B.C. companies prep for ‘quantum’ leap in business

New institute seeking partners to accelerate quantum computing commercialization

The Quantum Algorithms Institute will be offering training, industry workshops and research seminars when it opens at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus in spring 2022 | Chung Chow, BIV

Like a computer system that hackers can’t breach, Alan Baratz remained tightlipped back in March when questioned about revenue generated through his D-Wave Systems Inc. quantum computing company.

The Burnaby firm had cut its teeth selling its systems to the likes of Google, U.S. defence company Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE:LMT) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and this year it embarked on a $120 million project advancing its software and hardware.

“What I will say, though, is that our entire business model now is cloud-based,” Baratz, D-Wave’s CEO and president, said on a call with reporters.

“We sold a few systems early on in the life of the company, but we realized that it’s important to put a business model in place that would allow us to access as many customers as possible.”

Quantum computing is preparing to make a rapid leap towards commercialization across the globe, and local players have been intensifying efforts to secure the talent and business models needed to avoid being left in the dust.

Last month, the Quantum Algorithms Institute (QAI) in Surrey officially put out a call to potential business partners preparing to deploy quantum-enabled technologies.

Quantum computers differ from regular computers that use two bits – ones and zeroes – to make calculations. Instead, quantum computers rely on qubits, which have a “superposition” allowing it to be one and zero at the same time.

This means quantum computers can determine all possible values in a single operation and greatly reduce the time it takes to make complex calculations.

“We’re interested in partnering both with the academic institutes around Canada and potentially in the States, but the call is really focusing more on the startups,” said QAI chairman Brad Lackey.

“A lot of the startups, particularly in the eastern part of Canada, are very interested in opening offices in B.C. It’s a great place to work, there’s a lot of technology available here, we want to make that more attractive.”

In 2019 the provincial government committed $17 million over five years to the QAI, to be based at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus.

The QAI is creating a new graduate degree program in quantum computing – an initiative the province said would help secure more B.C. talent for the sector.

The feds followed up with separate funding in July, committing $2.2 million as part of a bid to renovate a physical location to host industry events and conferences. The goal is to use the new hub to shore up that specialized talent pool and nab more potential customers for quantumcomputing companies.

When the facility opens in spring 2022, it will be offering training, industry workshops and research seminars.

Industry partners include D-Wave, Vancouver software developer 1Q Information Technologies Inc. (1QBit), Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq:AMZN) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT), where Lackey works as a senior quantum researcher in Seattle.

“By developing that workforce, bringing those people out to B.C. and giving them the opportunities to learn about quantum technologies, we’re not only focusing on the software engineering but also the entrepreneur aspects of high-tech businesses that’s going to be very important moving forward.”

D-Wave holds more than 200 patents and is among the growing number of firms emerging in B.C. to tap the potential behind quantum computing.

1QBit, the next biggest name in B.C. after D-Wave when it comes to quantum computing, is best known for developing software for chemistry and finance applications. But last year it began deploying its first medical product, xrAI (pronounced “X-ray”), as part of its expanding commercialization efforts.

The AI-powered tool examines X-ray images and highlights abnormalities for physicians, helping them better identify respiratory complications such as SARS, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Those applications have since expanded to assist with COVID-19.

“The interest for us has always really stemmed from what eventually we’re hoping quantumcomputing will be relevant [to],” 1QBit president Landon Downs told BIV last year.

Meanwhile, 1QBit has also been bolstered by funding from Fujitsu Ltd., which led a $45 million Series B funding round for the software firm in 2017.

Fujitsu Intelligence Technology Ltd. CEO Naoko Yoshizawa told BIV in 2018 that the multimillion-dollar investment helped inform her company’s decision to set up its global artificial intelligence headquarters in Vancouver.

“There’s a huge number of industries which are interested in understanding the role that quantumcomputing is going to play in their business. So, certainly any large manufacturing firm which spends a great deal of money in optimization for supply chain or transportation, these are topics that could be very heavily impacted by quantum computing,” Lackey said. 

“And they’d like to understand that now. Quantum computing is going to require a different workflow in how the optimization is done. And so building the blocks for that are going to have to come early. And that’s really what we’re looking to offer in the short term.”