#DigiWomenKA: Dr. Iris Schwenk

Female role models are important. They point out possibilities, help us to define our own goals and we can learn from their experiences. In our blog series #DigiWomenKA, Katharina Iyen meets one such role model from Karlsruhe’s digital sector once a month to find out more about them, their experiences and their commitment. In our special edition, she talks to the founders of CyberLab , the IT accelerator of the state of Baden-Württemberg, which is run by CyberForum e.V.. Dr. Iris Schwenk will kick things off, Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Co-Founder of HQS Quantum Simulations . Iris went through the CyberLab Accelerator Program with her startup in 2018 and is a member of the CyberForum e.V. Board of Directors. 23. to February 24, 2024, the successful founder shares her experiences at the CyberLab event Empowering Female Founders with other female founders.

By Katharina Iyen

On a bright sunny day, I navigate through the colorful eastern part of Karlsruhe to the iWerkX site, the headquarters of HQS Quantum Simulations. The arrival turns out to be a bit of an adventure: I only find my way around the extensive premises after a phone call – Jonas, assistant to the management of HQS Quantum Simulations, greets me in the courtyard. Accompanied by the splashing of the fountain, I enter the loft-like business premises, which remind me of trendy co-working spaces.

#DigiWoman Iris Schwenk welcomes me warmly. I immediately notice her bright orange shoes: “Cloud Sharkies” she explains with a laugh and adds: “After I saw them on my brother, I wanted some too.”

Future technology shortens time-to-market and reduces costs for R&D and product development cycles

HQS Quantum Simulations develops quantum algorithms for the prediction of molecular properties for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. In simple terms, this is simulation software for materials scientists in the chemical industry and research in general. Current quantum computers suffer from intrinsic errors that limit their performance. The HQS algorithms can deal with these errors. Founded in 2017, the company accelerates development cycles in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

It is unclear how quickly quantum computing will develop, but one thing is clear: leading global companies are investing heavily in this area. Schwenk is not the only one passionate about making this pioneering technology accessible today: “HQS Quantum Simulations does not simply sell products, but provides honest advice on what is already possible – and what is not. The physicist emphasizes how important it is to involve customers in the development process at an early stage in order to develop useful and functional products.

Iris Schwenk with our author Katharina Iyen. Photo: Katharina Iyen
Iris Schwenk with our author Katharina Iyen. Photo: Katharina Iyen

HQS Quantum Simulations: from research to industry

Schwenk is convinced that research must move out of the ivory tower and into direct exchange with industry and users, because a technology can be as good as it wants to be if it is not used: “I have found that close cooperation with customers from the outset helps to identify potential problems at an early stage and develop really useful solutions.”

In her doctoral thesis, she worked on theoretical concepts for describing errors in quantum simulators and quantum computers, paving the way for bridging the gap between theoretical physics and industry-relevant technology. And this despite the fact that she is personally more passionate about theory. She admits with a smile: “I prefer to read the operating instructions ten times before I press a button.

From Essen to Karlsruhe

Schwenk completed her Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctorate in physics at KIT. Karlsruhe came into her sights when her current husband and then boyfriend began his studies at KIT. His enthusiasm for the city and the university, where he studied electrical engineering and information technology, inspired her to study theoretical physics in Karlsruhe. She has always loved science. She raves about her studies at KIT: “The structure of the program was first-class. And I love being able to grasp complex physical phenomena in a mathematical way.”

The co-founder was born in a small village near Idstein in Hesse. She explains to me very humorously where exactly her hometown is: “I come from halfway between Frankfurt, Wiesbaden and Limburg. My village is near the famous Idstein highway exit, where things are always happening on the A3.”

Schwenk now lives with her family in Stutensee Büchig and feels very much at home there. She always leaves her car at home and doesn’t like driving either: “I often use my bike or the streetcar to get to work in Oststadt.” The summer heat and humid air in Karlsruhe are already challenging for her, but this is where her pragmatic side comes into play: “Our premises are very well air-conditioned,” she explains with a smile.

The founding team of HQS Quantum Simulations; from left to right: Dr. Michael Marthaler, Dr. Sebastian Zanker, Dr. Iris Schwenk and Dr. Jan Reiner. Photo HQS Quantum Simulations
The founding team of HQS Quantum Simulations; from left to right: Dr. Michael Marthaler, Dr. Sebastian Zanker, Dr. Iris Schwenk and Dr. Jan Reiner. Photo HQS Quantum Simulations

Stereotypes and pragmatism

Schwenk believes in simply going through with things without thinking about them for too long. This pragmatic approach is helping her to do pioneering work in the world of quantum computing. A favorite quote from her mother still accompanies her today: “Keep your head up, even if your neck is unwashed! This saying stands for attitude, composure and the ability to get the best out of difficult situations. It encourages me to seize opportunities even in the most challenging moments.”

She also experiences challenges from time to time, partly because of her gender, explains Schwenk when asked. In everyday life, she occasionally encounters stereotyping, says Schwenk when asked. The mother of two reports with a laugh: “The nursery had to learn to call the father when there were concerns because the mother was at work. But it works very well now.” She has also encountered this professionally. When a professor found out that she was pregnant and would be on leave for two months, it marked one such experience: “The way he dealt with it, the way he was overwhelmed – that was a challenge for me,” she recalls.

With pioneering and team spirit to the KIT spin-off

However, such a reaction is only one reason for the lack of female specialists in the IT and tech sector: “I attribute this to various factors, including the choice of degree course and the lack of female role models.” Theoretical physics is also still heavily male-dominated, and the founding team of HQS also consists of three men and only one woman.

Dr. Michael Marthaler founded the company together with Jan Reiner, Iris Schwenk and Sebastian Zanker – the three had completed their doctorates under him and subsequently worked with him at KIT. “It was a wild time. But we found a clear focus: applications of quantum computers in the field of chemical and materials research. And we also worked very specifically with various companies and looked at real use cases,” recalls Schwenk. The hope that, after decades of basic research, the technology was on the threshold from research to application, from theory to practice, was and is reflected in the young company’s financing rounds. This is still a rarity among female founders, only a very small proportion of whom receive funding of over 1 million euros.

The favorite place of many employees at HQS Quantum Simulations. Photo: Katharina Iyen
The favorite place of many employees at HQS Quantum Simulations. Photo: Katharina Iyen

Role models

And this is precisely why role models are needed: “My mother was a lawyer and my father was a chemical laboratory technician and later a works council member.” It was only in her adult life that she realized how unusual it was that her father, a non-academic, had married an academic. Schwenk is put off by stereotypes: “I saw a mother put a newly bought T-shirt on her daughter that said: ‘I’m a girl, I don’t have to be good at math’. That made me wonder whether that really helps us as a society.” Both her daughter and her son are allowed to pursue their interests, regardless of gender stereotypes. “My son is also allowed to wear pink and my daughter can play with cars. I try to strike a balance and make sure I allow my daughter to wear pink too,” she says with a laugh.

However, she still encounters stereotypes today: “As a boss, I am often praised for my caring nature. However, this praise is double-edged, as I sometimes feel too motherly.” It is important for her to grow with the company and with her tasks: “A valuable compliment for me was that I promote team cohesion. I am also very strategic. If there’s a problem or something that needs to be solved, I don’t necessarily have the solution ready straight away, but I have a clear idea of what options need to be weighed up and what things I need to find out in order to rule out an option. One weakness I admit to is that I have difficulty letting things go, especially if they don’t go as planned.”

Contact Dr. Iris Schwenk
Iris Schwenk LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/iris-schwenk-0638b9119?originalSubdomain=de
HQS Quantum Simulations Website: https://quantumsimulations.de/

More about the event:
Empowering Female Founders Learning together, growing together
Framework data
Date: Feb. 23. – Feb. 24. 2024 | Time: 12:30 – 20:00 / 08:30 – 21:00 (Networking Open End on the 2nd day)
Location: Room Church in the CyberLab (ground floor), Haid-und-Neu-Str. 18-20, Entrance B, 76131 Karlsruhe
Who can take part?
The event is aimed at female founders of start-up teams in Baden-Württemberg.

Katharina Iyen is the author of the blog series #DigiWomenKA for karlsruhe.digital,.with the aim of making female tech talent in Karlsruhe more visible. She works independently in digital marketing, with a focus on storytelling, copywriting and creative conception. Her topics are “The power of words and stories”, “new feminism” and “social justice”. Katharina is a social climber and is involved in Netzwerk Chancen. She runs the text agency EdiCut and is part of the #arbeitgeberleben cooperation.

Photo: Nasko Flan