Story by Greg Jenkins
Jungsang Kim wouldn't say he's changing the culture of innovation at Duke. He just wants to help his fellow Duke entrepreneurs succeed.
Kim, the Schiciano Family Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of physics, is so committed to this endeavor, that he and his wife, Soyeon Nam, gave $1 million to the Duke Office for Translation & Commercialization (OTC). Their hope is that other Duke-bred innovators who are ready to commercialize their work will receive the help they need from OTC at every phase of the innovation and entrepreneurial life cycle.
OTC is part of Duke Science and Technology (DST), the university's signature effort to elevate excellence in the sciences. Matt Hutter, the lead fundraiser for DST, says the gift from Kim and Nam is the first time a faculty partner within Duke made a gift back to the effort.
“I work with professors on a daily basis as essential partners in building relationships and inspiring donors to support DST,” Hutter says. “This is a truly rare act of generosity and to see both Jungsang and Soyeon so joyful in making it was really inspiring.”
Kim is also the co-founder and chief technology officer of IonQ, a company with a mission to “build the world's best quantum computers to solve the world's most complex problems.” IonQ was started in 2015 by Kim and fellow Duke professor Chris Monroe.
After a years-long journey from nascent technology to product, IonQ became a publicly traded company in the fall of 2021. With a windfall on hand from licensing income, Kim knew immediately that he wanted to pay back the Duke OTC support system that had assisted IonQ. This revelation was a surprise to Nam.
“I'm usually the financial decision maker of the family,” Nam laughs. “This time, he said, 'This is what we're going to do. What do you think?' Donating to the resource that helped us make this income—that's the right way to give back. I fully supported his decision and understood the reasons behind it. I acknowledged that his achievement would not have been possible without the invaluable support and guidance from university and Duke OTC.”
Over the years that IonQ was being nurtured from lab to market, Kim developed a deep working relationship with Robin Rasor, who heads up OTC. Rasor started at Duke in 2016, right at the time IonQ needed a very specific type of assistance Rasor's office was not positioned to provide at that time. “My joke is that I was Robin's first problem,” Kim recalls with a smile.
Rasor remembers the early difficulty in marshalling the resources to help Kim. That was part of the reason Duke Trustee Ned Gilhuly '82 founded an eponymous accelerator fund to fill in gaps and provide a spectrum of support for Duke entrepreneurs. Rasor is thrilled at the growth of her office, which has risen along with IonQ, and with the precedent Kim has set by giving back.
“I almost fell out of my chair — I'd never heard that before,” Rasor says, recalling the moment Kim asked her how he could give back to her office. “The point of the accelerator fund is that we have many university early stage technologies that need dollars to get them across the finish line, such as for the 'killer experiment' or building a prototype after which an investor or existing company will elect to license and commercialize the technology. And he and I agree, there wasn't anything like this when he was starting IonQ.”
Kim and Nam added their gift to the Gilhuly Accelerator Fund, which was designed to help bridge the period between initial product and technology development, and the time at which angel investors and/or venture capitalists step in.
“Many of these startup companies actually don't make it,” Kim says. “The most likely way to be successful is to encourage as many spinoffs as possible. Whenever there's an entrepreneurial activity, if the company doesn't succeed, nobody wins. We should make sure that we take the risk together, make sure the company is successful, make sure that the limited amount of resources they have is invested in developing the right technology team to make the company successful.”
Larry Carin, former Duke vice president of research in IonQ's early days and now provost at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, was an advocate of the company and actively recruited Kim to the university when he first came to Durham. He says Kim's dedication to quantum computing was apparent even during the earliest research stages—today's success was driven by passion, energy and tireless commitment.
“Jungsang's generosity to Duke is reflective of the type of person he is, which was manifested in every step of the path of a research concept to marketplace impact,” Carin says. “Jungsang represents the best of Duke, and his gift will have an impact for others at Duke today, and well into the future.”
As one of the leaders of a rapidly growing company in a field with developing technology, Kim is beginning to see the earliest phases of the big picture coming into focus. It's going to take a few more years of putting quantum computers in the hands of scientists in many different disciplines before we fully understand what the possibilities are.
“In some sense, it's just the beginning,” Kim said. “I want to see the real impact of quantum computing research at Duke. At the end of the day, real impact happens when a large number of people have access to our quantum technology, and they can utilize that to continue to innovate in their respective fields.”