14 May 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray
Only months after he left Zayo, Dan Caruso is now in charge of a company at the very edge of quantum physics. You’ll be able to buy a computer next year, he tells Alan Burkitt-Gray
Dan Caruso’s new company plans to offer customers access to cloud services on its first quantum computer this year, and to offer further models for sale in 2022. Caruso, who last October stepped down from Zayo, which he founded in 2007, is now executive chairman and acting CEO of ColdQuanta.
The science behind ColdQuanta is based on what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, says Caruso. He has taken on the new role after being approached by the research team behind it, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dana Anderson, a professor at the university, set the company up to work on the so-called Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a new state of matter. Anderson is now CTO of ColdQuanta.
The company gives a bit more background to the science. “We trace our roots all the way back to a collaboration between two brilliant minds: Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose,” says the website.
“In 1924, Bose sent a letter to Einstein and respectfully asked for his help. This sparked their uncovering of the fifth form of matter, named the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC).” What’s that? “When atoms are cooled to a few millionths of a degree above absolute zero, they are forced to begin to clump together and condense into the lowest accessible quantum state, and transition from a gas into a BEC. However, this was just speculation, as the technology needed to create BEC wouldn’t exist for another 60 years.”
Encryption will be obsolete
Major applications of cold quantum computing will be in network security, says Caruso: “Once quantum computers get to a certain power, all encryption becomes obsolete.” But quantum physics will also allow highly secure networks to be built, using the principle of quantum entanglement.
ColdQuanta is already generating revenue, says Caruso, “about $11 million this year.” Much will come from research commissioned by the US and UK governments. ColdQuanta has science teams working in Oxford in the UK, as well as Madison, Wisconsin, “where they are overseeing building of our quantum computer”. The computer is actually being built in Boulder, he adds.
“The one we’re building will be a cloud-based computer. Multiple users will be able to use it,” says Caruso, and it will be in operation “this year”. But “the second will be for purchase next year,” he adds. Who will buy one? At first, companies in the aerospace and defence markets, he says.
“The real commercial opportunities are with technology companies in general. One application will be in quantum-based positioning systems. GPS is very vulnerable to spoofing and hacking, and quantum positioning systems are not exposed to that.”
In 2019 Darpa, the US government research agency that invented the internet, along with NASA and the US military gave ColdQuanta $2.8 million to work on technology for quantum positioning – gyroscopes and atomic clocks – as well as quantum-based radio-frequency detectors and quantum communication systems.
Darpa followed that in April 2020 with a further $7.4 million to develop what ColdQuanta called “a scalable, cold-atom-based quantum computing hardware and software platform that can demonstrate quantum advantage on real-world problems”.
And later last year the UK government’s National Quantum Technologies Programme gave the Oxford lab the equivalent of $3.5 million, also to work on positioning – to develop a quantum gyroscope that will be demonstrated in flight and to enable continuous operation of quantum sensors. ColdQuanta UK is based in the Oxford Centre for Innovation, in a new building alongside Oxford’s medieval castle, built in 1071 and used as a prison until only 25 years ago.
Caruso isn’t new to quantum science and technology. “I’ve been interested in this for 20 years,” he tells me. But his association with ColdQuanta is more recent. The university campus in Boulder “is five minutes from where I live”.
Anderson approached him, and there was a gathering between “some of his quantum buddies”, including a couple of Nobel prize-winners, and some of Caruso’s venture capital friends. “Last November-December I became an investor,” he says. By then he had left Zayo and was heading Caruso Ventures in Boulder.
His connection with ColdQuanta was not public, though by early February he was clearly excited about something. “I am engaged with a deep tech company in Boulder that is preparing to embark on a major acceleration,” he posted on LinkedIn, adding that the unnamed company had raised about $40 million Series A venture capital, in a round that included Boulder investor Foundry Group.
He said “the opportunity exists” to raise up to $200 million more – “a strong valuation” – and was hiring people to help him. “With the right additions to the team, the company can emerge as Colorado’s next unicorn and, in a few years, perhaps a decacorn.”
He noted: “I will NOT be CEO – that stage of my career is over – but I will be heavily involved in the process.” Indeed, when I talked to him in March for Capacity, he started the conversation with: “I want to get back to being a board member, not a CEO.” Which means he’s hiring someone for the top role, too.
There are already a number of other ventures in quantum computing around the industry. Caruso mentions IBM and Google, which are spending “a lot of money” on big data centres. And he name-drops Kazuhiro Gomi, formerly CEO of NTT America and, since mid-2019, president and CEO of NTT Research in Palo Alto. That lab describes itself as “a new Silicon Valley start-up”.
So, what use is all this spooky quantum stuff? It’s tempting to quote here the US scientist and politician Benjamin Franklin, who said: “What’s the use of a baby?” (Brits often assign it to Michael Faraday, though Faraday, to whom we owe our telecoms industry, made sure he attributed it to Franklin.)
Quantum cell towers
Caruso says: “It’s going to affect all kinds of industries. It’s already beginning in telecoms.” He points to applications in 5G cell towers, where quantum allows antennae to work on multiple frequency bands at once. “And edge computing will use quantum.” It might take “five, 10, 15 years” but the technology “will affect everything, including drones, robotics and MRI scanning”.
There will be quantum sensors, he adds. “Think of a stealth plane that can’t be detected by radar.” On the other hand, a quantum signal might be undetected
by a plane that’s being tracked. “The plane would never know, thanks to entanglement.” It will just see noise.
It will change computing, he adds. Since the 1940s it has used bits – binary digits, which are either zero or one. Quantum computing will use qubits, which can be defined in terms of electron spin (up or down) or polarisation (horizontal or vertical). But a qubit can be in both states at the same time: a superposed state. Einstein was right when he said quantum entanglement was spooky.
“It means you’ll be able to solve problems that you can’t solve with today’s computers. That’s why quantum computing can make encryption codes obsolete.” It will allow you to do “things that you can’t do with conventional technology”.
And investors are already coming into quantum companies – not just ColdQuanta. IonQ, based in Maryland, is another. It has millions worth of investment from the likes of Airbus, Amazon, Bosch, Google, Lockheed Martin and Samsung. Caruso thinks it’s worth $2 billion already.
Protecting the networks
“If you’re a CIO of Goldman Sachs or another bank you have quantum people on your payroll already, to protect the network and for trading. Big banks will have quantum computers to make trades that you can’t do with conventional computers.”
And pharmaceutical companies are already employing quantum experts, he adds. “They’re more commonplace than you think.”
Caruso likens the position of quantum technology in 2021 to fibre networks in the early 1990s. Telecoms operators were using fibre, but almost no one was using the internet.
True, I confirm, recalling that when Microsoft launched Windows 95 in August 1995 the operating system had no browser. “None of the companies had heard of the internet,” Caruso says.
Now, there are “globally significant companies” interested in quantum. And for ColdQuanta, “we’re at the stage where you want to have a lot of money to invest”, he says. “We want to put more smart people on the job. But we need to raise a lot of money.”
How much? “Hundreds of millions, we haven’t decided yet,” he says. He points to IonQ. “It uses a different technology, and it raised $500 million. We don’t need that now. But hundreds.”
And it’s starting now. “This will change our industry in two or three years. Certainly five years,” he says.