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Technology D-Wave unveils new strategy to increase accessibility of quantum computers

Eight years after launching the world’s first commercially available quantum computer, D-Wave Systems Inc. still has only a handful of deep-pocketed U.S. customers for its giant, expensive machines. Now, the startup hopes to change that.

On Thursday, D-Wave will unveil plans to offer affordable internet access for the masses to its computers – which cost at least US$10-million. D-Wave is also rolling out software tools that developers with no experience on these machines – which produce more powerful processing capabilities than classical computers – can use to create applications.

"We want to provide something that will work for an open-source developer who just wants to try a quantum computer and has little or no money to do that,” chief executive Vern Brownell said in an interview.

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By making the leap to cloud-based software, 19-year-old D-Wave, one of Canada’s most heavily financed – and oldest – startups is also looking to maintain its early lead over other companies developing quantum computers, including IBM.

The company has raised US$220-million from investors, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the CIA’s venture-capital arm and the Canadian pension fund PSP Investments, and has sold machines to Lockheed Martin, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Google in partnership with NASA.

Volkswagen has built an application to optimize traffic flows in Beijing using a D-Wave computer, while a cancer hospital in Rochester, N.Y., used the Canadian technology to refine tumour-reduction procedure using radiotherapy.

However, for the most part, D-Wave’s computers have been used to solve hypothetical problems “that aren’t of huge business value to customers,” Mr. Brownell said. D-Wave computers have essentially been expensive, sophisticated science kits usable only by the world’s most advanced scientists.

At the same time, D-Wave expects its next generation of computers to offer enough of an advantage over regular computers to solve “commercially viable problems,” such as simulating new advanced materials, discovering new drugs, or increasing the power and capability of artificial intelligence and machine learning programs, Mr. Brownell said.

The company is now working on making its current technology more accessible by inviting developers to try the software platform for free – not in the lab but in their homes, or any coffee shop with WiFi. The hope is that they will put D-Wave’s system to broader use and even develop the “killer app” that might drive mass adoption, as spreadsheets did for the desktop computer and wireless e-mail did for mobile devices.

A software layer to drive adoption has been “the critical missing link” for the company, said D-Wave director Steve Jurvetson, a former partner of DFJ. “We can’t just sell bare physics to people.”

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In August, 2017, D-Wave hired veteran Silicon Valley software executive Alan Baratz as chief product officer to build its software business. A Philadelphia native in his 60s, Mr. Baratz held several senior software-executive positions with companies including IBM, Cisco, Avaya and News Corp., but also led and invested in several startups.

He led Sun Microsystems Inc.’s newly formed JavaSoft division from 1996 to 1999. When he joined, Java was a nascent programming language used by few developers and one outside client: browser pioneer Netscape. “We needed to convince developers this was the best platform for writing software,” he said. “This was a ground game with individual developers. We realized that the only way Java would become mainstream was if we could get the developers fully bought into it.”

He oversaw efforts to woo developers by building software tools, demos and sample applications. He established a developer outreach program and provided training to spur them on to try Java and create applications with it. By the time he left, hundreds of thousands of developers were using it.

For the past 14 months, Mr. Baratz and his team have been laying the groundwork to deploy a similar strategy at D-Wave.

The company has built the infrastructure to give users easy access to two of the computers in its head office, including a system to handle credit-card payments for people accessing on the machines. Costs for access will range from free – for developers who create open-source applications – to thousands of dollars per hour. The company will continue to sell its computers, but “Mr. Brownell said it expects cloud access to become its primary source of revenue.

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