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The complex task of counting light
Single Quantum stays loyal to the interpretation of the word ‘quantum’. Its daily occupation is to detect ‘quanta’. The company makes devices which are able to detect single quanta of light, individual photons. We sat down with Jessie, the Chief Operating Officer of Single Quantum, to talk about her role at Single Quantum and what drives the company.
Why would you want to count individual units of light? This becomes clear as Jessie explains the necessity of it. “A simple way to put it is that photons carry information, wavelength and arrival-time for example. You can play around with that to code information in a photon. In the field of quantum technology, this has applications in Quantum Key Distribution, quantum computing and quantum information. And for everyone in those fields, detecting a photon with extreme accuracy is necessary.”
Single Quantum manufactures superconducting nanowire single-photon detector (SNSPD) systems. This instrument overcame several physical challenges. It may sound trivial to measure light, but it is not an easy task at all.
First, the light that the detector has to detect is very weak. As we go UV-light to visible light and to infrared, the wavelength of the photons gets longer. As the wavelength gets longer, the photon energy becomes smaller and the photons become harder to detect. The detector thus needs to be very sensitive. However, the detector also must not get too sensitive, or it may detect background noise as a photon, called dark counts. But even if you get there, a final challenge is to let the detector recover quickly enough after a photon has been observed, or it will miss the next incoming photon.
Single Quantum has achieved to overcome all the challenges at once explains Jessie; “With our technology (SNSPD) you can reach more than 90% probability to detect a photon, and additionally very low dark counts and very short recovery times. This is necessary if you want to transmit information via photons very quickly, which is necessary in quantum communication.”
Manufacturing the first functional prototype took almost 10 years, but at that time the performance was not able to compete with the then modern ways of detecting photons. “In 2014 the State-of-Art detection efficiency was still 30%.” This has almost tripled in the past decade.
With our technology (SNSPD) you can reach more than 90% probability to detect a photon, and additionally very low dark counts and very short recovery times. This is necessary if you want to transmit information via photons very quickly, which is necessary in quantum communication.
-Jessie Qin-Dregely, COO at Single Quantum.
One of the founders of Single Quantum, Sander Dorenbos, first got involved in photon-detection in 2007. Jessie explains that from there on, things changed fast. “Sander did his Ph.D. on this topic under supervision by prof. Val Zwiller. We are quite unique since we have no investors, we are already selling our devices. In the first year, we only sold 2 or 3 systems. In 2014 the sales revenue was already significant, and this kept increasing until this moment. By far, Single Quantum has sold about 150 systems all over the world. We are proud to have achieved this without investors.”
Jessie herself joined Single Quantum in 2015. “In the beginning, there was no dedicated person in sales. In 2014 Single Quantum decided that such a person should join the team.” That person was Jessie. “I have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Before I moved here, I was working at the University of Stuttgart as a Postdoc in Nanophotonics. It was a former colleague/friend who was doing a postdoc in the group of Professor Zwiller who made a reference for me.”
Since Jessie joined Single Quantum, the team grew from 5 to almost 50 employees. And with more employees, processes in the company must be streamlined. “But still, we have managed to keep the startup vibe and keep the bureaucracy as little as possible and we have a hierarchy-flat structure. We organise many team-building activities. We are a young yet experienced company.”
Jessie thinks of this as responsible growth, the goal of the company is not to grow for the sake of growing. “We don’t want to grow at any cost, we want to provide a nice working environment, making sure everyone at Single Quantum can thrive.” The notion of responsible growth is something that Jessie envisions for all the young students who may end up in the field of quantum technology. “I think we are living in an age where there is a boom of startups. Young people should not graduate to then go to a big corporation to be a screw in a large system. Society needs more small and medium enterprises because then the ecosystem is healthier.”
We are quite unique since we have no investors, we are already selling our devices. In the first year, we only sold 2 or 3 systems. In 2014 the sales revenue was already significant, and this kept increasing until this moment. By far, Single Quantum has sold about 150 systems all over the world. We are proud to have achieved this without investors.
-Jessie Qin-Dregely, COO at Single Quantum.
The work that Jessie and her colleagues do at Single Quantum allows scientists and other users to unlock the full potential of their research or inventions. As Jessie and her colleagues improve their ability to look closely at individual photons, we keep a close eye on Single Quantum and their developments.
📷 Photos by Rebekka Mell, taken at TNO’s Quantum Information Technology Testing facility (QITT), which is an open testing facility that meets the specific market need for an independent, confidential, proprietary test laboratory.