This Small Startup Is Building The Tools That May Power The Quantum Era
In 2012, Shaun Wilson and Michael Brett were designing aerospace simulation software. On one particular project, Lockheed Martin’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Ned Allen, mentioned that it had just acquired an early quantum computer from D-Wave Systems, which he thought would help with computational work.
They were impressed. “We found that it was an incredibly promising technology, Brett told me. “We could see the potential to one day do things that just weren’t possible with digital computers, even the high performance systems we were working with.” It was something unlike anything they had ever seen.
“With big data taking off, we saw the need for high performance predictive analytics and thought quantum computing could be a real differentiator. That was the opportunity that led us to think about starting a company,” Brett remembers. Today, the company they founded, QxBranch, is becoming a key player in the race to develop practical quantum applications.
An Idea Takes Hold
When Brett and his colleague, Shaun Wilson, were first introduced to quantum computing in 2012, the idea had already been around for four decades. The field really got its start with a talk by Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman in 1981 about simulating physics on a computer. Feynman’s prominence drew intense interest to the field.
Another breakthrough happened in 1993, when scientists at IBM carried out the quantum teleportation experiment, which showed that you could send information using quantum principles. However, during the next 30 years, little had happened. So it wasn’t at all clear quantum computing was a viable technology, much less a business.
Nevertheless they were intrigued and it seemed that they could be on the ground floor of something big. So the Australians reached out to two colleagues in the US who specialized in early-stage technology, Carissa Christensen and Paul Guthrie. They were somewhat skeptical, but interested in exploring further. As they researched the landscape, it seemed that the technology was ready to make the leap from the research lab to the marketplace.
They also noticed something interesting. Much like in the early days of the PC, companies active in the space were focusing on hardware, but there seemed to be a great opportunity in software. Taking a page from the same playbook as Paul Allen and Bill Gates in the 1970s, the team saw an opportunity in developing applications for the new technology.
By 2014, Brett and his friends were confident enough of the opportunity in building applications for quantum computers that they began thinking seriously about starting a business. Shaun Wilson’s brother, Anthony, was running an investment fund in Hong Kong at the time and encouraged them to apply to Accenture’s FinTech Innovation Lab accelerator program.
So they quickly prepared an application for the 12-week program, mostly just to dip their toes in, and were surprised to find that they were accepted. The fledgling enterprise didn’t even have a name yet! Upon receiving their acceptance letter, Guthrie and Brett only had ten days to pack their things and get to Hong Kong.
Once they were there, they started meeting with potential customers trying to identify a good product-market fit, but how do you identify a market for a technology that, for the most part, doesn’t exist yet? “We learned that as promising as quantum computing was, it wasn’t going to be easy. The technology was just so new that the specific applications were not at all obvious, even to seasoned financial mathematicians” Brett told me.
However, from the Accenture program, the team were able to identify a few customers that were willing to explore the space with them. They also found that their background and expertise in simulations was an advantage. With actual quantum computers a rare commodity, they helped their first customers run quantum simulations on traditional machines.
Finding A Place In The Ecosystem
When you’re launching a product in a mature market, the best strategy is to look for the largest addressable market. Bigger markets mean more customers and, in most cases, more profits. However, when you’re trying to do something truly new and different, it is often better to find a hair-on-fire use case — a problem that someone needs solved so badly that they almost literally have their hair on fire. That’s how you find customers who will be willing to collaborate with you.
The truth is that nobody has that kind of dire need for quantum software applications right now. But as they worked with customers and partners the QxBranch team noticed an opportunity. Each time they built an quantum application, they needed to build tools to help run it and began to see that those tools themselves were what the market really needed.
“In the beginning we hoped that we could identify high value applications from the outside, Brett remembers. “What we discovered, however, was that you need a significant amount of domain expertise to connect quantum algorithms to specific applications. So we really needed to partner closely with our customers to find meaningful problems we could solve together.”
“In developing applications with financial customers, we found that each bank has its own approach to how they deploy solutions,” he continued. “Eventually, we realized that our assumption that we could build ‘one-size fits all’ applications for an entire industry, was not viable. So we decided to also build tools that would allow our customers to build applications themselves.”
Building A Quantum Future
Earlier this year, the company raised $4.1 million in its first round of venture funding. It has also built strong partnerships with leading quantum computing companies such as D-Wave, IBM, Rigetti and Microsoft and is actively collaborating with others as well.
“Our intention right now is to be build applications and tools that can be used across platforms,” Brett told me. “We believe that different quantum platforms will be suited to different applications. So we are working closely with a wide-range of partners to help move the technology forward. We see ourselves as an enabler. We want to help our customers usher in a new era.”
When I asked him what business leaders should know about quantum computing, he stressed the importance of starting early. While it is true that we may not see practical applications from quantum computers for five to ten years, the day of reckoning is fast approaching. Quantum computers aren’t just faster versions of their digital cousins, but represent a true paradigm shift.
“Business leaders should understand that quantum will be a profound, generational transformation,” he says. “You can’t just wait until the technology becomes commercially available and expect to be competitive. You need to start now to prepare for the future, even if it’s still unclear what that future will look like exactly.”
When faced with an uncertain future, it is better to prepare than to adapt. The time to start is now.