Scientists and futurists have been thrilled/terrified about the possibilities of quantum computers for decades. These insanely powerful machines can theoretically operate a million times faster than classical computers by transcending mere 0s and 1s to process computations in parallel (For more, read our interactive explainer or watch our video). Until recently, research into this technology has been largely limited to theoretical physics labs. But over the past few months, it’s infiltrated the world of startups and private corporations. Google bought one. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin bought one. The NSA is researching it for reasons we can only imagine.
Now there’s even a venture fund called QWave devoted to quantum technology and other state-of-the-art physics and materials science. Based out of Boston and launched in December 2012 by former Soviet nuclear physicist Serguei Kouzmine, QWave today announced its first round of investments totaling $7 million. Only one investment relates directly to quantum computing, but Kouzmine says that in the next couple months QWave will announce more investment in quantum information systems. Here are the three high-tech startups included in the round (no photo-sharing apps allowed):
Nano-Meta Technologies, a company based out of Indiana’s Purdue University building a “single-photon generator.” This device has a number of applications, including the potential to send highly secure “quantum-encrypted” transmissions. Scientists also hope to use photon generation technology to someday build “optical computers,” which would use light instead of electricity to process information, making them more energy-efficient for some tasks.
Clifton, an Estonia-based semiconductor manufacturer. Most semiconductors are made out of silicon or germanium, but Clifton uses a compound of gallium and arsenic which the company claims allows for lower power consumption, smaller size, and less sensitivity to radiation and temperature, making it ideal for use in space technologies.
Centice, a North Carolina-based company that built a portable crime lab used by law enforcement officers to identify narcotic or explosive material at the scene of a crime, instead of having to deliver samples to a laboratory.
Investing in state-of-the-art technology companies like these is a thrilling prospect for Kouzmine, who says although he’s shifted to entrepreneurship, he’s still a scientist at heart. But investing in materials science brings on a host of challenges and risks that most web companies don’t have to deal with. Said Kouzmine:
If you build a website one way, and you test it to customers and they realize it shouldn’t be blue on top and red on the bottom, it will take you five seconds (to fix). But let’s say you build a heartbeat measurement machine, and all of a sudden the technology proves to not be efficient, you are in a much worse position. It’s not just to replace blue and red. You have to rethink the whole thing.
And yet despite the complexity of these technologies, Kouzmine says it’s never been cheaper to start a material science company, thanks to advances in manufacturing. Ten years ago, if you wanted to build a new kind of computer chip or battery, he says, you’d probably need to build it in-house. Now, you can go to a third-party manufacturer with nothing but a blueprint, making the development cycle for hardware almost as fast as the development cycle for software.
It’s worth noting that as exciting as quantum technology and optical computing are, there are still many caveats that could keep these fields from becoming commercially viable anytime soon. Last week, MIT’s Scott Aaronson told me that if you think of quantum computing in terms of the classical computing revolution of the 20th century, we still haven’t even developed the “transistor” yet.
But Kouzmine relishes the risks and uncertainties of investing in physics and material science, because the potential payoff for humanity is much greater than the next big social media app, he says.
“A friend of mine says social media is very nice to warn you about an asteroid coming to Earth. But it can do nothing to stop it.”