Quantum computing, once it truly arrives, is expected to make significant improvements for a number of different applications, from helping to fight climate change and improving the process of drug discovery. While there are quantum computers out there in operation, developed by companies like D-Wave, Rigetti, IBM and Google, none have the capability to solve practical problems any faster than a conventional computer. Most observers think that practical computing is about a decade away, or even longer.
Atlantic Quantum, founded earlier this year by Bharath Kannan, Simon Gustavsson, Youngkyu Sung, Jonas Bylander, William Oliver, Shereen Shermak and Tim Menke, aims to speed up that timeline by improving the basic hardware behind quantum computing. On Thursday, the company announced a $9 million seed investment led by The Engine, the venture firm spun out of MIT. Other investors involved with this seed round include Thomas Tull, Glasswing Ventures, Future Labs Capital and E14.
The focus of Atlantic Quantum is building hardware that improves the “coherence” of quantum computation, which reduces the errors that are the major speed bump for these machines. Qubits, the basic computing unit of a quantum computer, have an advantage over the bits on the computer or phone you’re reading this article on because they aren’t reliant on the binary 1s and 0s that form the foundation of today’s computer science. Instead, qubits take advantage of principles of quantum physics that let them exist in more than one state at a time. What’s more, this process enables hardware to get exponentially faster as you add more qubits, whereas conventional computers only make linear gains.
Of course, that sounds great, but right now qubits never achieve their theoretical computational speeds because the process creates computational errors that have to be fixed. That’s because of what’s called “decoherence”— when the qubits interact with their local environment, that changes their quantum states. It’s the subatomic equivalent of accidentally wiping away part of a math problem you’re doing on a whiteboard with your sleeve–you have to go back and do that part of the problem again.
The companies building quantum computers do a lot to reduce the amount of decoherence their machines face. One solution is to keep everything as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible, which helps limit environmental interactions. Other strategies are being worked on and deployed but many quantum computing companies have also devoted a lot of their time focused on scale: building processors that contain more and more qubits. That’s the wrong way to go, argues Milo Werner, a general partner at the Engine who’s joining the board of Atlantic Quantum. “Until now, the prioritization of scale over qubit coherence has slowed quantum’s potential. It’s exciting to see a different path forward – one that will bring us closer to quantum reality,” she said in a statement.
Atlantic Quantum’s advantage, the company says, is the superconducting qubit known as fluxonium. Most quantum computers in operation today use a different set up called a transmon qubit. “The properties of the fluxonium qubit differ from those of the transmon in several ways, but the key difference being the significantly lower operating frequency of fluxonium versus transmon,” says CEO Kannan. “This lower operating frequency has several consequences, which include longer coherence times and simpler control integration for fluxonium.” he adds.
While Atlantic’s hardware does have longer coherence times, it’s still prone to errors like other qubits, so the company is also focusing on developing software for its qubits that can correct errors as they arise.
Right now, Atlantic Quantum is headquartered in Cambridge and has an office in Boston. The Boston office is focused on system integration and computer assembly. Cofounder Jonas Bylander, who’s also an associate professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, will be spearheading the effort to fabricate and manufacture the chips for the company’s machines. The seed round allows Atlantic Quantum to grow their team in both areas.
One of the reasons why Milo Werner was interested in investing in Atlantic was because of its origins in MIT’s quantum computer research lab that’s led by William Oliver, which she describes as “second to none.” “It is an amazing founding team that we are really excited to back,” she continues. “We focus on backing strong technical leaders and we really see that in Bharath and his team. We look forward to watching them grow.”
Update: This piece has had minor corrections since publication to list its full set of cofounders and correctly identify its headquarters as Cambridge.