Canada’s third entrant in the global race to build a quantum computer has emerged from “stealth mode” to reveal its technology, while announcing US$140-million ($193-million) in funding and unveiling a partnership with software giant Microsoft Corp.
Vancouver-based Photonic Inc. said Wednesday it plans to build a quantum computer using silicon chips that are networked with light, a relatively new approach that the seven-year-old startup said would enable the creation of marketable machines within five years.
“What we’re bringing to the table is the fact that the network is the computer,” Photonic founder and chief quantum officer Stephanie Simmons said in an interview.
The 120-person company said its collaboration with Microsoft would allow users to access its quantum system through Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing network. Krysta Svore, Microsoft’s vice-president of advanced quantum development, said unlike commercial agreements with other quantum computer makers operating on Azure, the Photonic deal is a “co-innovation collaboration” to promote quantum networking. Microsoft will offer Photonic as a preferred hardware provider for customers doing computational chemistry and material science discovery.
Microsoft MSFT-Q has also backed a US$100-million ($138-million) venture capital financing of Photonic – also announced Wednesday – alongside British Columbia Investment Management Corp., the British government’s National Security Strategic Investment Fund, Inovia Capital, Yaletown Partners and Amadeus Capital Partners. Photonic previously raised US$40-million ($55-million) from investors including veteran technology executive Paul Terry, who became chief executive officer in 2019, and former Microsoft president Don Mattrick.
Inovia partner Shawn Abbott said he’d watched the quantum computing space for 20 years before deciding to back Photonic. “I’ve felt others were too early for the 10-year life of a venture fund – they were still science projects. Photonic is the first I’ve seen with the potential” to scale quickly into a full platform.
Photonic’s networking model is in keeping with what many in the field regard as a promising direction for scaling up quantum computers to commercial relevancy.
“I think everybody in the industry has realized by now that networking is needed no matter what platform you think about,” said Prem Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
At stake is the prospect of a new kind of device that can easily outperform conventional computers at certain kinds of calculations. In principle, a quantum computer could break encryption codes used to protect financial information while providing a new form of impenetrable encryption. Quantum systems could also be used to predict the behaviour of molecules and help discover materials and drugs or optimize decision making in dynamic situations, from traffic grids to financial markets.
Quantum computers achieve such feats by replacing a conventional computer’s bits – its 1s and 0s – with qubits that have an indeterminate value until they are measured. When qubits are linked together through a phenomenon known as entanglement, these uncertainties can be harnessed to solve in mere seconds calculations that could tie up a regular computer for eons.
While some quantum systems operating today have reached the level of hundreds to more than 1,000 qubits, commercial quantum systems are expected to require millions.
Developers have explored a range of design options for creating such computers, but all come with technical hurdles. Those based on the physical properties of subatomic particles are easy to disturb, and their systems require extreme cooling to reduce vibrations. Those that use entangled particles of light, or photons, have the problem that light cannot be stored, and that photons can be lost while travelling through a fibre optic network.
Despite the challenges, startups and tech giants alike are in a global race to create a commercial quantum computer. A few companies, including Google and Toronto’s Xanadu Quantum Technologies, have proven their machines can achieve “quantum advantage,” by performing certain theoretical operations faster than existing computers. But while such demonstrations are regarded as milestones, they fall well short of the goal of building a practical quantum computer, in part because they lack “fault tolerance” – the need for a quantum system to dedicate the majority of its qubits to correcting errors and providing reliable answers. They also aren’t close to performing tasks commercial customers would pay for.
Some quantum computing startups – including D-Wave Quantum, Inc. of Burnaby, B.C., the first company to commercialize a limited form of quantum computer – have tested the public markets, although demand has been limited. D-Wave, which went public last year, generated just US$3.2-million ($4.4-million) in revenue in the first half and racked up US$46.7-million ($64-million) in operating expenses. Its stock trades for pennies a share.
Photonic is the brainchild of Dr. Simmons, who grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and decided at 16 to devote her life to the field after learning of the creation of the Institute of Quantum Computing close by. “I said, ‘This has to be it, this must be the next wave, it will be so fun,’” the 38-year-old said.
She decided to build her own quantum computer while studying math and physics at the University of Waterloo after learning that the technology was still in its infancy. First she earned a PhD in material science at Oxford University, then studied electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. She moved to B.C. in 2015, believing Vancouver was the best place to recruit talent. She taught physics at Simon Fraser University and founded Photonic in 2016.
Dr. Simmons felt early quantum computer attempts “weren’t working backwards from the long-term solution, which I thought was going to be a horizontally scalable supercomputer.”
To achieve scalability, she opted to work with silicon chips, a well-understood material in the computer industry. The chips are cooled to one degree above absolute zero, or -273.15 C – colder than deep space but a less demanding threshold than some kinds of quantum computers with qubits that must be kept even colder.
The Photonic system’s qubits consist of tiny flaws within the silicon material whose quantum properties can be transmitted and manipulated using light. This opens the possibility of building up a distributed network of chips connected by optical fibres to perform quantum calculations instead of a single, large processor, as other developers have done.
Dr. Simmons said such a system would be able to exploit new approaches to error correction and produce a fault tolerant quantum computer. The bringing together of the networking and computational side of quantum technology has won support from investors in part because it addresses both how to reliably do calculations and how to convey information securely.
“With Stef’s architecture you get a 90-per-cent-plus efficiency of transferring the quantum state,” Amadeus co-founder Hermann Hauser said. “That’s why I think it will become the dominant quantum computing architecture.”