10 hot quantum-computing startups to watch

Well-funded young companies are tackling hardware, software, algorithms, security, analytics and more as they work to make quantum computing a reality in enterprises.

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Why they’re a hot startup to watch: Being a first mover often means you’ve moved too quickly, too early. However, the quantum-computing space is attracting substantial investments, and the consensus among the quantum experts is that big breakthroughs are just around the corner.

Usually, “breakthroughs coming soon” is red flag, too, but there has been steady progress recently, such as IBM unveiling its first commercial quantum computer at CES 2019. Q-CTRL also has an early on-the-record customer, and is part of IBM’s Q Network, which will grant the startup access to IBM’s quantum-computing systems.

Finally, Q-CTRL says that many quantum-chip producers have in-house quantum control tools, but these tools are very basic and don’t do all that much to eliminate decoherence. If you’re going to be a first mover, it’s good to target a real-world problem that already has a solution, but a solution that is universally considered subpar.

QxBranch

Year founded: 2014

Funding: $8.5 million

Headquarters: Washington, D.C.

CEO: Michael Brett, who formerly served as COO of the Shoal Group

What they do: QxBranch delivers enterprise quantum computing tools and simulation systems for enterprise users. These are the same quantum computing tools that QxBranch is using to develop its own applications.

QxBranch also provides professional services, working with enterprises to develop quantum-powered applications to solve industry challenges. The first quantum-powered application QxBranch offers is enterprise predictive analytics software. Verticals the startup currently targets include finance, cyber-security, biotech, energy and sports.

Key Differentiator: CEO Michael Brett points to what he calls “explainable data analytics,” or data-analytics tools capable of delivering business insights without the need for expensive data scientists or quantum-computing experts.

Competitors include: QC Ware, 1Qbit, Strangeworks and CQC for Quantum Computing software. Palantir, McKinsey, PWC, Deloitte, Accenture and SAP, among others, for data analytics.

Customers include: UBS, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Merck

Why they’re a hot startup to watch: In June 2018, QxBranch closed a $4.1 million Series A round led by Dymon Asia Ventures and Alpha Intelligence Capital (AIC). Other investors included WorldQuant Ventures and the Maryland Venture Fund. CEO Brett also has a VC background, which can’t hurt when it comes time to raise another round.

With named customers and partnerships with the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Rigetti Computing, QxBranch is positioned right in the middle of the quantum gold rush.

Rigetti Computing

Year founded: 2013

Funding: $119.5 million

Headquarters: Berkeley, Calif.

CEO: Chad Rigetti, who previously worked in the quantum-computing group at IBM, where he was Technical Lead for 3D superconducting quantum computing.

What they do: Rigetti develops semiconductors, hardware and software for quantum computing. Its full-stack quantum vision starts with superconducting quantum integrated circuits. Rigetti operates a rapid prototyping fab called Fab-1 that enables it to not only quickly create semiconductors, but also to experiment with new designs for 3D integrated quantum circuits.

Rigetti packages and deploys those chips in a low-temperature environment, building control systems to perform quantum-logic operations on them.

Quantum Cloud Services (QCS) is Rigetti’s quantum-first cloud-computing platform. With QCS, quantum processors are tightly integrated with classical computing infrastructure to deliver application-level performance that surpasses that which Rigetti says can be achieved with classical computing alone.

Rigetti’s first product, Forest, was released in 2017. Forest is a full-stack programming and execution environment for quantum computing. The Forest SDK includes a Quantum Virtual Machine (QVM), which runs locally, that developers can use to create algorithms for quantum computing.

Key Differentiator: Rigetti’s semiconductor fab and the ecosystem growing up around Forest have given the startup a head start on becoming the first one-stop shop for quantum computing.

Competitors include: IBM, Google, Microsoft, Intel, D-Wave, IonQ and Xanadu
Customers include:
Forest is being used by Oak Ridge National Labs to simulate the structure of the nucleus of deuterium atoms, by Los Alamos National Lab to develop quantum computing algorithms, and several researchers are using Forest to research machine learning.  The company says Forest has been used to run more than 65 million quantum-computing experiments.

Why they’re a hot startup to watch: Rigetti has strong VC backing, having raised $119.5 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Sutter Hill Ventures, Vy Capital and several others. 

Founder and CEO Chad Rigetti entered the quantum-computing field early and worked with top talent. He not only worked at IBM in its quantum-computing group, but he also earned his Ph.D. from Yale, where he studied under quantum-computing pioneer Michel Devoret.

Fab-1 gives Rigetti the ability to experiment liberally and, when it strikes gold with one of those experiments, to iterate quickly. Rigetti was mentioned by many of the other startups either as a major competitor or a partner through Rigetti’s QCS Developer Partner Program. With QCS and Forest, Rigetti’s goal of building a quantum-computing ecosystem feels more substance than hype.

Strangeworks

Year founded: 2017

Funding: $4 million

Headquarters: Austin, Texas

CEO: William Hurley. Prior to Strangeworks, Hurley founded Honest Dollar and sold it to Goldman Sachs.

What they do: Strangeworks is developing SaaS tools to help software developers, IT system managers and researchers take advantage of advances in quantum computing. As with a few other startups in this roundup, Strangeworks is inking a number of partnerships with the likes of IBM and Stack Overflow with the hopes that it can carve out its own niche in this market early. Other partners include Rigetti and CERN.

Key Differentiator: According to a company representative, Strangeworks’ mission is to “humanize quantum computing in order to demystify and democratize the technology.” This looks similar to the go-to-market strategy of the many SaaS players in Big Data, cloud, AI, etc. that seek to abstract away complexity in order to deliver benefits to a broader market.

This may sound like typical marketing spin, but the partnership with IBM, which grants access to IBM’s quantum-computing resources, and its partnership with Stack Overflow, which gives Strangeworks a foothold in the developer community, are the kind of steps a startup should take to transform its mission statement into reality.

Competitors include: IBM, Microsoft, Google, 1Qbit, Zapata Computing and QC Ware

Customers include: None announced

Why they’re a hot startup to watch: Strangeworks has secured $4 million in seed-round funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and including Ecliptic Capital, GreatPoint Ventures, Lux Capital, BoxGroup and Amplify Partners.

CEO William Hurley, COO David Cardona, and CTO Justin Youens were all involved in the sale of Honest Dollar, a digital retirement-account platform, to Goldman Sachs. Hurley also founded Chaotic Moon Studios, which was acquired by Accenture.

In a market as new as quantum computing, inking partnerships with the likes of IBM, CERN and Stack Overflow will help Strangeworks position itself in the middle of this evolving ecosystem.

Xanadu

Year founded: 2016

Funding: $9 million (Canadian)

Headquarters: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

CEO: Christian Weedbrook, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Queensland and held postdoctoral fellowships at both the University of Toronto and MIT.

What they do: Xanadu designs quantum photonic semiconductors. According to Xanadu, using photons rather than electrons to carry information and perform calculations gives its chips the ability to perform incredibly complex computations extremely fast. By integrating these photonic chips into existing hardware, Xanadu intends to provide full-stack quantum computing products. Xanadu also offers three open-source software products: Penny Lane, a machine learning platform for quantum computers; Strawberry Fields, a full-stack Python library for designing, simulating and optimizing quantum optical circuits; and Blackbird, a quantum programming language.

Key Differentiator: Instead of using electrons to carry information and perform calculations, Xanadu uses photons. According to Xanadu, unlike electrons, photons are very stable and are almost unaffected by random noise from heat. As a result, Xanadu is able to use photonic chips to generate, control and measure photons in ways that enable extremely fast computations.

Competitors include: IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, D-Wave, Rigetti and IonQ

Customers include: Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto is using Strawberry Fields for its Quantum Machine Learning program.

Why they’re a hot startup to watch: Xanadu’s quantum photonic chips could be the breakthrough that pushes quantum computing out of the lab and into the mainstream enterprise. In the meantime, Xanadu is attracting developers with its open-source software and partnership with Creative Destruction Lab.

When Xanadu raised its $9 million (Canadian) seed round, it also attracted quantum-computing pioneer and MIT Professor Seth Lloyd to serve as its chief scientific adviser. In an industry still in its infancy, having heavy-hitting scientists in your corner certainly can’t hurt.

Zapata Computing

Year founded: 2017

Funding: $5.4 million

Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass.

CEO: Christopher Savoie, who previously served as Chairman and CEO of GNI Group

What they do: According to a Zapata Computing representative, quantum hardware is approaching the limit where classical computers can no longer simulate the outcome of a quantum algorithm run on such hardware. This creates a “computational bottleneck.”

Zapata Computing develops software and algorithms that run on gate-model quantum computers. It also provides a set of tools that help developers create software and algorithms that are used to migrate workloads from classical computers to quantum circuits. These quantum circuits can then be executed on quantum hardware. Zapata also provides tools that help interpret the results of quantum measurements.

Key Differentiator: According to a Zapata spokesperson, Zapata’s team has “developed and published many of the fundamental algorithms that are useful on near-term quantum computers.” This class of algorithms – variational algorithms – can run on the “noisy” quantum computers being built today. Unlike the algorithms that require the fault-tolerant quantum computers that are expected in five to10 years, variational approaches are beginning to hit the market now.

Competitors include: Google, IBM, Rigetti, Intel, Microsoft, IonQ, QCWare, 1Qbit, CQC and Xanadu

Customers include: None announced.

Why they’re a hot startup to watch: Zapata Computing has raised a decent-sized seed round and has a founder who has guided a company to a successful IPO.

Zapata is backed by $5.4 million in seed funding, co-led by The Engine (the venture firm founded by MIT to invest in tech startups) and Boston-based Pillar VC, with participation from FF Science and Prelude Ventures. CEO Christopher Savoie founded the pharmaceutical company GNI Group and served as its chairman and CEO, leading it to a successful IPO on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 2007. Zapata’s focus on variational quantum algorithms could help it carve out a niche in the market while other competitors are still stuck in the R&D phase.

(Jeff Vance is the founder of Startup50, a site that discovers, analyzes, and ranks tech startups. Follow him on Twitter, @JWVance, or connect with him on LinkedIn.)

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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