Entrepreneurs

Into The Unknown: For Quantum Computing Startups The Challenge Is Finding The Use Cases

Quantum computing. It’s a term that most of us are familiar with and yet very few people – if pushed – could provide an adequate explanation of what quantum computers will actually do once the technology makes the jump from interesting research to more-or-less mainstream and useful tool.

So here’s the good news of a sort. If you can’t put your hand on your heart and honestly say that you are fully up to speed with the implications of the quantum computing revolution, you are not alone. Despite all the research that is taking place at the moment, the real-world use cases are still being worked out.

And that’s a fact that makes life interesting for entrepreneur-led companies – often university spinouts – working in the field.

Think of it this way. Unsurprisingly, the behemoths of the technology ocean are working hard on quantum computing technology. The players include Microsoft, Google, AWS and IBM. These are businesses with considerable resources, some of which can be allocated to over-the-horizon technologies, that won’t necessarily show a commercial return for many years.

Startups, on the other hand, face a more challenging landscape. They may be developing game-changing technology, but without use cases (and thus, customers) they must not only fund themselves and stay motivated while playing a long game.

So what does that mean in practice? I recently spoke to Richard Murray, CEO and co-founder of ORCA Computing, a quantum startup that was spun out of the University of Oxford in 2019 with Kris Kaczmarek as the lead inventor.

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The company – which uses photonics – as the basis for its technology has recently made a couple of commercial breakthroughs in the form of sales of its machines to Britain’s Ministry of Defence and the Israel Quantum Computing Center.

Emerging Applications

But as Richard Murray sees it, no one is entirely sure when quantum computing will begin to make its presence felt. “The question is, how soon will applications emerge,” he says.

Certain assumptions have been made. It’s thought, for example, that quantum tech will strengthen cyber security – for instance, through stronger encryption – while at the same time enabling actors ranging from nation states to cyber criminals to crack open encrypted files. In some scenarios, we may see a quantum arms race.

Murray says this may be overplayed. He points to likely use cases around machine learning and system optimisation. The question for potential users is likely to be whether it is worth it. “There are questions around the price/performance ratio,” says Murray.”Quantum is not for everyone. There is a need to see where the opportunities are.”

Looking To The Future

But he believes that businesses and organisations are looking to the future. From a layman’s point of view, the technology exploits the properties of quantum states to enable extremely rapid calculation. But businesses don’t necessarily want to know too much about the science. The reality is that we are talking about advanced computational power that promises a competitive edge to early adopters. “So businesses need to see a road map. They need to see how this aligns with their own plans,” says Murray.

So where might the uses be? Aside from codebreaking, Murray cites examples such as rapid drug development and error correction within systems. In terms of industries, there is already a lot of interest from banks.

Lines Of Communication

But here’s the challenge. Potential custimers don’t as yet necessarily understand the quantum computing opportunity. At the same time, developers such as ORCA must ensure they understand the needs of those businesses. So what is required is not just research and development but also good lines of communication with potential buyers in order to develop the real world applications. “A lot of this is about getting the customer up to speed,” says Murray. Only a few, like the MOD, will have the luxury and budget to buy a system in order to experiment.

ORCA has taken the decision to develop not only the hardware but also an operating system and applications. Crucially perhaps, its technology is delivered by conventional telecoms components, including fibreoptics. That means its kit can be housed with other servers, without need for a specialist environment. For instance, there is no requirement for super-low temperatures to enhance conductivity.

In addition, the company is pursuing the idea of hybrid computing, where the quantum element will only be deployed when ultra-fast processing is actually required. This may be a future battleground.

Markets and Markets has reported that the market will have a value of $1,765 million by 2026 as banks and other institutions buy-in. But can a small business – even one that has attracted finance – survive in a market where big tech is also playing and where there are also a number of competing technologies? Murray believes there is room for diverse players, delivering their own pros and cons depending on the use case. He also believes that the skillsets in companies like ORCA means they can bring something unique to the market.

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