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Put simply, quantum physics is the study of how atoms — the molecules that make up everything–work. So it may be unsurprising that we stumble as we try to imagine inventions powered by quantum technology. Imagine, in the mid-1990s, trying to explain the potential impact of the Internet on the way the world operated.
But many say quantum innovation has the potential to disrupt nearly every industry, just as the Internet has. In any case, the race to lead the way is starting.
The University of Chicago and the University of Maryland, institutions located in areas with a reputation for quantum research, each launched accelerator programs last month to help entrepreneurs build quantum startups. The programs, each about a year in the making, plan to build startups out of quantum research. Some initial areas of focus in early applications for quantum research are cybersecurity and data protection.
A handful of companies are beginning to reach the market. Take ColdQuanta, a Boulder, Colorado-based company developing tech such as quantum computing and quantum sensing with cold atom quantum technology. Or, IonQ, a quantum computing group based in College Park, which announced plans to go public with a $2 billion valuation in an SPAC deal earlier this year.
IonQ uses quantum technology to create new kinds of computers, whose calculations can be applied to problems as complex as climate change, it says.
The public offering announcement of IonQ, which was founded by College Park professor Chris Monroe, was an indicator for the University of Maryland to launch its incubator. “When IonQ announced their $2 billion, going public, that was kind of ah, okay, maybe now’s the time,” said Julie Lenzer, the chief innovation officer at the University of Maryland and director of its Quantum Startup Foundry. Lenzer laughs as she recalls the first book she picked up when she was trying to understand the field: Quantum Physics for Babies.
Scientists and researchers have worked for years to develop quantum research in labs, but more recently the science has been picking up momentum. Last year, the U.S. announced $1 billion in funding for AI and quantum research, developing five institutes dedicated to researching quantum. The institutes that received funding are the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Quantum innovations are at least 10 or so years out from regular people purchasing products, said Dan Sachs, the director of education and programs at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. But the research is at a tipping point with potential to be big: Think applications such as those in cybersecurity and data protection, he said.
“The promise of quantum is that quantum technology is going to provide solutions to those kinds of problems,” he said. “And not just provide solutions, but provide solutions very quickly. And so it’s an effort very much worth investing in, and trying to do whatever we can to identify commercializable opportunities.”
Currently, research answers basic questions about the technology, as science inquiries tend to do, says Lenzer. Now, these accelerator programs hope to help researchers pivot to answering more specific questions that need to be asked when creating a business.
“In many fields, independent of quantum technology, you get to a point where there’s a critical mass of focus, and that’s where we are with quantum in the last two or three years,” Sachs said. “We have started to see the output, the leading edge components of what will be the quantum technology of the future. And when you get to that point, you want to be on the edge of the wave, and be able to have an impact.”
The Next Quantum Entrepreneurs
The University of Chicago’s program, announced two weeks before The University of Maryland’s, offers mentorship, access to equipment and facilities and networking for its cohorts. The program, called Duality, will grant selected startups $50,000 each, which Sachs says is intended to be enough for at least one entrepreneur to relocate to Chicago.
The program will be led by the Polsky Center and the university’s Chicago Quantum Exchange. Other founding partners include the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Library and P33, a Chicago technology incubator. It will invest a minimum of $20 million over the next 10 years, according to a news release.
The 12-month program is looking to accept five entrepreneurs in its first cohort, but plans to accept up to 10 in the future, Sachs said. The deadline for the first cohort was May 21 and it received 35 applications, Sachs said.
The University of Maryland’s incubator, called the Quantum Startup Foundry, has similar goals: connect researchers and quantum developers to each other and the market, Lenzer said. It was created with a $25 million investment from the university’s new Discovery Fund and is also backed by a $10 million investment for quantum facilities. The incubator was inspired by the work done at the Mid-Atlantic Quantum Alliance, a quantum research hub housed at the university, which Lenzer said launched last year.
The incubator is designed to teach researchers and scientists developing the technology how to build a product and market it to consumers. To effectively incubate quantum, it offers four programs: one for groups with established products, one for idea-stage quantum researchers, a forum to connect entrepreneurs to investors via a summit the university plans to hold in September, and an international program to attract researchers outside the U.S. to Maryland. Applications for the idea-stage program are due May 31.
Some funding will be available to select entrepreneurs who relocate to Maryland, Lenzer said (she estimates up to $750,000 will be allocated to fund innovators). But she emphasizes that relocating is not necessary and the program hopes to build a global network.
Both accelerators are advertising their programs where those typically underrepresented can hear about the opportunity, such as at historically black colleges and universities. “We can’t control the people who apply and the pipeline, but we do have some control over how we advertise for the accelerator,” Sachs said.
Lenzer points out the importance of amplifying the voices of folks in the industry who are diverse. For instance, she said, “there’s not a lot of women in quantum, but let’s help lift up and profile the ones who are so that we can maybe inspire the next generation of people to get into it.”
Lenzer and Sachs point to the importance of also having a diverse staff and partners. “It’s our obligation to also make sure that the organization is represented with women and with people of color, and that our mentors and our business liaisons, and our sponsors, and and the other people that are supporting the work that we’re doing, are either fall into some of those categories, or are, are aligned with us in an effort to increase the level of diversity,” Sachs said.
“This is a great opportunity to level the playing field and bring more women and minorities and underrepresented groups into STEM through quantum, and early,” Lenzer said.