Following the recent press release, we are delighted to announce our investment in the Universal Quantum seed round, together with Village Global, Hoxton Ventures, Luminous Ventures, 7 Percent, FoundersX Ventures, among others.
As the company name implies, Universal Quantum’s goal is to build a large scale universal quantum computer, which may represent one of the grandest engineering challenges of our times. If this goal can be achieved however, the benefit to society and potential business opportunities would be enormous.
After being among the first investors in Zapata Computing, a quantum computing software company, we are now doing an investment in a quantum computing hardware company. In recent years, there have been a multitude of proposed hardware architectures and commercial initiatives to scale up such hardware. Arguably, the approach having received the most attention and funding from incumbent players like IBM and Google, is the one based on superconducting qubits, with Google having recently announced their “quantum supremacy” demonstration. This technology can also be considered one of the most mature, as an ecosystem of infrastructure providers and standardisation has already begun to take form. Universal Quantum takes an alternative, but still technologically mature, design approach using ion trapped qubits. Ion trapped qubits offer several advantages over superconducting qubits, one of them being the ability to operate without the need of cooling to milli-Kelvin temperatures using dilution refrigerators. Other approaches, like topological qubits (Microsoft) or semiconductor qubits are currently less mature technologies and arguably out of scope for even the most patient VC-investor. For a recent review see Quantum Computing: Progress and Prospects (2019).
Building a truly scalable quantum computer however, poses several additional technological challenges. The team behind Universal Quantum has recently published a blueprint proposing an architecture building on existing proven technological principles and microfabrication techniques to overcome many of these hurdles; see Blueprint for a microwave trapped ion quantum computer, based on a modular approach making use of ion transport between different modules. While other companies like IonQ make use of laser-driven single- and multi-qubit gates, Universal Quantum’s approach utilizes global long-wavelength radiation and locally applied magnetic fields, a concept first proposed by Mintert and Wunderlich in 2001. This obviates the need for a very large number (on the order of millions) of individual, precisely aligned laser fields which would be required for gate operation for a large scale quantum computer in the laser based approach. Furthermore, using ion transport between modules rather than photonic interconnects allows for a much faster interaction rate between modules. On top of this, a suitable high error-threshold correction code can be applied.
This is not to suggest that no further technical challenges remains. However, the approach taken by Universal Quantum and their very strong technical and engineering ability makes us believe that this is one of the teams that can get the job done.
At Propagator Ventures we love to back the most promising teams coming out of academia to build commercial success stories. The founders behind Universal Quantum, Winfried Hensinger and Sebastian Weidt, were a perfect match. We especially liked their engineering approach, being willing to depart from the elegant, but less practical road that might offer better acclaim in academic circles. Before investing we met with the team on several occasions discussing the challenges facing a startup coming out of a research group setting, and we were convinced both by the founders tenacity and passion needed to take on such a formidable challenge. Building the company will very much rely on the ability to hire top talent and Universal Quantum has already made 7 new hires of excellent quality.
Although still in its infancy, the market and business potential for quantum computing is growing rapidly (see eg. BCG: “Where Will Quantum Computers Create Value — and When?” or McKinsey: “A game plan for quantum computing”). It is commonly believed that the timeline for commercialization can be divided into the NISQ (Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum) era (3–5 years) and the Broad Quantum Advantage to Full Fault Tolerance era (5 years and beyond), although the terms and time estimates vary. Universal Quantum aims for a large scale error corrected universal quantum computer. To achieve that goal certain design choices and compromises will have to made along the way. There is however good reason to believe that several business opportunities will be present also in the near to intermediate term, as witnessed by the increasing willingness of large corporates to engage with quantum computing companies early. Also, Universal Quantum’s modular approach is a natural fit to scaling up. The applicability of NISQ era devices is still to some extent uncertain, but history shows that the most valuable applications might yet not be apparent in the early days of a completely new computing paradigm (Beyond Quantum Supremacy: The Hunt for Useful Quantum Computers).
We are exited to embark on this journey with Universal Quantum. And we are certain they have one of the best starting points for achieving their goals. Setting up the Universal Quantum Foundation also testifies to their values and the belief that large scale quantum computers will be a technology that should benefit both businesses and society at large.