By | November 15, 2023
BC's quantum computer maker Photonic emerges from 'stealth mode' with $100 million and Microsoft deal

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Founder and Quantum CEO Stephanie Simmons poses for a photograph at Photonic Inc.’s lab in Coquitlam, BCTijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s third entrant in the global race to build a quantum computer has emerged from “stealth mode” to unveil its technology, while announcing $US140 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 wired for light, a relatively new approach that the seven-year-old startup said would enable the creation of marketable machines within five years.

“What we bring to the table is the fact that the network is the computer,” Photonics founder and quantum chief Stephanie Simmons said in an interview.

The 120-person company said its collaboration with Microsoft would allow users to access its quantum systems via Microsoft’s Azure cloud network. Krysta Svore, Microsoft’s vice president of advanced quantum development, said that unlike commercial deals with other quantum computer makers operating on Azure, the Photonic deal is a “co-innovation collaboration” to advance quantum networks. Microsoft will offer Photonic as a preferred hardware vendor for customers working in computational chemistry and materials science.

Microsoft MSFT-Q has also backed a $US100 million ($138 million) venture capital financing of Photonic – also announced on Wednesday – along with British Columbia Investment Management Corp., the UK 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 CEO in 2019, and former Microsoft president Don Mattrick.

Inovia partner Shawn Abbott said he had been looking at the quantum computing space for 20 years before deciding to back Photonic. “I’ve felt others were too early for a venture fund’s 10-year life – they were still science projects. Photonic is the first I’ve seen with the potential” to quickly scale to a full platform.

Photonics’ network model is in line with what many in the field see as a promising direction for scaling up quantum computing to commercial relevance.

“I think everyone in the industry by now has realized that networking is needed no matter what platform you’re thinking about,” said Prem Kumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

At stake is the prospect of a new type of device that can easily outperform conventional computers in certain types 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 can also be used to predict the behavior of molecules and help discover materials and drugs or optimize decision-making in dynamic situations, from traffic networks 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 measured. When qubits are linked together through a phenomenon called entanglement, these uncertainties can be exploited to solve in seconds calculations that would tie up a regular computer for ages.

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 to create such computers, but all come with technical hurdles. Those based on the physical properties of subatomic particles are easy to disrupt, and their systems require extreme cooling to reduce vibrations. Those using entangled particles of light, or photons, have the problem that light cannot be stored, and that photons can be lost as they travel through a fiber optic network.

Despite the challenges, both startups and tech giants are in a global race to create a commercial quantum computer. A few companies, including Google and Toronto’s Xanadu Quantum Technologies, have proven that their machines can achieve “quantum advantages” by performing certain theoretical operations faster than existing computers. But while such demonstrations are considered milestones, they fall 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 quantum bits to correcting errors and providing reliable answers. They also don’t come close to performing tasks that commercial customers would pay for.

Some quantum computer companies—including D-Wave Quantum, Inc. of Burnaby, BC, 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 $3.2 million ($4.4 million) in revenue in the first half and incurred $46.7 million ($64 million) in operating expenses. Its stock is traded at öre per share.

Photonic is the brainchild of Dr. Simmons, who grew up in Kitchener, Ont., and as a 16-year-old decided to devote his life to the field after learning about the creation of the nearby Institute of Quantum Computing. “I said, ‘This has to be it, this has to be the next wave, it’s going to be so much fun,'” the 38-year-old said.

She decided to build her own quantum computer while studying mathematics and physics at the University of Waterloo after learning that the technology was still in its infancy. First, she earned a PhD in materials science at Oxford University, then studied electrical engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. She moved to BC in 2015, believing that Vancouver was the best place to recruit talent. She taught physics at Simon Fraser University and founded Photonic in 2016.

Dr. Simmons felt that early quantum computer attempts “didn’t work backwards from the long-term solution, which I thought would be a horizontally scalable supercomputer.”

To achieve scalability, she chose to work with silicon chips, a well-known material in the computer industry. The chips are cooled to a degree above absolute zero, or -273.15 C – colder than deep space but a less demanding threshold than some types of quantum computers with qubits that must be kept even colder.

The qubits of the photonic system consist of small defects in the silicon material whose quantum properties can be transferred and manipulated using light. This opens up the possibility of building a distributed network of chips connected by optical fibers to perform quantum computations instead of a single, large processor, as other developers have done.

Dr Simmons said such a system could exploit new methods of error correction and produce a fault-tolerant quantum computer. The bringing together of the networking and computation sides of quantum technology has won investor support in part because it addresses both how to perform computations reliably and how to transmit information securely.

“With Stef’s architecture, you get a 90 percent efficiency of transferring the quantum state,” said Amadeus co-founder Hermann Hauser. “That’s why I think it’s going to be the dominant quantum computer architecture.”

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