“It’s still very early days” for quantum computing, says Russ Wilcox, a partner at the venture capital firm Pillar. “But a number of companies are starting to experiment to learn how to use it. The key factor is that the field is progressing at an exponential rate.”
In 2018, his company made an early investment in Zapata Computing, a Boston startup building software for quantum computers and selling services — including ways to analyze the new cybersecurity risks that a powerful new class of computers could present. (Wilcox explained his thinking about the field of quantum computing that year in a blog post titled “The Time is Now for Quantum.”) Zapata, who graduated from Harvard and is named after a Mexican revolutionary, has raised $64 million . Among the 98 employees and contractors are 36 people who have PhDs.
The field of quantum computing is just over 40 years old; It began to take shape at a 1981 meeting in Dedham, at MIT’s Endicott House Conference Center, which hosted an academic conclave called the Physics of Computation Conference. At the event, the physicist Richard Feynman suggested that when it comes to simulating natural systems such as weather, chemistry and biology, “classical” computing approaches limited to the binary language of ones and zeros would always fall short. “Nature is not classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you’d better make it quantum mechanical,” Feynman said.
Bharath Kannan, chief executive of the Cambridge startup Atlantic Quantum, picks up the statement from there. “Mapping the physics of molecules, atoms and electrons on conventional computers is very inefficient,” Cannon says. “And when you try to do certain types of simulations, you’re relying on a lot of approximations of how they behave, and most of the time they don’t work.”
The question that has been driving the field of quantum computing since the early 1980s is, “What if you had a computer that was born quantum mechanically,” as Cannon puts it. “It would be game-changing for many industries. Pharma companies could simulate how drug molecules would act in the body before you waste a lot of money with clinical trials,” companies could simulate how new types of materials would perform in the real world – Whether an airplane wing or a cardiac implant – and weather. And climate researchers could more accurately model these systems.
Another force, Kannan explained, was the development of an algorithm in 1994 that, if run on a powerful enough quantum computer, could break any of today’s data encryption. (This scenario has been dubbed the “quantum apocalypse.”) “That scared the government, and it got the money flowing,” Cannon says. In the current fiscal year, the federal government has allocated about 900 million dollars to advance the field of quantum information science, which includes quantum computers.
Quantum computers store information in qubits, short for “quantum bits.” Unlike the “on” and “off” switches of traditional computers, however, which represent ones and zeros, and must be in each state, qubits can exist in a “super-state,” being both ones and zeros at the same time. . Time. “The English language is not meant to describe quantum mechanics,” Cannon says. “There are really no words that can accurately explain what a qubit is.” (Wow.) But the ultimate goal, back to Feynman’s vision, is a powerful new class of computers that can solve problems and accurately simulate things that today’s computers cannot. One big challenge will be coming up with effective approaches to error correction; Given a qubit’s ability to exist in a superposition, it is much more likely to introduce errors into calculations than classical binary bits.
Cannon earned his doctorate from MIT this May, and in July, Atlantic Quantum raised $9 million in funding, some of it from Boston-based Glasswing Ventures and The Engine, an investment fund affiliated with MIT. It is working to design a quantum chip that will run in a super-cold environment — about minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit — but can be manufactured using today’s chipmaking techniques. The company is based in the Engine’s incubator space, just off Central Square in Cambridge.
This week, a startup based in Cambridge, England, Riverlane, officially opened an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Riverlane, with 80 employees, has six of them based locally, including its chief science officer, Jake Taylor. Taylor spent two-and-a-half years working in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, providing guidance on quantum-related issues. The company is focused on creating an operating system for large-scale quantum computers that will deal with error correction. Taylor says Riverlane will be hiring locally, although jobs have not yet been posted, and plans to launch an internship program in January.
The company’s Kendall Square outpost, Taylor explained, is primarily for research and development activities. “The quantum workforce—people who can really dig in and make immediate progress—is not evenly distributed,” he says. “Many of the educational institutions here have been leaders in the fundamental science that underpins quantum computing.”
In addition to the workforce, some local venture capital firms are getting comfortable with placing bets on the quantum computing sector. Glasswing’s Rudina Seseri says her company is “seeing the momentum increase,” although the sector is “still in the warm-up phase, not yet in the first inning.” But some of the technology being developed by startups, she says, “is so meaningful that if they get the technology to work at scale, they’re going to be incredibly valuable.”
That said, much of the revenue available to these companies today comes from researchers in academic and corporate laboratories trying to understand the potential of quantum computers.
Sam Lees, an executive director in Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, thinks that “the big commercial opportunities for quantum are still a long way off.” The OTD helps attract corporate funding to Harvard research laboratories, and also helps to license technologies created in the laboratories to the private sector.
“Technologies have a way of getting oversold and overhyped,” Lees says. “We all recognize that this will take some time.”
Big companies like Amazon, Google and IBM are trying to move the field forward, and startups are starting to demonstrate their new approaches. In the startup realm, Lees says, we see enough new companies being formed and attracting funding “to support a thesis that this is going to be a big thing.”