Effectively Communicating Quantum Technology
Host and HKA Marketing Communications Account Manager Veronica Combs interviews her boss, HKA Executive Vice President/Technology Group Director Mike Kilroy. Both experienced marketers and trained journalists, the two discuss how they communicate the quantum industry’s often-complex subject matter and secure media coverage on behalf of quantum companies who are looking to share their technological innovations and business moves with the world.
Mike is the backbone of HKA, guiding the quantum practice as well as client executives on best practices to achieve optimum results. For 25 years, he has been leading award-winning communications programs and making media magic for top-tier brands including Epson, Toshiba, Ericsson, Cisco, Ingram Micro and mid-sized and emerging companies. Veronica is an editor and writer who helps manage PR efforts for HKA’s quantum tech clients. She joined HKA from TechRepublic, where she was a senior writer covering quantum tech. Veronica has covered technology, healthcare and business strategy for more than 10 years.
Veronica Combs: Hello, I’m Veronica Combs, and this is The Quantum Spin by HKA Marketing Communications. I have been a journalist, I have been a strategic manager, I am working for HKA as an account manager, and I get to talk to physicists all day. It’s better than you’d think it would be. Our goal with this podcast is to widen the scope a little bit and to bring more people into this industry, which has the potential to be very powerful, is full of interesting people and is global in its reach. Our first guest today on our very first episode: Mike Kilroy. He is the Executive Vice President at HKA Marcom. Mike, thanks for joining us.
Guest Mike Kilroy: Thank you, Veronica. Very nice to join. And I just want to say that I am not one of those quantum physicists that you work with, so this will make it clear to the audience. I’m not a purely technical person, but we have been at this for a while, so we do have a little bit of a lay of the land.
Veronica Combs: Yes, and like I said, it is our goal to talk to the physicists and then translate their work to everyone else so they can understand what’s happening in this industry. How did you get to this point in your career, Mike? HKA is the only agency that focuses exclusively on quantum and you’re in charge of all that. Tell us how you got here.
Mike Kilroy: Yeah, thank you. It’s really been serendipitous and kind of amazing, how it all worked out. I worked at HKA 20 years ago when Hilary Kaye, the founder and CEO, had a thriving tech practice at the time – lots of VC-funded startups and people going public. It was really kind of an exciting time around the dot-com era. I left for quite a while, about 20 years, but I came back four years ago to see if she would want me to help revitalize her tech practice, and she graciously said yes. The amazing part is she kept a blog that we had started way back when, called emergingtechpr.com, and she wanted me to restart it. I said, “Really?” She had kept the URL, she kept the site, so of course, I’m looking for people to talk to locally, and I ended up meeting Doug Finke of the Quantum Computing Report for coffee one day. Amazingly, he starts telling me all about quantum. I’ve always had a fascination. I would watch a quantum documentary on PBS or something. But Doug spun a penny on the table at the local coffee shop here – he actually lives within a mile of our office, by the way. He said, “Is that heads or tails?” And I said, “Well, it could be both.” He goes, “Right, that’s a quantum qubit. That’s a qubit.” I understood the implications right away. My dad was actually in mainframe computing. He had an office a half-mile from here, worked at Allstate Insurance in the 60s, and he used to take us as kids there. There would be an infinite world – from a kid’s point of view, an infinite amount of these machines in a very cold room. It was air conditioned, and so I kind of understood the power of what this could be.
Veronica Combs: So you’re a true Southern California native and you’ve been in technology since the start – at least watched it start, it sounds like?
Mike Kilroy: That’s true. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of tech history. I’ve lived through it, actually. For 30 years, I’ve been pretty much doing tech PR exclusively, and it has run the gamut of consumer and B2B and probably more deep tech the last 15 years or so. It’s always be been emerging tech, and emerging tech could be with a large company like Epson, or Toshiba, or a lot of times, obviously, it’s emerging tech with smaller startups. I did smart glasses with Epson before Google Glass before they were talking about it, when Google Glass was just a twinkle in their eye. Then I did the first turn-by-turn driving directions software with Inmotion. It was really fascinating to watch all that happen. They just spent two weeks advertising, and Verizon was their sole customer. Two weeks of advertising and they never had to advertise it again. It just took off.
Veronica Combs: I know lots of people focus on the negative and the potentially scary parts of quantum computing, but you really have a much broader perspective and see through a scope of technological progress. Can you tell us why it’s so compelling to you as an industry?
Mike Kilroy: It’s just a brand new way of doing computing. There’s Newtonian physics – a physics we can see, as in the apple drops from the tree – but (quantum) is physics at the subatomic/atomic level that is doing things that don’t happen at the level that we see every day. And somehow, a long time ago, in the early 80s, a scientist named Richard Feynman said we ought to do computers like nature works; we ought to work with quantum science and quantum mechanics. Somebody planted the flag in the dirt, and everybody started going after it, and all these researchers over many years have been developing it. Quantum computers were their goal, and seven or eight years ago, their first quantum computers were made. It gives us a whole new way to do computing that’s going to be spread across every industry and every part of life, I think, and I’m not the only one saying this. I see that it’s going to be transformational.
Veronica Combs: I think a lot of quantum work has started in the banking industry, in terms of optimization. Making the portfolio return even half a percent bigger is certainly promising. But how do you explain your work to your friends? I mean, I don’t have any physicists in my phone – at least I didn’t until recently. Your work is really interesting, but it also may be kind of a black box to some folks.
Mike Kilroy: Yeah, it’s a great question. I just keep telling them – if they’re interested at all – that it’s exponential computing power beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. And not for every application, but for so many applications. And nobody really knows what’ll happen until it’s here. It’s a strange thing where we can guess – and there are a lot of educated guesses, and there’s logistics and finance, like you say, and pharma, chemistry… but nobody knows. It’s very similar to the internet: nobody knew where it was going to go. Nobody knew exactly where transistors were going to go. It is that inflection point. I’m an Irishman, so I like to extrapolate even more: it’s a turning point in human history, to be honest with you. I truly believe it is. Quantum will be with us and with humanity forever.
Veronica Combs: In some ways, it’s like the Wright Brothers: working with a combination of the right imagination to envision what’s coming and what’s possible but also having the engineering skills to make all the parts work together and keep the qubits coherent.
Mike Kilroy: That is so true, and it’s funny you should say that, because I just read David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers book and it was fascinating. Leave it to a couple of Americans from Ohio to make this happen, you know? It’s a challenge of science and engineering, and it’s going to take determination. And I think, for society and for business, it’s a challenge of vision, imagination and determination, too. They have to start getting this and really delving into this because it’s going to have huge implications. And, really, nobody knows when the light will turn on for quantum, or when quantum is going to be hugely impactful. You really have to start preparing now because the train is coming down the track.
Veronica Combs: One thing that’s been interesting to me about the industry is it’s really global. There’s not a single place, right? There’s not a Silicon Valley for quantum; there are places in Europe and Asia and the States. It is a global industry and there are these hubs that are just full of really smart people.
Mike Kilroy: Yeah, and I would say, not necessarily the US government – although it has put money into quantum – but lots of governments are seeing the economic opportunity for this, more than anything. Canada is spending billions of dollars, Australia is putting in a lot of money, the UK just stepped up with another billion. It’s interesting to see that governments are seeing this as a strategic imperative, like they have to do this. In the US, we have a great venture capital system, and that’s one of the reasons HKA has done really well: a lot of international companies want to access that funding. I think even the US could do more, and what I hear from clients is they really want the US to maybe not invest but at least start to purchase their quantum computers and software, or access to them, to start doing more explorations and to help keep the industry lifted up and on track.
Veronica Combs: Right. Right. I feel like a lot of the announcements that come out are like, “This is a really big milestone,” you know, “This is another stepping stone,” “We are a step closer,” so it’s hard sometimes to know what is significant and what is just an announcement – for good reasons, but maybe not super compelling in terms of the overall journey to quantum computers scaling. What are you keeping your eyes on, in terms of things that are happening in the industry, promises, roadmaps and all those markers of progress?
Mike Kilroy: I think the science is developing every day, as well as the engineering on the products. I do watch that. I don’t know who’s winning on that but I do love to see all these incredible discoveries, and every day they’re happening across labs across the world, so that’s always fun to watch. But I think nobody knows. I think everybody’s trying to see is a specific benefit that quantum can give you that a classical computer cannot. That’s what everyone’s waiting to see. And the funny part is, it could be happening or could happen soon. We’ve heard from clients and others that it could be happening in small, specific areas in the next year or two. There might also be a company who has discovered it and isn’t telling anybody, which is interesting, too, because there’s no reason to tell the competition that they have this tremendous advantage. I know it’s in the early days, and these computers are clunky, but there are very clever people around the world, and there’s a lot of money being spent. I love that part about quantum: nobody quite knows who’s going to get there first.
Veronica Combs: Well, I guess the flip side of that is the hype. I know a lot of scientists are particular about not overpromising, and certainly everyone wants their company to make money, but you do want to be specific about what your software or hardware can or can’t do. Is there a hype check that you can share with us?
Mike Kilroy: I do think companies were pushing it pretty close to the edge there. It’s very futuristic; you always have to say it could or will happen, but it’s not happening now, and they were treading that line. I think there was a report that came out that we don’t have to discuss in detail, but it was a report that kind of took down one company for various financial reasons for that report to happen. It kind of caught everybody by like, “Okay, I really have to watch not overhyping this,” and I think that was a good reality check for the industry. I feel like my personal impression is, if the quantum scientists buy off on what we’re saying, and believe what we’re saying, I have to go along with what their take is. They built 20 years of research in this and worked very hard in their careers, and their reputations are on the line. I feel like I have to trust their judgment.
Veronica Combs: Just looking at some of your work, that’s really what you seem to be good at: cutting that line between overpromising or talking in such dense language that no one really gets it. I think that talking to scientists seems to be a key to getting the real story and getting the word out.
Mike Kilroy: Yeah, absolutely. You kind of have to sell the dream in quantum. You do, because it is futuristic, in a sense, and again, no one knows what the future is going to be tomorrow or today. It is a fine line you have to dance but I think HKA does a really good job of doing that. We’ve been in top-tier science publications like Nature and Scientific American for our clients, but we also cover top-tier business, consumer and consumer tech. We just had a client who had a feature story in The New York Times. A quantum startup. It wasn’t IBM. It wasn’t Google. This is a quantum startup with a feature story in The New York Times. We’ve had these startups in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider; TechCrunch and Venture Beat, where everybody seems to want to be if you’re a startup. We run the full gamut of media relations. It goes beyond just Sci Tech. And, again, you do need that context to really pitch it well and get those placements for our clients.
Veronica Combs: Who do you think we should be following? Who’s a person on LinkedIn or Twitter or just a blog – for if I don’t know anything about quantum and I want to start doing my daily reading, or at least my weekly reading – who would you recommend for people to follow?
Mike Kilroy: As I mentioned before, Doug Finke of the Quantum Computing Report has been instrumental in putting quantum on the map. I believe he was the first media outlet covering the topic. His site and his weekly newsletter give great news, analysis and context. And obviously, there are several other media outlets as well covering quantum or covering quantum from the HPC point of view that are doing a solid job. And I would say, on the influencer front, probably Brian Lenahan leads the pack. He runs a Substack and also does a lot on LinkedIn and has also written a book with his co-author, Kenna Hughes-Castleberry. Also, Quantum Pirates by Sergio Gago.
Veronica Combs: And I think some of those folks are independent enough to also walk that line, right? They can see what’s important, and they’re excited about it, but they’re certainly not going to promise that quantum computers can solve all of our problems tomorrow, so it’s a nice balance.
Mike Kilroy: In fact, Doug and Kenna and Sergio will be some of our podcast guests coming up in the next several weeks. And then, I would say, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a weekly newsletter that lists all the news and conferences and various papers that have been submitted. That’s just a nice, quick overview of things that are going on in the industry.
Veronica Combs: Follow us as well on Twitter and LinkedIn. We are @HKA_PR on Twitter — or X, if you’re choosing to call it that these days — and then, of course, you can find us under HKA Marketing Communications on LinkedIn. Thanks for joining us today, and Mike, thank you for sharing some of your quantum insight with us, and we’ll catch you soon.
Mike Kilroy: Thank you.