1QBit is B.C.’s next big player in quantum computing—but likely not its last
Past two tight rows of computer monitors and office chairs, with little elbow room and a lot of exposed wires, Andrew Fursman leads a visitor into a cramped meeting room. Inside, where a whiteboard and glass walls are covered in mathematical equations, the 35-year-old CEO of 1QBit attempts to explain the admittedly complicated operations of the company he founded three years ago with business partner Landon Downs.
In simple terms, 1QBit is poised to become Canada’s next software giant—and part of what’s now a global hub for quantum computing. The field was effectively launched by Burnaby’s D-Wave, which released its first commercial quantum computer in 2011, and while half a dozen other quantum software developers have emerged around the world in the last two years, industry observers (including those at D-Wave) credit 1QBit with making the most progress. As Fursman (who had a stake in D-Wave through his VC firm, Minor Capital, prior to founding 1QBit) confidently puts it: Metro Vancouver has “the highest density of people with experience using a quantum computer” of any city in the world.
To understand why this matters, you have to understand a bit more about how quantum computing works. The D-Wave quantum computer, says Fursman, uses “the laziness of the universe” as its core operating principle: “The universe likes to conserve energy when it’s doing things. It’s why raindrops end up in a sphere—because it’s the shape that minimizes the amount of surface tension necessary to keep a ball together.” In D-Wave machines, the pieces are called quantum bits—or qubits. Unlike binary bits, which alternate between 1 and 0, qubits utilize a superposition: both 1 and 0 at the same time. Whereas a classic computer might run a thousand tests—rearranging 1s and 0s over and over again—before telling you which test went fastest, the D-Wave machine searches for the fastest solution in one go.
1QBit now works with companies that want to “stay ahead of the curve,” according to Fursman—helping big developers build software that, with only a few nips and tucks and using the same code, can run on a D-Wave machine potentially far faster than it ever could on a classical computer. Fursman says that nondisclosure agreements prevent him from discussing the companies with which they work, but among them is a Fortune 50 firm. Each project takes maybe six months, and 1QBit doesn’t say yes to everything (as Fursman puts its, “the hammer”—a D-Wave machine—must be right for “the nail,” the client).
Quantum computing is particularly good at complex pattern recognition, explains Fursman, and one project they have on the go compares molecules in new drugs: “Similarly shaped molecules have similar effects, so if you build something you think is going to be a pretty good cure for heart disease but has a similar shape to something known to cause cancer, that’s a good cause for concern.” The same technology, he adds, can then be tweaked to detect, say, patterns in money laundering, among other things.
For both the scientific and corporate world, the verdict on D-Wave’s quantum computers is still out—although that hasn’t stopped the likes of Google, NASA and Lockheed Martin from buying into D-Wave’s technology (at $15 million a computer). In another boost to the local quantum scene’s credibility, in August 1QBit was recognized by the World Economic Forum (the group famous for its annual highflying winter retreat in Davos, Switzerland) as one of its top tech pioneers for 2015. It was the only Canadian company on a list of 49. Even the risk-adverse federal government thinks there’s promise: in July, UBC received an unprecedented $66.5-million investment from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund for its Quantum Matter Institute—the largest-ever government investment in a UBC research program.
Certainly for Fursman and his company, it’s heady times: 1QBit has grown from two to 30 employees (almost all of them with PhDs) in less than three years. Indeed, the fast-growing outfit is already too big for its premises; this fall, 1QBit was in the process of moving from its tiny concrete office on West Hastings to bigger, brighter digs in Vancouver’s prime office address, Bentall 5.
The benefits of this burgeoning industry extend far beyond 1QBit and D-Wave, in Fursman’s estimation. Computers are integral to every type of business, he says as our interview concludes and he prepares for a flight the next day to Dalian, China, where he will receive his World Economic Forum award. And the need for computing speed has never been greater. “The breakthroughs made here are going to trickle down to so many different industries.”