The Race to Harness Subatomic Particles
I prefer one way and another, because whichever direction this technology is heading — into an unknown world of scope with world-changing effects or something much more prosaic in nature — we can be certain that it will be far different from what we are currently experiencing.
Recognising this, many of the world’s largest tech companies have joined the gold rush: IBM, Google, Intel and Microsoft. With bottomless pits of money to spend on R&D, they are certain to lead the way in quantum computing.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that there is no room for others, smaller players on the market — not quite bottom feeders — to reach for the skies in an attempt to break the lofty position these huge corporations control at the moment.
The race to harness the power of subatomic particles is on. It’s a 21st century Industrial Revolution without the coal slags and noxious gases, thank goodness.
As of writing, there are 117 startups in the QC sphere according to QuantumComputingReport.com, an industry website.
That’s a hell of a lot for an industry which is only just starting to find its feet.
One of the most well-established of these is D-Wave Systems, from Canada. Founded in 1999 — which is practically the Stone Age as far as quantum computing is concerned — in Vancouver. Their goal is to build commercially viable quantum computers, and already they have successfully sold hardware units to the likes of Lockheed Martin, as well as NASA and Google.
With just over $204m in the kitty from fifteen funding rounds to date, D-Wave Systems has the cash and innovation to compete with the big boys.
Their architecture, built on the system of quantum annealing, which according to their website: Quantum annealing processors naturally return low-energy solutions; some applications require the real minimum energy (optimization problems) and others require good low-energy samples (probabilistic sampling problems).
D-Wave System’s latest model, the D-Wave 2000Q, was released in January 2017. Its 2048-qubit power is, in theory at least, the most powerful on the market. But there’s more: the company announced its latest quantum processor chip, the Pegasus, with an impressive 5000 qubit of processing power, which they will release sometime in 2020 on its next-generation model.
Critics of D-Wave Systems say it’s not really quantum, as their architecture is not based on the traditional gate model, meaning their thousands of qubits don’t mean diddly in the grander scheme of things.
‘Our role in bringing quantum computers kicking and screaming into the world is to, well, build quantum computers.’ — Dr. Geordie Rose is a founder and CTO of D-Wave Systems
IonQ, out of College Park, Maryland, is headed by former Amazon Prime boss Peter Chapman. The company’s goal, in contrast to D-Wave System’s approach of ‘it’s the number of qubits that’s the most important thing’, is to focus on the quality of the qubits rather than the number. So far, IonQ has managed to accomplish a processor with 160 qubits of computational power, no mean feat when you consider budgetary concerns. IonQ’s architecture, based on the trapped-ion approach, goes against most companies in the industry, where the supercooled superconductor model is the most popular. The company raised $20m in a Series A round in 2017, so is well-financed.
The premise is simple (not really, it’s difficult). Basically, ions are isolated in a vacuum chamber. After this has been accomplished, lasers cool the subatomic particles. By doing this, there is no need for the huge cryogenic cooling machines that many of the companies employ, saving money on engineers and materials.
Next on our list is Zapata Computing, which has managed to raise $31.4m over three funding rounds so far, the latest a Series A in April of this year. Specializing in quantum algorithms, the company’s ultimate goal is to develop quantum software for big industry players. Backed by technology developed at Harvard University.
Another company focussed on quantum computer software is the Austin, Texas-based Strangeworks, Inc, headed by the geek guru of the quantum computer world, William Hurley, who goes by the trademarked epithet of whurley. A quarter philosopher, a quarter visionary and the other fifty percent sweet entrepreneur, this bespectacled college dropout’s goal is to ‘humanize quantum’ with his company’s Quantum Community Platform, a hardware-agnostic venture designed to evangelize and educate people on the possibilities of quantum computers. With a modest $4m in the bank off of a 2018 Seed Round, this startup is sure to be one of the most innovative on the marketplace.
‘Quantum computing, not AI, will define our future.’ — whurley
The Boulder, Colorado setup ColdQuanta takes a different approach, aligning its skills with manufacturing ‘ultracold-atom-based quantum devices’, which are key in reducing decoherence, the bain of quantum physicists trying to develop fidelity within their quantum computers, and producing more reliable logical qubits, the key to quantum supremacy’. Backed by funding of $6.8m from a Seed Round, as the industry grows, there is no doubt the services and products of this startup will become more in demand.
Fancy full stack and a do-all-things model? Then Rigetti’s to the rescue, one of the most innovative out there. This startup fashions quantum chips, adapts them to existing quantum models, then builds the software which programmers can utilize to construct state-of-the-art algorithms for the said chips.
Talk about controlling a niche.
Having raised a whopping $119.5m over eight funding rounds going back to 2014, Rigetti is sure to be one of the leading players in the startup world.
Oh, and they also have a beta version of their cloud service Forest, which has been developed so programmers can access quantum processors to develop algorithms.
‘What this platform achieves for the very first time is an integrated computing system that is the first quantum cloud services architecture. My guess is this could happen anytime from six to 36 months out.’ — Chad Rigetti, founder of Rigetti Computing, 2018
Another startup north of the 49th Parallel is 1QBit, whose area of expertise is the pharmaceutical industry. The company’s main goal for the coming years will be in developing molecular modelling applications which can help in the development of the biotech industry and set in motion initiatives in drugs to cure cancers, dementia and other illnesses which we have yet to find a cure for.
Still in the land of the mountie and John Candy, we have Toronto’s Xanadu, backed by big money and a completely different approach to its business model. Xanadu, a top innovator in photonic quantum computing, recently raised CA$32 million in Series A financing bringing its total funding since inception to a healthy CA$41 million. The company, founded in 2016 by Christian Weedbrook, believes photonic quantum computing, which is grounded on the model photon particles of light can execute, at room temperature, extremely fast computations, is the way forward. The obvious benefit to this is avoiding the need to build and maintain the superconducting quantum refrigerator, which is costly.
Additionally, it has released a public, open-source software package which can run on some of the cloud-based quantum computers out there.
The last startup on my list — but certainly not the last — is Atom Computing. Founded by Benjamin Bloom, an ex-engineer at Rigetti, with $5m in the bank off of venture capital funding, this startup takes a completely different angle to quantum computer systems. Using ‘individually controlled atoms’ as a starting point, the startup hopes to break boundaries in QC and ‘provide a path towards truly scalable quantum computing.’
There are many others, which, unfortunately, I have had to leave out. Alpine Quantum Technologies from Austria. Oxford Quantum Circuits and Cambridge Quantum Computing Limited in the UK. Riverlane, another out of Cambridge, recently received funding worth an impressive €3.3 million from a Seed Round. Quantonation from France. Beit.tech from Krakow, Poland. Delft Circuits from the Netherlands. Farther afield, in Japan, there is D Slit Technologies. Elyah from Dubai. Entropica Labs based in Singapore. H-Bar Consultants, centred in Melbourne, Australia.
The list goes on. And as more angel investors and VCs see the potential that quantum computers can bring to the world and their ROI, more will appear from the ether.