quantum computing

The pursuit of knowledge is a noble cause in a society that values progress, though how often are the people on the frontline of innovative research justly rewarded for their efforts?

Not often enough, according to Michael Biercuk, a professor of Quantum Physics and Quantum Technology at the University of Sydney and founder and CEO of quantum technology company Q-CTRL.

“For too long, research scientists and academics have been conditioned to be entirely self-motivated,” says Biercuk. “Most people in academia beat themselves to death for an OK salary because they are committed to making a real contribution to science, but then see limited upside from their successes — there are no bonuses in academia, no stock options. At some point, everyone gives in and accepts limits on their growth trajectories, but I didn’t want to do that.”

After gaining a PhD in Physics from Harvard University in 2005, Biercuk built research programs in quantum technologies at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) before returning to the lab bench at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US. He relocated to Sydney in 2010, where he directs an experimental research laboratory focused on developing new forms of quantum computing systems.

Although excited about the possibilities of the emerging quantum tech field, in the early 2010s, Biercuk routinely warned investors they shouldn’t underestimate how long it might take until functional quantum computers became available. “A lot of investors who got in super early on businesses trying to build quantum computers got burned,” he says. “I knew from my time at DARPA where money and resourcing could move the needle, and where they could not. Still, I had big ambitions to make world-changing contributions to technology — when the time was right.”

Solving the quantum computing “noise” problem

The Achilles heel of quantum computing is that the hardware is very vulnerable to all sorts of environmental interference or “noise”, such as changes in the Earth’s magnetic field arising when a car drives by, wifi signals or even changes in atmospheric pressure. “These forms of interference degrade the information stored in quantum computers, and result in a lot of computational errors,” says Biercuk. “Right now, these errors are so abundant it’s not yet possible to perform any practically useful computations on a quantum computer.

Biercuk and his team at the University of Sydney’s Quantum Control Laboratory identified an opportunity to solve the noise problem through the 100-year-old-plus discipline of control theory. “In conventional technology, control engineering is the discipline that makes airplanes fly, makes walking robots stay upright and makes drones able to swarm stably in beautiful patterns in the sky,” he explains. “We found we can apply the discipline of quantum control engineering to make the hardware more resistant to error on the path to enabling it to do useful things.”

These discoveries proved to be scientifically interesting and offered real solutions to the most pressing challenge holding back the entire field of quantum technology. Support from US defence and intelligence agencies was strong, but Biercuk’s attempts to build an academic research program in Australia at scale were rebuffed. “Universities have been under sustained assault in Australia for a while and I found lots of doors that nominally should have been open to me were not,” he says. “I felt I had to find an alternate approach to maximise impact in my career.”

In November 2017, Biercuk founded quantum tech startup Q-CTRL with seed funding from Main Sequence Ventures in Australia and Horizons Ventures in Hong Kong. Getting investment for his business idea was hard work, but Biercuk says the private sector was eager to back the scale of his ambition. “It’s the same amount of effort and pain [as academic funding applications] for the opportunity to have a truly huge impact, a much higher upside personally, and better resources for the company, which became very attractive, very fast,” he says.

Q-CTRL has had three more funding rounds since, including a seed extension from Sequoia Capital and DCVC, a US$15m Series A in September 2019 led by Square Peg Capital, and a US$25m Series B round in November 2021 led by Airbus Ventures.

Long-term vision and relationships

Curiously, Biercuk has found many more doors open to him now he has “CEO” after his name than when he was called “professor”, although he’s very careful who he works with. He’s said “no” to investors who mistakenly thought a quantum technology business would deliver revenue at the same pace as as mobile app companies, and instead focused on building relationships with backers and partners who take a long view.

“If you look at early predictions from BCG, a highly reputable consulting organisation, it suggests quantum computing is likely to be a US$850b market by 2050,” says Biercuk. “So, if we capture 10 per cent of that, providing the key solutions to make quantum technology useful across all applications, it’s an outrageous amount of value for us.”

Biercuk likens the current state of the quantum technology sector to the introduction of mainframe computing in the 1950s and 1960s — early adopters who invested in the machines and the people to develop useful applications for them gained huge competitive advantages. Q-CTRL’s software is already helping organisations such as IBM, Rigetti Computing, Berkeley Lab and Imperial College London improve the performance of their quantum hardware prototypes:

“Our fundamental role in the community is to make quantum computing useful,” says Biercuk. “The sector is at an early stage, largely producing research prototypes that organisations and individuals are engaging with to be ready for the future. We’ve demonstrated our software can make commercial quantum computers perform better by up to 1000x demonstrated so far. With those software enhancements we bring within reach the solving of real high-value problems by quantum computing.”

In August 2021, Q-CTRL formed a technical advisory board to bring insights from the cutting edge of several disciplines, like deep learning for robotics, control systems engineering and software for programmable digital logic. Members include Pieter Abbeel, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Berkeley Robot Learning Lab at the University of California, Berkeley; Jason Cong, the Volgenau Chair for Engineering Excellence in the Samueli School of Engineering and former chair of the Computer Science Department at UCLA; Richard Murray, Thomas E and Doris Everhart Professor of Control & Dynamical Systems at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Daniela Rus, Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Birgitta Whaley, professor of Chemical Physics and director Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center at the University of California, Berkeley.Information and Computation Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

“All these disciplines flow into our technical strategy and importantly, our board is not just a bunch of people who are clones of me,” says Biercuk. “They’re also very well connected — advocating for us and saying our name in the right places.” 

Creating a workplace culture that encourages innovation

Biercuk admits managing employees doesn’t come naturally, so dedicates a lot of time and energy into making sure everyone at Q-CTRL is well supported – and rewarded – in their roles, including having flexible working hours and higher than market rate salaries and incentives. He’s also committed to shielding people from the kind of bureaucracy that made them miserable in their academic or corporate jobs.

“If you work in a place that you enjoy and you feel committed to the mission, then you should have the flexibility to determine how you spend your time. There’s a historical hang-up in Australia about the strict 9-to-5 schedule.

Not only does this not reflect what’s needed to deliver on world-changing ambitions, but it creates a culture of disempowerment that leads to some of the low productivity we see in the corporate sector. As long as you empower people and you treat them fairly, the rest of it kind of sorts itself out.”

What boards need to know about quantum technology

Quantum computing is simply a tool

“It can become a very powerful tool — just as advanced computing has been a powerful tool for modern medicine and science, and robotics has driven higher-value manufacturing, quantum technology could drive exciting advancements in financial services, chemistry and material science.”

Quantum computers can’t break cryptosystems yet

“We’re seeing huge progress in the development of quantum computing which, in combination with Q-CTRL technologies, is bringing quantum advantage within reach. One of the earliest applications of quantum computing was factoring large numbers. And because the computational challenge of factoring large numbers underpin information security, there’s a suggestion we’re on pace to deliver a machine capable of breaking all cryptosystems within a few years. That’s simply false. What’s more likely is that it becomes economically relevant to choose a quantum computing solution for a particular problem in finance, chemistry, logistics or the like in maybe five years. It’s an exciting milestone, but one should not confuse that first demonstration of a quantum computer achieving quantum advantage with a full-scale factoring machine that breaks encryption systems — that remains a 30-plus year time horizon.”

We’re still in the early days of quantum tech

“There was a 70- plus year trajectory from the early-stage computers such as the first digital electrical computer (ENIAC) to the ubiquitous computing we see today. While impacts will be enormous over the next decade, what’s most exciting is we likely have have another 50 years of innovation ahead of us.”

There won’t be one winning technology

"We’re all familiar with today’s Silicon computers, but we forget about the range of technologies studied early on — from mechanical computers to vacuum tubes. If we had insisted on investing only in a single technical platform in the 1940s or 1950s we likely would’ve missed out on much of the innovation we’ve seen. Learning this lesson, we need to embrace a range of approaches, even if some wax and wane over the following decades — that’s a successful trajectory."

The biggest applications may not have been conceived yet

"There’s a whole cottage industry around quantum and cybersecurity, but there are better things to come. ENIAC was designed with the primary objective of calculating artillery firing tables, and yet it was the precursor to all of the computers we use today. So even if the first applications of quantum computing appear a little mundane, they can still be the start of something really tremendous and positive.”

Driving innovation in Australia

Support universities better

“We need people trained in solving all kinds of hard scientific problems, rather than just focusing on a prescriptive list of skills crafted to the needs of today’s jobs. Letting industry determine the skills that should be taught in universities is a giant mistake since it narrows our focus and ambitions to this year’s challenges, not challenges arising 20 or 30 years in the future. At Q-CTRL we’re after people with strong independent research capability and demonstrated success in building new knowledge — the rest they can learn on the job.”

Invest in local quantum innovators

“Government- as-customer is a secret strength of the Silicon Valley tech scene. We lose talent overseas because Australia is just not supporting the field. The baseline conditions are good — the strength of local scientific research and policies like the R&D tax incentive — but in a highly competitive global field we need larger strategic investment here. Two of the big names in our sector, PsiQuantum and Xanadu Quantum Technologies, had Australian founders, but were started in North America where there’s better funding and more government support.”

Get over the siege mentality

“I sometimes think governments look at our sector as being under siege from hostile foreign powers. They are so focused on risk they’re nearly exclusively thinking about building walls with policy. The real downside is this fear of risk can also stymie high-growth sectors. If as a company you work with the Department of Defence, you have attract an onerous Foreign Investment Review, with a zero-dollar foreign transaction threshold. Similarly, defence export controls are very aggressive on controlling intangible information transfers about a range of common technologies, to the detriment of local tech companies. This purely defensive strategy isn’t compatible with building sovereign technology when the population and market in Australia is so small. We sometimes need to open the gates, but more importantly, we need to ensure we secure provisions for everyone inside the walls with sufficient funding.”