When University of Tennessee, Knoxville, PhD candidate Erica Grant was an undergraduate physics major, she volunteered with the safety-awareness nonprofit Help Save the Next Girl. Her interest in security piqued, she watched seminars from a DEF CON hacker convention in Las Vegas and saw demonstrations of just how insecure smart locks can be.
That summer, during an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Grant visited the quantum physics table at a job fair, where she met Travis Humble, director of ORNL’s Quantum Computing Institute. Humble also holds a joint faculty appointment at the UT–ORNL Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, where he works with students in developing energy-efficient computing solutions.
“They really liked my attitude,” Grant remembered. She chose UT and the Bredesen Center for her PhD in quantum physics. “The program was new,” she said, “and a lot of innovations were taking place.”
One innovation turned out to be hers. With lousy locks in mind, she invented a security system for hotels and manufacturing facilities, Quantum Lock, which uses quantum computing to develop a lock keyed to batches of random numbers from a central hub.
“The batches are random and unpredictable,” she explained. “The central hub sends them to the locks in the facility. Once people gain access to a room, they get a new and evolving and unpredictable code, and all the codes are connected to the front desk. This means a hotel has instant detection of an unauthorized entry. With current locks, a breach has to be reported by a guest, and a person has to go up to that room and manually download the data. Quantum Lock gives you detection and security capabilities.”
In Knoxville’s Innov865 Startup Day, Quantum Lock won the $3,000 Crowd Favorite prize. Grant also pitched at the Raising & Rising Event and the Innovation Crossroads Showcase during Knoxville’s Startup Week.
In the 2020 Collegiate Inventors Competition run by the US Patent and Trademark Office, Grant was selected as one of five graduate student finalists, and on October 27 and 28 she competed in a virtual format. Unfortunately, she did not win. “It was a huge honor to be a part of the competition,” she said. “It’s been two years of hard work.” In another milestone, she received a patent for Quantum Lock on October 6, and two weeks ago successfully defended her PhD dissertation.
Grant grew up in an entrepreneurial household in Richmond, Virginia. When she was in high school her father, Timothy, started Blue Triangle Technologies to monitor the effectiveness of commerce websites, and she helped him at trade shows. Her mom, Beverly, is a nurse educator at an assisted living facility.
At Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia, Grant won an acting award in a state competition and was focused on music and singing until a senior-year class with physics teacher Jeremy Watts. “I sat in the front row,” she remembered. “It was so interesting. I asked a ton of questions. I would always try to guess the answers to physics problems for fun. One day at the start of class he was sitting in my seat, so I pretended to teach the class. He had me keep going, I taught the entire class.”
At Virginia Tech she did undergraduate research in physics and minored in nanoscience. She chose the PhD program offered through the Bredesen Center in part because of its multidisciplinary entrepreneurial track: “I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” In her second year she took a business class with Ernie Cadotte, the John W. Fisher Professor of Learning Innovation in UT’s Haslam College of Business. “He plays soccer with my advisor, Travis Humble,” said Grant, “so that was a nice connection.”
Cadotte found funding of $3,000 for Grant to build a prototype of Quantum Lock and a marketing plan with undergraduate teams. He introduced her to UT’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, where she found a mentor in John Bruck, the center’s entrepreneur-in-residence, who also serves as senior advisor for the entrepreneurs at the SPARK Innovation Center in the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm. “We helped Erica put a business plan and model around her idea and technology,” said Bruck, who guided her through a series of competitions leading up to the Collegiate Inventors. These included the 2018 VolCourt Pitch Contest, in which she placed third, and the 2018 Boyd Venture Challenge, the 2019 Vol Court Pitch Contest, and Launch Tennessee’s 36|86 Business Plan Competition—all of which she won.
In June 2020 Grant was accepted into ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads program, designed to nurture entrepreneurs. “They gave us $500,000 for product development to do cyber security at ORNL and product testing,” said Grant. “It gives you security for two years while you get your program off the ground.”
The Collegiate Inventors Competition has been a six-month application process. “A panel gives a list of questions,” said Grant. Each of the five graduate student finalists recorded a 15-minute video. The contest, conducted on Zoom, includes 15 minutes for questions with the panel that picks the winner.
While running her business and preparing for the competition, Grant has been finishing and defending her dissertation on quantum information technologies and quantum computation, guided by Humble through the process. “Travis is an awesome advisor,” she said. “Still, I felt like I was working two full-time jobs.”
“The best thing I’ve gotten out of UT are the resources and people of the Anderson Center,” said Grant. “People like John Bruck and Lynn Youngs, the executive director. It’s a great community of people. Among my peers, Lia Winter graduated a year ahead of me. She invented a new way of suturing ACLs. We’ve been in a lot of the same competitions, and our patents were issued on the same day. She’s someone to chat with and ask, ‘How are things going?’ Tony Bova of Mobius, an advisor at the Anderson Center, has given me a lot of advice. I’m really lucky.”