What Are Quantum Hardware Startups Thinking?

Atom Computing adds itself to a growing list of quantum systems makers with pedigreed founders, funding announcements, and a market that even the big players haven’t mastered. With no acquisition/cash-out goals apparent, no established market to chase, and competitive differentiation so nuanced, what’s the game?

If the last five years revolved around AI chip startups, expect the next five to shift to another upstart—the quantum device makers. If the neural network hardware startup crush taught us anything, it’s that it’s hard to challenge the largest chipmakers. We suspect a similar situation with the emerging quantum systems makers.

There are already existing large-scale players in the ecosystem (IBM, Google, and Microsoft) and more established startups, including D-Wave, are also worth mentioning. But even between all of these companies there is so little of practical, real-world value happening on these machines that they do not yet represent any upset to the traditional computing world.

Nonetheless, plenty will try. As with AI hardware, it’s easy to cloak real technical merit in magic-science speak and not have to explain technical differentiation. Without any benchmarks or even functional high-qubit devices that can operate at large enough scale to warrant a multi-vendor comparative effort beyond qubit count (itself not adequate in measuring performance) quantum startups can make almost any claim.

This is not to say the devices are invalid or worse, not even real/functional. It’s to say that it’s a tricky time to enter the quantum startup world in hardware. It’s not as simple as saying “it’s still too early” it’s that the market potential in the next five to ten years could still be minimal in reality. For those who do go the quantum route, how many companies are needed? And is it likely users will look to those with the most established, long-running quantum software stacks and hardware devices.

The quantum startups that cannot compete on time in the space, and who aren’t at liberty to/can’t explain what they do exactly, how it’s different from existing approaches, and how their software works in technical detail do have one last trick up their collective sleeves. Make waves by big, famous hires and raise a lot of capital on the power of those big, famous hires. That happened in the latter stages of the AI hardware game (and has in other areas in IT for years before that).

All of this was to introduce was a sideways way of introducing yet another quantum hardware maker into the space. There’s definitely some magic science speak here, and there’s definitely some funding and pedigree. But there are also a few things worth noting that take this company beyond a few others we’ve watched crop up with no real descriptions of what they do, how it’s different, how they make it, who will use it and how, etc.

This upstart is Atom Computing. When we got the advance press release on Atom’s news that it’s raised $15 million, this sentence caught our eye: “Atom Computing is the first company to build nuclear-spin qubits out of an alkaline earth element.” We asked the startup’s CTO, Dr. Ben Bloom, what in the hell this means.

Our qubits are made of Strontium-87. There are more than 70 levels in our atom that have lifetimes of 10 seconds+. With our first-generation system, Phoenix, we’ve figured out how to control a subset of those levels that are intrinsically stable, made out of different configurations of the nucleus of an alkaline earth atom. This allows us to write quantum information into a scalable system that is shielded from the outside world, without having to resort to dilution refrigerators or other tricks.

From the press release (emphasis ours): “The company’s first-generation quantum computing system, Phoenix, is currently capable of trapping 100 atoms in a vacuum chamber with optical tweezers. Phoenix is able to rearrange and manipulate their quantum states with lasers. The system demonstrates exceptionally stable qubits at scale, with coherence times that are orders of magnitude greater than ever reported.”

When asked about whether there is room in the market for another quantum hardware maker, Atom Computing CEO, Rob Hays tells The Next Platform, “Even with incredible advances in computing performance in the exascale era, there are still mathematical problems, complex simulations, and AI models that still can’t be effectively solved with supercomputers alone. Quantum computers offer a new paradigm in computing that allow a massive continuum of solution space to be explored in parallel with a relatively small number of qubits and new quantum algorithms. We expect quantum computers and classical HPC clusters to be mated together to reach new heights in computing performance and solve these difficult problems together.”

Hays comes to the quantum startup world from the enterprise IT segment. Before Atom, Hays was Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Lenovo’s Infrastructure Solutions Group and spent 20 years at Intel, where he was Vice President and General Manager of Data Center Group Strategic Planning.CTO and co-founder Ben Bloom spent a year at another quantum hardware startup, Rigetti Computing and two years prior to that Intel as a module and yield integration engineer.

Atom Computing has been around for almost four years with Bloom as CEO until Hays stepped into the role this week. The company secured more than $15M in Series A funding which includes investment from Venrock, Innovation Endeavors, and Prelude Ventures. In addition, the National Science Foundation awarded the company three grants.

When asked how there is market room for another startup in the quantum systems space, Bloom tells us, “Atom Computing is dedicated to building useful, gate-based quantum computers, where every Atom equals 1 qubit. We believe the only way to build a scalable quantum computing system is to try new and exciting things. Our point-of-view is that long-lived, high-coherence, scalable systems are the only way to build a successful quantum computer. It’s about demonstrating performance at scale. We are committed to showcasing technical milestones and benchmarks that actually matter for creating a universal quantum computer.”

But here’s the question: what are the technical milestones and benchmarks that actually do matter in this nascent space?

In quantum at this moment, there is tremendous device diversity, but on the micro-level. There are differences in how qubits talk to one another, how tolerant to noise they are, how usable the software stack to interface with them has become and so on. Further, for people used to following systems, we have been trained to think in core counts and clock speeds. Qubit count doesn’t mean a thing if they can’t function together and a qubit, (or “atom”, or whatever you’d like to call it to make it sound different) so competing on that doesn’t work either.

Every quantum startup wants to come out of the gate looking different. It’s nearly impossible when even our smartest readers have a difficult time explaining in any level of technical detail what makes D-Wave’s approach different than IBM’s and so on. The opportunity for a marketing-driven startup to sweep in, blind VCs and the media with science-magic-talk and hyperbole is great.

Companies like Atom Computing and those who will surely follow with their own quantum hardware story are doing something difficult have an equally tough challenge ahead: communicating past the first funding round about how, where, and why they’ll shave out any kind of market reach.

Unlike with the AI chip startups where it was clear in some cases companies were built for acquisition/cash-out, the big companies aren’t buying quantum startups. They have their own problems getting their own hardware/software stacks to work. So, again with the title: what are quantum hardware startups thinking?

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