D-Wave Quantum Computing | BCBusiness

D-Wave Quantum Computing | BCBusiness
Burnaby's D-Wave Systems recently received upwards of $30 million in technology financing.

A computing trailblazer gets a vote of confidence from Jeff Bezos.

It is about the size of one of those moving containers that movers leave on your driveway. It is jet black, like the obsidian at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you could stand inside it, you would be perfectly shielded from magnetic interference. It would be very, very quiet, and you would actually be frozen solid. No, I mean it. You would be Han Solo, freeze-dried. What is this large, black, super quiet, shielded freezer? A quantum computer from Burnaby’s D-Wave Systems Inc.

As this issue goes to print, a big financing for this bleeding-edge technology company has just been announced. At reportedly close to $30 million, it will be the largest technology financing in Canada so far this year, a year of very large technology financings, especially in B.C. Most interesting is that one of the investors is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It’s his second Canadian investment; the other one is Burnaby’s potentially game-changing energy company, General Fusion Inc. (Perhaps technology companies in Burnaby should watch for Jeff at a local Starbucks.) With a reported (by Forbes) net worth of $23.2 billion, Bezos putting a few million into D-Wave is like me buying a new pen, relatively speaking. However, it is validation of the company’s vision and a great bet that D-Wave just might become a global company at the vanguard of high-performance computing. Quantum Kindle, anyone?

The company has had three distinct phases since 1999, when founder Geordie Rose started it at UBC with some prominent local angels and two brave local VCs (Growthworks Capital Ltd. and Business Development Bank of Canada, respectively). I heard about it sitting at the desk of Paul Lee (now D-Wave’s chair) in the summer of 1999, when he flippantly commented, “Why not take a bet on this idea? If it works, I could be two places at once!” If you don’t get Paul’s joke regarding superposition at the heart of quantum mechanics, not to worry. It is seriously propeller-head stuff.

For the first five years, the company amassed intellectual property around quantum computing. It attracted some of the best and brightest in the field, which was not easy since the main competitor for research minds in the field is a small New Jersey company called IBM. In the second phase, about the time that U.S. investor Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Goldman Sachs invested, the company changed its plan to actually build a working quantum computer. In order to complete this task, it had to fabricate and test the quantum processor as well as the gigantic box that goes around it, which allows it to actually compute.

Now the company is firmly in phase three, with an applications team dedicated to helping the first customers program the computer to solve combinatorial optimization problems, examples of which include route planning, image recognition, protein folding, genome sequencing and risk analysis. Today, the world’s biggest, fastest computers take months or years to solve these problems. D-Wave sold its first 128-qubit system to Lockheed Martin this year, and installed another at the University of Southern California. In the lab in Burnaby right now is the world’s first 512-qubit quantum computer. The approximately $30 million will be used to get that prototype to market and add more applications to crack difficult problems that the world’s largest companies are willing to pay to have solved. (D-Wave’s release of its first computer, in 2007, unleashed a furious debate in the scientific community over whether the technology can legitimately be labelled quantum computing, a debate demystified in a February 2012 Wired magazine article; search “D-Wave” at wired.com.)

D-Wave is the true definition of a game-changing, disruptive technology. Many investors felt it would take too long to get to a meaningful, realizable value. With actual sales, demonstrable results, quieter critics and a fresh bunch of cash to grow, the realizable value may be sooner than we all thought.