Women of Quantum Technology: Anastasia Marchenkova of Bleximo Corporation
Like many who go through the technology pipeline, Anastasia Marchenkova, a founding employee of the quantum accelerator company Bleximo Corporation, believed that she needed a Ph.D. to get a successful career. “My dad was a physics professor, so I always grew up around physicists, scientists, and mathematicians,” she explained. “And actually, I remember very clearly at like, age 12, or 13, when I realized you didn’t actually have to get a Ph.D. Before that, I thought everyone had a Ph.D. because so many people were around me with that degree.” Upon realizing this, Marchenkova decided to pursue many different fields of science, finding several interests in the process. “I was really into robotics in high school while taking classes in biology, biochemistry, all those different fields, so I knew I liked science,” she added. “I declared a computer science major for my first year of college [at the Georgia Institute of Technology], then I transferred to biology, and only then I transferred to physics. So, at that point, I realized I wanted to use computer science more as a tool instead of my main field of study.”
While exploring these multiple fields, Marchenkova also reached out to various professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology, asking if they wanted to take her on as an undergraduate research assistant. While one lab turned her down due to lack of experience, Marchenkova found a quantum telecommunications laboratory accepted her request. As Marchenkova explained, she told the lab’s professor, “I can solder, which was from my robotics days, and they said: ‘Great, come in tomorrow.’ I stayed there for three years doing research. I was very grateful for the opportunities; as they took me in early. They let me be in the lab all the time, they let me be like a real full member of the group. And it was an amazing experience.”
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in physics, Marchenkova found herself accidentally in a startup. “Me and my friend from my high school built an app together, and then we accidentally crashed the servers at the university,” she explained, laughing. “One night, this is in my mid-fourth year, so I was already getting my acceptances then [for graduate school]. And we crashed the servers. So the entire school was down. The school board was called and thankfully I did not get expelled, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, which was good for me. But a professor in the computer science department was impacted by this and thought it was hilarious. Once he found out who we were he gave us seed money to start a company.” This professor had created an accelerator program called Flashpoint, near Georgia Tech, and he believed Marchenkova’s product was a perfect fit. She “got addicted to the start-up life,” which would serve her well for her later role at Bleximo Corp. However, she didn’t know if that was what she wanted to do for her future career.
So, Marchenkova pursued graduate school for a year or so before deciding it wasn’t really for her either. “I decided that I’ll go back for my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Quantum Institute,” Marchenkova explained. “I get into grad school. Once there, I thought to myself: ‘I’ve already done the research for three years, I have to sit in the basement lab for five years, and the professors are barely there. Do I actually want to do this? I decided no, and started looking for jobs.”
After some searching, Marchenkova found her first quantum computing job at Rigetti Quantum Computing. “They had literally just finished the Y Combinator,” she elaborated. “So at that point, I think I was one of the few people in the world with quantum experience and startup experience. So, they hired me, and I was employee number four at Rigetti. So, I started in early 2015, moved out to California, and the rest is history.”
Creating Bleximo Corporation
Now, as a founding employee of the Bleximo Corporation, a startup company, Marchenkova finds herself enjoying the startup culture once again. “What we’re doing is we’re building applications specific for quantum computers. We think it will be easier to actually have a quantum advantage doing this.” To do this, Marchenkova and her Bleximo Corp. team may design a semiconducting chip around one specific algorithm for quantum chemistry in order to give a quantum advantage to a drug design company without needing more time and qubits. “So my day-to-day is all over the place,” Marchenkova added. “It can be writing code, or working on the control system for our refrigerator unit.” As the Bleximo team is building its own refrigerators, this process can be intensive, giving Marchenkova lots to do. “And then there is the fundraising operations, where we’re pitching to investors, and having technical communication,” she added. “I started my blog in 2015, but I thought no one would read it. Then I realized that maybe I can actually do this. My blog did really well because I fit a niche between popular science and technical papers. I really enjoy doing that work.” Marchenkova is hoping to expand her communication series in the future and appeal to more technical audiences.
As one of the few female founders in the quantum industry, Marchenkova understands that her position comes with some influence and power, as she can help to make this industry more inclusive and accessible for other women. “I think one of the most important things is showing up, right?” She said. “Some days, as a content creator it’s a hard life, as haters hate on the internet. But showing up every day, as people in the industry, we need to do that.” From a communications perspective, Marchenkova also believes that the quantum careers within the industry could be communicated better. “People don’t realize how flexible and good this field is as a long-term career. Just the fact that physics sounds scary turns others away,” she added. “But there are so many different fields in physics that you can explore. And, again, this is where my content comes in.” Marchenkova hopes to use her skills to reveal to others, just like her younger self, that a Ph.D. is not necessary for a successful quantum career and that the field is much more flexible. “Seeing that these fields are flexible for women, that we have our own challenges, like people with kids and childcare, but being able to work remotely can be a huge benefit,” Marchenkova added. “Say if you want to be on the quantum algorithms side, being able to work from your computer is, I think, one of the best ways for women to have a fair shot at the industry.”
Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at Inside Quantum Technology and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, quantum computing, and AI. Her work has been featured in Scientific American, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica, and more.