Vern Brownell of D-Wave

Vern Brownell has taken on one of the most ambitious jobs in the province: leading a company that’s bent on building and selling quantum computers.


Vern Brownell has taken on one of the most ambitious jobs in the province: leading a company that’s bent on building and selling quantum computers.

These computers, encased in tanks of ultra-cold liquid helium, are designed to use the downright mystifying laws of physics that govern the atomic realm to solve complex problems that defy even the mightiest traditional supercomputers. Brownell, recently of Boston, has been the chief technology officer at financial-service giant Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and founder and CEO of Egenera Inc., a supplier to data centres around the world. However, it’ll take more than credentials to quiet academic skeptics who doubt D-Wave’s scientists can accomplish the subtle quantum wizardry they’re striving for.

Have you always been involved in computing?
Yeah, for better or worse. I’ve been doing it since my high-school days in the ’70s. I actually wanted to be a doctor until I took this course in advanced math, which had a computer part to it. I wrote my first little computer program on a digital PDP-8 computer, and I was instantly hooked and forgot about everything else.

What was your position at Goldman Sachs?
I was their chief technology officer for 11 years. I ran basically all of the computing and data centre technology for the firm globally. I had a great team of about 1,500 people. I had been an engineer in various computer companies before, designing technology for customers, and it was interesting to be completely on the other side of the table.

It sounds like you eventually got the entrepreneurial bug. How did that happen?
At Goldman I got very frustrated with the complexity of the data centres we hired. There’s something always breaking and constant upgrade cycles and so on. So I thought, What if someone built a computing system to really drive down that complexity? That was the premise of starting the company Egenera in 2000. It now has about 300 employees.

How did you first hear about D-Wave?
I got the infamous call from the recruiter. I was very skeptical at first, but I was intrigued enough to come out to Vancouver and talk to the team. I had heard of quantum computing, and I always had an interest in it.

Did you understand it?
No, I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t understand it. I have a technical background, but it’s very, very difficult to come up to speed with something like this. One of the things I’m learning about quantum computing is that if anyone says they understand it, I think they’re probably mistaken.

What D-Wave is working on sounds like pure science fiction. What convinced you that this was a worthwhile endeavour?
It was really when I came out here and talked to the team and saw the sort of earnestness and credibility and passion they all had. I just had confidence they were on to something big here. We have a lot more work to do in terms of scaling the machine and commercializing it and, more importantly, proving the results to the scientific community.

Many scientists doubt that the D-Wave machines are actually putting quantum effects to use. What is it going to take to put those arguments to rest?
We need to just do what all other scientist do, and that’s publish peer-reviewed papers and follow the scientific process. We’re in the process of producing some very interesting results that show, we think, some definite quantum effects. We hope our first shipments, which will be this year, will go to scientific institutions, and we’ve got a lot of interest from various labs and universities in acquiring machines and running their own sets of tests and generating their own results from that.

Is it strange working with something so cutting edge?
It’s very different. The level of science this company has to deal with on an everyday basis is really amazing. I’m a geek at heart, and I just love this stuff. I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think we really do have the capability to change the world in a little company in Burnaby.

Change the world? How?
This is not a general-purpose computer; it’s specifically made for solving very difficult problems. For example, we’re working on a protein-folding problem with Harvard University that could very much advance the field of biochemistry. On the other hand, we’re working with companies where you’re searching through lots of records and trying to find patterns and classify the data in particular ways. There’s a whole host of these really difficult problems that a computer like this can solve in a much more efficient way than classical computers. The supercomputers of today can’t even solve some of the problems that we will be able to solve.

Has the move from Boston to Vancouver been difficult for the family?
I had been to Vancouver before, only on holiday. My wife and I had said that it was such a beautiful place that if we ever had the opportunity to live out here, we’d do that. So I didn’t have to sell my wife on packing up our bags and moving from Boston. My elder two kids, 25 and 23, are back in Boston. My youngest daughter, Nora, who’s 13, also came with us, and there was no sell there either; she fell in love with Vancouver too.