be transformed the most by quantum computing?

Quantum computing has the potential to disrupt and transform a variety of industries, but some of the significant use cases that we hear our customers getting excited about are:

  • Drug discovery and development: Quantum computing can be used to simulate complex molecular interactions, which could accelerate the process of drug design. This could lead to faster cycle times for the development of new drugs with fewer side effects and more targeted therapies.
  • Financial services: Quantum computing can be used to solve optimization problems that are too complex for classical computers, which could be applied to portfolio optimization, risk management, and other financial applications.
  • Supply chain optimization: Quantum computing can be used to solve optimization problems in logistics, transportation, and distribution. This could lead to more efficient supply chains, improved delivery times, and reduced fuel consumption.

These are just a few examples of how quantum computing could disrupt and transform different industries. The technology is still in its early stages, and other use cases will undoubtedly be discovered as the technology matures.

What is so unique about your company’s neutral atom quantum architecture that you are pioneering?

There are a few architectures that have been developed for quantum computers. The early architectures were superconductors and trapped ions. Both of these technologies have been in development by companies like IBM, Google, Rigetti, IonQ, and Quantinuum, formerly Honeywell, for about a decade. Significant progress has been made by these teams in building high-quality qubits that can run quantum algorithms with reasonable error rates. The challenge that these teams are facing, however, is scaling their systems to a large enough number of qubits to run commercially-valuable applications and do so with fault tolerance. 100,000s or millions of qubits are ultimately required.

That’s where Atom Computing comes in. We are the first company to trap atomic arrays of neutral atoms in optical tweezers and create nuclear-spin qubits out of them. We use alkali earth metals which are so-called “neutral” because they have a closed outer electron shell, which means they aren’t attracted to one another and the nuclear spin is protected from environmental perturbation or noise. This creates very stable qubits. We’ve demonstrated world-record coherence times, over 40 seconds for every qubit. We’re not manufacturing chips or devices in order to build these qubits. We’re capturing atoms in a vacuum chamber so there are no imperfections because each atom is identical by nature.

The atomic array is controlled wirelessly by lasers. To scale up, we just create more spots of precisely-controlled light. Our atoms are placed a few microns apart. Far enough apart that they don’t interact with each other in their ground state, but close enough that they can have a lot of interaction in a controlled quantum state known as a Rydberg state. As an example of how small our qubit array is, when we get to a million qubits, it will be a 3D array of 100 x 100 x 100 atoms. At 4 microns pitch between each atom, that equals less than a tenth of a cubic millimeter in volume. The surrounding system is a bit larger to control those qubits but it all fits on a single optical table with a few 19” racks of support equipment next to it.

What was the least expected challenge you’ve overcome to reach this point?

Start-ups, by definition, are resource constrained. Moving from an executive role at computing giants — like Intel and Lenovo — where we had access to pretty much anything and anyone we needed, to an early-stage startup, has been a stimulating challenge. Aside from the daily interactions with customers, partners, and investors, I spend most of my creative energy figuring out how to build a world-class technical & business team who collaborates exquisitely well together and how to execute a deep-technology roadmap where we’re inventing as we go but, at the same time, setting the pace for the industry. That’s what I get up to do every morning. And that’s what I guess maybe keeps me up at night — always wondering how we can go faster, and how we can build the best team and the best product with our limited resources.

Atom has offices in California, Colorado, Texas, and North Carolina. How do you manage team members across all of these locations toward one specific goal?

Over two years ago now, while we were effectively working from home, we made the decision to open multiple locations and go after the talent where it is. Our headquarters remains in Berkeley but we opened a major R&D facility in Boulder and smaller offices in Austin and the Research Triangle. The reasons to expand were to balance talent acquisition, cost of doing business, cost of living, and the support ecosystem in each location. We stay aligned by having a very clear mission — building scalable quantum computers with fault tolerance — and focusing on playing our part in the solution stack as a hardware provider who is partnering with a variety of software companies and end users to develop applications for our platforms. Nearly everyone comes into the office every day but we just aren’t all in the same office. Each location has an identity and center(s) of excellence to promote collaboration and teamwork.

Who inspires you?

I enjoy reading history books and learning about how we got to where we are. I’m very interested in our collective past but I don’t really get inspired by lofty historical figures. I mostly get inspired by the people I interact with directly. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many talented, motivated people. I frequently get inspired by the ideas of members of my team and our board of directors. I love bantering ideas back and forth and coming up with superior solutions through open communication and fearless exploration of ideas — even “bad ones.”

I’ve had extremely helpful mentors during my career to help me think through challenges and discover clarity in the future. They’ve also made introductions to others who have inspired me to think in new ways and build confidence in opportunities that may have been unknown or seemed inaccessible are actually achievable. Many of the leadership behaviors that I practice now were learned from my former bosses and peers. People I worked with every day. Some of the toughest people I’ve worked for taught me some of the most valuable lessons.

Have you read anything lately that inspired you?

Over the past few months, friends frequently send me articles and analyst reports about how tough the public and venture capital markets are and how founders need to batten down the hatches to weather a long storm. While the market conditions are real and it’s a helpful reminder to keep a frugal mindset, conserve cash, and constrain headcount growth, the effect these reports have on me is motivation to just keep going on building our next-generation quantum computers, have customers validate them, and launch our products as a cloud service. By doing this, we will prove that we can deliver game-changing technology, set the pace for the nascent quantum computing industry, and grow the value that we’re delivering to our customers and shareholders. I can’t control the market but I’m constantly inspired to stay focused on what we can control — our pace and quality of execution.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation, and agriculture.

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