Inside Silicon Quantum Computing: an interview with Komal Pahwa

Senior IP counsel Komal Pahwa reveals how Australia's star quantum startup is building a silicon phosphorus processor, and how she protects its remarkable IP.

Forward: features are independent pieces written for Mewburn Ellis discussing and celebrating the best of innovation and exploration from the scientific and entrepreneurial worlds.

Michelle Simmons is probably the most famous scientist in Australia today. She's delivered hundreds of speeches and presentations, including the Australia Day address and the Boyer Lectures – the most prestigious annual series hosted by the national broadcaster. She's won a stack of awards, including the Feynman Prize, the Royal Society Bakerian medal, and the Eureka Prize for leadership in science. She's even featured in a documentary by news channel France24.

In 2018 she was recognised with the ultimate national accolade: Australian of the Year.

It's a remarkable status for an academic with the day job of professor of quantum science at the University of New South Wales. Not since the days of Bohr and Planck has the media taken such an interest in a quantum personality.

Simmons is more than an academic. She's the founder of Silicon Quantum Computing, a Sydney-based company with a mission to create the world's highest-performing quantum computer. It's where her 400 co-authored research papers intersect with the world of commerce. SQC claims an impressive list of breakthroughs: the only company in the world to manufacture devices with atomic precision, the highest fidelity and fastest spin read-out in semiconductor qubits, the lowest charge noise, fastest two qubit gate and first integrated circuit made with atomic precision.

Intellectual property like this is more than valuable. It is potentially the building block of an entirely new era of computer science. This is where Simmons needs serious support – the breakthroughs at SQC mean little if they can't be protected. The job of defending the IP of this remarkable company falls to senior IP counsel and patent attorney Komal Pahwa – in what must be one of the most challenging jobs in the law, anywhere in the world.


Komal Pahwa Silicon Quantum Computing
Komal Pahwa, Senior IP Counsel at Silicon Quantum Computing


“It's amazing working with this team on a daily basis,” says Pahwa. “We are working on technology which could take over the world in the next 10-20 years. And I get daily inspiration from Michelle!”

Pahwa is more than up to the job. She graduated as a master of physics from Guru Nanak Dev University, winning a gold medal for outstanding performance, then did her PhD in physics at the University of Birmingham studying laser cooling and trapping of potassium atoms.

“I am one of those lucky people who can apply their education in their current job,” says Pahwa. “My work looked at using lasers to cool atoms. If you shine a laser of the right frequency on an atom, the atom can absorb high-energy photons and later emit low-energy photons, leading to the removal of energy from the system. Shine from all six sides along 3D axes at the right frequency and you cool the atom down very close to zero Kelvin. The cooled atoms can then be trapped using another laser beam.”

Atoms this close to absolute zero enter Bose-Einstein condensate, the fifth state of matter along with solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. They can lose their individuality and enter a collective quantum state. The approach is the core mechanism in quantum technologies made by the likes of Infleqtion, recently profiled by Mewburn Ellis. Her background in this area gives Pahwa a detailed understanding of how quantum effects are generated and controlled.

A unique vision for quantum processors

SQC is pursuing a unique approach. It is building a quantum processor by precisely embedding phosphorus atoms in a silicon substrate. It's a unique method, which harnesses Simmon's lifetime of research in the field.

We are working with phosphorus donors in silicon, a platform that has provided record-long quantum coherence times. We are using advanced STM technology, which stands for scanning tunnelling microscope,” says Pahwa. “We pick silicon as the base of the chip, and then we place individual phosphorus atoms at desired locations within the silicon crystal to create qubits, wires, sensors and the complete circuit to address the qubits. It's really precise.”

The approach is completely novel, with a philosophically pure approach to quantum computing. The general rule is the smaller the qubit the more stable and noise-free. Controlling the placement of single atoms and their electrons had never been achieved before the project started, but the results are predicted to create the highest-performance quantum processors.

“It's not just about the number of qubits,” says Pahwa. “It's the quality that matters. Our qubits have a very long coherence time. The noise level in our devices is exceptionally low. If another platform needs, say, a million qubits to achieve a result, we can achieve a similar or better result with far less.”

The goal of SQC is to deliver a 100-qubit quantum processor, with error correction, by 2028. A full commercial launch of an error-corrected and scalable quantum computer is roughly estimated for 2033. These dates may look a little distant at a time when IBM is launching the Kookaburra quantum chip with 1,386 qubits in 2025, but as Pahwa says, the race will be won by stable and noise-free qubits, rather than merely the most numerous.

Protecting the IP

The legal strategy at SQC is also unusual – as befits a company working at the distant edge of human understanding. “When I did my studies in IP law I used to hear that early protection is the best strategy. Secure an early priority date!” says Pahwa. “I had that embedded in my head until I joined this company.”

At SQC a more tactical approach is required. “This is a unique field because the race is so long. The road to commercial production for an error-corrected universal quantum computer isn't two or five years, it's ten to twenty years.”

A patent lasts for 20 years. Patent too early and the protection may expire before its value has been extracted. “Quantum is a slow-paced field. It is hard to tell exactly when the technology developed today would be mature enough to commercialise.” In the quantum patent landscape there are many useful, application-oriented patents which are approaching their expiry date. If these aren’t commercialised in the next few years then the protection would be lost and technology would be available to everyone. “It's not just the patent protection period. If we patent then competitors can see what we've been working on and copy it.” says Pahwa. “Hence it’s a tricky decision whether to take the patent route or trade secret route for the new developments.”


Silicon Quantum Computing team
The Silicon Quantum Computing team


Furthermore, there is the tricky question of what is worth patenting. In this field, an esoteric discovery may have no commercial or practical application. “We need to assess whether it's worth investing time and resources of our company, which is still a startup, in a legal process that may bring little or no commercial value.”

The solution is a balance of trade secrets and patents. “Trade secrets work for us in certain situations,” says Pahwa. “There is a risk we'll be copied. But look at Coca-Cola. They took the risk, and they are still taking the risk. They don't want a patent. It works for them.”

Non-disclosure agreements bind employees from sharing a company’s secrets. “NDAs can work, but you need to educate employees as to what they mean. People will sign a contract, but may not fully understand what the implications are. There is a danger they will go around and talk about confidential matters. We educate our staff to understand what their NDA requires of them.”

Add to these factors the hurdle of working with patent offices. Academics with decades of experience grapple with the intellectual concepts of the type found at SQC. Pity the poor patent examiners asked to pass a verdict on quantum-related applications. Pahwa is sympathetic: “I was talking to Andrew Fearnside [Mewburn Ellis, Quantum Technology team leader] about this. Patent offices are learning about quantum computing for the first time and it's confusing for them. It can be confusing for me too! To be honest, I've seen several examination reports where it is clear they don't understand what they are looking at. A lot of patents are being granted because the examiners are not well-equipped to make an assessment. They just let it go. That's a bad sign for the field because when commercial products become available, say in a few years, there will be so many granted patents there will be a frequent conflict between patent holders. It's possible they will all litigate. It's going to be a huge mess.”

The solution? “We need to invest in education around quantum issues in patent offices. Maybe hire examiners with PhDs in the field, or at least some specialisation in quantum. Do they know what a wavefunction is? Do they understand superconductivity? It's not something you can just search the internet for.”

The road ahead

So when will we see a Silicon Quantum Computer booting up and running commercial programmes? SQC has a timeline on its website – with 2028 the next big moment. Pahwa advises this is a pretty flexible estimate. “Things change fast,” she says. “When you hit a milestone suddenly the next one can arrive rapidly in under a year, when previously you expected five years. It is possible to make drastic progress. We hit our integrated circuit in 2021, 2 years ahead of the 2023 prediction.”

A recent funding round of $50.4m, at a valuation of nearly $200m, means the company is well capitalised for the years ahead.

Quantum computers can solve problems that can’t readily be solved by classical computers. Pahwa says the most interesting applications of quantum are still to be ascertained: “It's like when the internet was developed. We didn't know what we'd be using it for. Could we foresee social media, for example? Not really. It's the same with quantum computers”.

We are reaching the limit of processing power of classical computers. There are certain problems which simply cannot be solved using the present computer technology, but can be addressed by quantum computation. Quantum computers use qubits which, unlike classical bits, can have multiple values at the same time. This allows quantum computers to make multiple calculations in parallel thereby increasing their processing power exponentially in comparison to classical computers. “They will solve many problems that current computers are struggling with where additional processing power is required. For example, longer-term weather prediction, financial modelling, classification & optimisation problems, and so on.”

For Pahwa, the thrill of working on creating a truly world-leading technology is undiminished. “Usually in a job you find after a couple of years the newness fades,” she says. “Not here. It's amazing. I have a steep learning curve every day.”

Working with Michelle Simmons adds to the appeal of the job. “She's an inspiration! It's her life’s work. She's a role model for young girls in the field, and does a lot of work promoting science to the next generation. She has an emotional side too, and is great at communicating with every member of our team. It's her personal mission to make her vision of a silicon phosphrus quantum computer succeed.”

Pahwa's enthusiasm is understandable – and enviable. As she puts it: “The people I work with are creating something that will change the world. We are going to make history.”


A well thought-out IP strategy in action

Andrew Fearnside, Senior Associate and Patent Attorney at Mewburn Ellis, comments:

Two of the key assets in any high-technology startup are its people and the ideas they generate. This is especially so in the quantum technology sector. Developing a well thought-out IP strategy that supports the aims of the business is therefore very important. As in all commercial strategies, an IP strategy must find the right balance between the risks and the benefits of different options. Managing valuable know-how in a mixture of different ways, such as by maintaining secrecy on the one hand, or by seeking exclusive patent rights on the other, needs a deep understanding of the technology sector and the route to market. The Silicon Quantum Computing team are a great example of a well thought-out IP strategy in action.



Written by Charles Orton-Jones