Why did this Japanese tech titan choose B.C.?

From a small Vancouver office, Fujitsu is laying the groundwork for its worldwide AI and quantum computing business.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Naoko Yoshizawa leads Fujitsu’s new outpost

From a small Vancouver office, Fujitsu is laying the groundwork for its worldwide AI and quantum computing business

Fujitsu Intelligence Technology (FIT) operates from a modest space in downtown Vancouver’s Marine Building that masks the company’s global reach and world-changing ambitions. Four engineers study flat screens on one side of the room, too busy for the moment to mind the Ping-Pong table or eat the snacks laid out on the small kitchen island behind them. You can stand in one spot for the whole office tour on this April afternoon, but these are early days. The venture opened its doors last November, promising to revolutionize the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum-inspired computing.

Fewer than 20 people work in this room, but FIT is wholly owned by Fujitsu, a Japanese tech giant with 140,000 employees working with customers in more than 100 countries. “We look like a startup, but we’re not,” says FIT‘s CEO, Naoko Yoshizawa.

Indeed, Fujitsu is the largest IT services provider in Japan by revenue and the seventh-largest on the planet, with a workforce surpassing Microsoft’s 131,000. Fujitsu invested $6 million to establish FIT as its global AI headquarters. It aims to expand its head count to 200 by next year, after moving to a larger home nearby at One Bentall Centre.

Fujitsu’s arrival in B.C. follows splashier ones in recent years by other technology multinationals like Microsoft, Amazon.com and SAP. But Fujitsu is staking a particularly sizable chunk of its future on its Vancouver operations. It’s restructuring its global business, using FIT as a springboard and model. And it’s developing innovations here that aim to change the very nature of how people use technology for problem-solving.

Canadian consumers might know Fujitsu for its laptops or the point-of-sale machines it provides to retailers like Lululemon Athletica. But FIT is pursuing enterprise customers with two potentially transformative technologies: AI, and a novel class of processors called digital annealers. The latter can achieve quantum-like computational abilities to solve problems too complex for the brawniest classical computers.

Traditionally, Fujitsu develops its products and services in Japan, then distributes them to customers around the world. But solutions tailored for Japan’s business dynamics and culture don’t always translate well to other markets. So Fujitsu is moving to originate its technologies where its global customers are. That transition starts with FIT in Vancouver.

“We’re taking major steps to expand globally and create core functions—core engineering functions, core executive functions—outside of Japan,” explains Dean Prelazzi, FIT‘s vice-president and head of business development and marketing.

“This is the first trial,” Yoshizawa says of the local organization.

FIT‘s core personnel—the company’s technical leads and Yoshizawa herself—are Japanese, so they and their families shipped their lives across the Pacific last year. It took serious commitment, so why did Fujitsu pick B.C. from a literal world of possible choices?

Locating in Canada or the U.S. was crucial. “Japan is only 3 percent of the world’s AI market,” Yoshizawa explains. “Customers in Japan are still suspicious of AI.” She says the North American market for AI is 17 to 20 times bigger.

“Enterprises in North America are ambitious,” Prelazzi elaborates. “There’s a general early-adopter theme across a wide cross-section of companies in the enterprise scale.”

Vancouver had become familiar ground after Fujitsu’s digital annealer business partnered with local software firm 1QB Information Technologies (1QBit) in 2017. The startup reached out to Fujitsu for processors that could run its specialized optimization software.

“Our goal is being able to develop software for the next generation of hardware,” 1QBit co-founder and CEO Andrew Fursman explains. “We take a particular interest in quantum computing and the devices that have come under this title of quantum-inspired optimization.”

Quantum computers—devices powered by quantum physics—may be years from being ready for widespread practical use, but Fujitsu’s digital annealer is designed to run quantum-inspired algorithms using semiconductor technology available today. Fujitsu and 1QBit began solving customers’ supercomputer-stumping problems well before FIT formally opened last fall.

So the seed to choose Vancouver had already been planted by the time Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s minister of jobs, trade and technology, met with Yoshizawa at a trade mission in Tokyo in January 2018. “We had a discussion about what they were doing, and we encouraged them to think about British Columbia,” he recalls.

Fujitsu representatives made exploratory visits to Vancouver and had further talks with the federal and provincial governments. “There were no cash subsidies,” Ralston says. “They were attracted here by the merits of being in British Columbia.”

Yoshizawa cites some of the same factors that have attracted other tech firms to move to the city: supportive federal and provincial governments, a strong talent base in AI and quantum fields, and a cost-competitive location that shares the same time zone as Silicon Valley.

She and Prelazzi see Fujitsu’s toehold here growing into a driving force for the global company, and the heart of its AI and quantum-inspired businesses. Those technologies are poised to power leaps ahead in fields like pharmaceuticals discovery, transportation optimization, clinical decision-making and materials sciences.

Yoshizawa and Prelazzi are excited for the future. “The potential for AI to help humanity across so many different areas is enormous,” Prelazzi says, beaming. “And quantum-inspired as well.”

Quantum Leap

Classical computers process information as binary digits, or bits. Data is encoded as ones or zeros by billions of microscopic on-off switches inside a chip.

But quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits. Harnessing subatomic particles’ ability to exist in more than one state simultaneously, they can store far more information than just a one or a zero.

2 B.C. companies on the cutting edge of quantum computing technology:

Vancouver’s 1QB Information Technologies (1QBit) creates software to get the most out of different quantum technologies being developed by leading hardware companies

Burnaby-based D-Wave Systems produces the world’s first commercially available quantum computers, although their architecture makes them suitable only for certain types of problems

Sources: 1QB Information Technologies; “Physics: Quantum computer quest,” Nature, 2014