Empowering Future Entrepreneurs: Q&A with Quantum Dice

Group photo of the Quantum Dice team

29th January 2024

Wenmiao Yu and Zhanet Zaharieva, Oxford University alumni and co-founders of Oxford spinout Quantum Dice, are not just pioneers in quantum technology but also fervent advocates for nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Their journey from academia to entrepreneurship, including being part of the winning team of our inaugural Student Entrepeneurs’ Programme (StEP), serves as an inspiring testament to the transformative potential of seizing opportunities early on.

Can you share the story of Quantum Dice from your perspective, highlighting the transition from academia to entrepreneurship and the journey of creating and funding the company?

Zhanet: I’m a quantum nanotechnologist with a background in material science from the University of Oxford. After over a decade in academia, specialising in chemistry and obtaining my PhD in Material Science, I began considering patents and how to translate my research into a commercial product. I started to expand my search abroad as I considering going to the States, but luckily, two weeks before my graduation in 2019, I discovered the StEP programme. Here I met this lovely team of Oxford graduates and we decided to join forces, together venturing into developing quantum random number generator technology, starting with applications in cybersecurity. My goal has always been to translate quantum technologies, having expertise in quantum nanomaterials for diverse applications. The transition from academia to entrepreneurship was a compelling shift, and the StEP programme played a crucial role in shaping our journey.

Wenmaio: My background involves an integrated masters in chemistry at Oxford. After discovering the process of turning university research into commercial products during an internship at a patent attorneys’ firm, my interest in entrepreneurship was piqued. My third and fourth years were dedicated to finding an entrepreneurship programme in Oxford, which eventually led me to Quantum Dice. The programme provided a solid foundation for market research and fundraising, and the support from the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre and OUI further propelled our success, especially during challenging times like the onset of COVID.

How do your different academic backgrounds in materials science and chemistry complement each other in your work?

Wenmaio: Our early days involved extensive market research, drawing on our shared background in literature review exercises. Zhanet’s expertise in quantum nanomaterials and my experience in chemistry contributed to our thorough and detailed approach. Our alignment in being thorough and detail-focused, especially in the early stages of the company, has been instrumental in navigating the uncertainties.

Zhanet: Our ability to quickly allocate specific roles within the team was a key factor in efficiently preparing our business model and investor pitch during the StEP programme. Our shared interest in quantum technologies, coupled with a clear understanding of each others’ strengths, facilitated a seamless collaboration. The ease with which we picked up on topics and ideas, without the need for extensive explanations, was crucial in maintaining focus and achieving success.

Reflecting on the StEP programme, what do you think was the secret to your team’s cohesion and effectiveness?

Wenmaio: Our rapid understanding of each other’s individual strengths and the efficient allocation of tasks based on those strengths was pivotal. Having a shared goal and dedication among team members created a strong foundation. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we were able to coalesce as a team, setting the stage for success.

Zhanet: In addition to our mutual understanding of goals, the quick establishment of specific roles within the team was crucial. Our dedication and focus on the shared objective, rather than just winning the competition, played a significant role in our success. The ability to work seamlessly together and make decisions without compromising our goals was key to our cohesion.

Did you have a shared vision as a team early on, and how did it contribute to your success?

Zhanet: While a long-term shared vision was challenging to define early on, our short-term focus was on understanding the commercial potential of the quantum random number generator technology. Market research played a crucial role in gauging the technology’s applicability and commercial benefit. As we explored various sectors, our confidence grew, and this united the team. The shared vision to explore the commercial potential of the technology beyond winning the competition solidified our commitment to the project.

Wenmaio: At an early stage, it’s challenging for a company to have a well-defined vision, but founders can have a clear vision of what they want to achieve together. Our shared commitment to giving our best for the competition and the subsequent exploration of commercial opportunities created a unifying vision. This shared vision not only guided us during the StEP programme but also laid the foundation for our continued collaboration.

What support did you find available a Oxford for your entrepreneurship journey, and what improvements could be made to better support women in entrepreneurship?

Zhanet: Initially, there were limited women-specific organizations, while the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Oxford was evolving. Personally, I found it challenging to access business knowledge and dedicated programmes. Seeking support from organizations abroad, like Women in Quantum, provided valuable resources and networking opportunities. However, I have observed positive changes in recent years within Oxfordshire, indicating progress.

Wenmaio: Over the past two years, I’ve noticed improvements, such as EnSpire Oxford and mentoring initiatives by societies like Oxford Women in Business and Oxford Women in Engineering. These resources match female students with entrepreneurs, providing valuable support. Although progress is evident, continued efforts are needed to enhance support and opportunities for women in entrepreneurship.

You both actively contribute to the innovation ecosystem and university. What motivates you to give back?

Wenmaio: Giving back is a way of staying informed about entrepreneurship developments in Oxford. It’s enriching to connect with fellow entrepreneurs and contribute to the ecosystem. Numerous organisations supported our journey, and giving back is a way of paying it forward.

Zhanet: Encouraging young people and sharing experiences is crucial. I’ve engaged with students from various departments, discussing topics ranging from technological translation to business experiences. Providing guidance and options can be foundational for their future careers. Giving back costs nothing but can be immensely valuable.

What are the two most important lessons you’ve learned from the entire process?

Zhanet: The importance of having a supportive team and mentors cannot be overstated. Regardless of a great technology or product, success is unlikely without a dedicated and aligned team.

Wenmaio: Alongside luck, hard work and perseverance are essential. Putting in the hours and persisting, especially during initial rejections, is key to achieving desired results.

What advice would you give to students considering applying to the Jamies?

Wenmaio: If students are considering it but can think of a few reasons not to apply, they should ignore those reasons and just go for it. Because you won’t get anything if you don’t try, and who knows? If you do apply, it could be a life-changing opportunity. Trying opens doors to opportunities, and the Jamies could be a life-changing experience.

Zhanet: Seize opportunities and experiment. Try to think outside the box and explore a wide range of opportunities early in your studies, as time flies. The experiences gained will help develop important time management skills help navigating your own research and shape your lifelong choices in career path. It’s a valuable investment for future success.

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