TQD Exclusive: QC Ware Combines the Innovative Drive of a Deep Tech Firm With Customer Focus of a Saw Mill

Exclusive interview with QC Ware CEO Matt Johnson

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With quantum computing’s spooky-action-at-a-distance, entanglement, superposition and other sci-fi-sounding terms, it’s easy to lose sight of the practical applications of the technology and drift away from solid business principles.

Not at QC Ware. This is a startup where “practical quantum computing” is not a contradiction in terms.

Matt Johnson, QC Ware’s CEO and co-founder, has etched a customer service and common sense business focus into the DNA of the company. And it’s paying off. In an era when most quantum companies are looking for their first customers, or are concerned about securing the next round of funding to find those customers, this Palo Alto-based startup has not just landed customers, but has brought in companies that are in the upper echelons of the Fortune 500 list, as well as major governmental agencies.

Rather than approaching the quantum industry as an almost unfathomable, inaccessible technology that just barely skirts the border of enterprise computing, Johnson wants his team of business specialists and quantum algorithm scientists to have the practical focus of an owner of a mill in the heartland.

“I want the psychology of our company to be oriented as a business. Yeah, we have a deeply technical product and team, but fundamentally what we need to be doing is building something customers care about.”

“I like to tell our team to think of our company as a saw mill in Northern Minnesota with its goal to sell enough boards and planks to pay for the timber, make payroll, cover your ground lease, pay for maintenance, some capital expenditures and have some money left over,” said Johnson. “I want the psychology of our company to be oriented as a business. Yeah, we have a deeply technical product and team, but fundamentally what we need to be doing is building something customers care about.”

The QC Ware team that Johnson is referring to includes some of the top quantum algorithm scientists in the field, who are focused on squeezing useful power out of early-generation quantum computers. Those researchers work hand-in-hand with QC Ware’s business executives, who bring their enterprise software experience—gained at companies such as Cisco and IBM–to bear for customers.

“Our team’s goal is to give our customers a technical edge. We are working with them now, so that they will be among the first to exploit quantum computing when the hardware ‘gets there’.”

This focus on the customer seems to be working. Johnson, who formerly served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force and co-founded the company with KJ Sham and Randy Correll after entering into a collaborative R&D agreement with NASA Ames’s quantum computing group in 2014, reports the company has well-established contracts with government agencies, such as the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the government of France. The list of private sector customers and partners is just as impressive and includes quantum computing hardware firms — for example, IBM, Google, Rigetti, D-Wave, Honeywell, IonQ and Microsoft — and commercial powerhouses, such as Airbus, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and BMW.

Johnson said that this customer-centered organizational philosophy will guide each step of QC Ware as it moves toward its mission to become a quantum computing-as-a-service leader and as it continues to build enterprise solutions that run on quantum computing hardware. To offer a classical comparison to QC Ware’s quantum ambitions, Johnson said that Oracle suits as a model for their ambitions in today’s — and tomorrow’s — quantum industry.

“We want to do the same thing with quantum computing, but that’s just making it easy to use, which is the easy part. We want to take it another step. We want to exploit the power of quantum computers in an easy-to-use way.”

“We would like to do something as close as possible for quantum computing that Oracle did for relational database management,” said Johnson. “As we have all heard about, or might have read about, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, relational databases were viewed as perhaps unbuildable or unusable. But, then Oracle built this layer of management software on top of it that suddenly made this a very powerful thing that was useful to companies and enterprises. We want to do the same thing with quantum computing, but that’s just making it easy to use, which is the easy part. We want to take it another step. We want to exploit the power of quantum computers in an easy-to-use way.”

To create these quantum solutions, QC Ware doesn’t need a crystal ball. They’re designing solutions for current problems and challenges that businesses and organizations – right now — face every day.

“What we care about is understanding current computing bottlenecks in enterprises, not future computing problems that might come up some day, but ones that are slowing down enterprise production now,” said Johnson.

Companies that are facing these bottlenecks – coincidentally – are also the companies that QC Ware believes will be future customers. Many of these businesses are in the chemistry, pharmaceutical, and financial sector.

Quantum AI

Optimists and hobbyists seem to be attracted to quantum computer-based artificial intelligence, according to Johnson.

There’s a lot of feverish work being done at the algorithm level by developers who are trying to express hard machine learning problems in a formulation that can make them run on quantum computers and, in fact, makes them run a little bit more efficiently.

“That domain — AI and machine learning — is very attractive and we would like to mash quantum computing right up with AI and then you have some super brain in the sky — but, of course, we are still a long way from that.”

He added that quantum AI will require the development of more efficient algorithms and quantum computing hardware.

The Quantum Timeline

Johnson is optimistic that quantum technology will start to make its mark in the real world relatively soon, albeit incremental at first.

“I’m very confident that there will be some — perhaps a limited number of — enterprise problems where quantum processing will be included in a workflow,” said Johnson.  “It might be for chemistry. It might be for simulation. It might be optimization.”

Farther out on the timeline, the CEO sees more of a role for quantum computing to benefit customers. A decade from now he expects to see quantum computing to supplement enterprise computing.

“I think quantum computing by then will be pervasive and — this is pure speculation but — somewhere north of ten to twenty percent of overall enterprise computing,” said Johnson.

Investments and Competition

QC Ware operates in the same QC software ecosystem as 1Qbit, Cambridge Quantum Computing, Zapata and Strangeworks. Each of those companies is settling into a niche that it believes will be useful and profitable. Johnson mentioned that there are some differences between QC Ware and those companies.

“What we’re trying to do with our cloud service is one of the big differences,” said Johnson. “We’re trying to provide software that accelerates solution times by effectively using quantum computers. What we have under the hood are algorithmic methods and acceleration techniques that allow users who have no exposure to quantum computing to use a very simple interface and a very simple set of function libraries to run their problems on a quantum computer.”

The user only needs a few lines of code to interface with the system, Johnson said.

Investors in QC Ware include Citi and Goldman Sachs, Airbus Ventures, D. E. Shaw Ventures and Pegasus Tech Ventures.

Conferences and Outreach

QC Ware has positioned itself not just as a company that is competing in the industry, but also as an advocate of the industry, itself. The startup organizes the Q2B Conference, which focuses on practical quantum computing. The conference, which was last held in December 2019, featured both business bootcamps, as well as technical seminars. Some of the quantum industry’s biggest names and pioneers attended and offered their insights in speeches and presentations.

Q2B 2020 is still on the books in December 2020.