Vern Brownell spent the past eight years preaching quantum computing to a world that wasn’t ready for it.
As CEO of D-Wave Systems, Brownell has been overseeing the development of a type of superfast processor that to date has largely been limited to use in research labs. His Vancouver-based company first raised venture funding back in 2004, five years before he joined.
But this week Brownell is in San Francisco and has plenty of eager listeners on his agenda. Fresh off D-Wave’s $50 million in funding from Canada’s PSP Investments, Brownell said he’s meeting with banks and big investors about raising hundreds of millions of dollars later this year as the company prepares to move into the public cloud.
“We intend to do a very large offering to take advantage of the position we’re in,” Brownell said, in an interview on Thursday.
He said the financing — an alternative to an IPO — will be led by an investment bank and potentially include sovereign wealth funds and large private equity firms. Brownell has also talked with SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund, calling it the type of investor that he would like to see participate. Existing investors include In-Q-Tel, the venture group that invests on behalf of the CIA, and Jeff Bezos’ venture firm.
Quantum computing’s promise
Quantum computing differs from classical computing, which is defined by binary code — 1s and 0s. With quantum computing, there are units called qubits that aren’t limited to that binary state and have the ability to store dramatically more information. In 2015, Google said that its project with NASA using a D-Wave machine performed certain tasks 100 million times faster than conventional processors.
Critical to D-Wave’s future is getting this technology into the hands of everyday developers. Until now, researchers at Google, NASA, Lockheed Martin and the Los Alamos National Laboratory have used D-Wave machines, which cost millions of dollars, in complex experiments to see if quantum computing can solve problems in drug discovery, cybersecurity and space exploration.
By mid-year, D-Wave’s technology will be available in the public cloud for the first time through one of the big three vendors — Amazon, Microsoft or Google — Brownell told us. He’s not yet able to announce which one will host the service, but said the goal is to eventually be available on multiple platforms.
“I want to be an arms merchant for the cloud providers,” Brownell said. “Once one of them has this capability, all of them will want to have it.”
The world clearly needs more powerful processors, as demand explodes for artificial intelligence workloads that require faster and more efficient chips than what’s currently available from Nvidia and AMD. But there’s a healthy amount of debate among researchers and scientists about whether quantum computers are useful for practical real-world applications.
D-Wave’s thumbnail-sized processors are deployed in massive refrigerators that have 18 layers of shielding to protect the quantum state. Last year the company started selling the $15 million 2000Q, which has 2,000 qubits, twice as many as the prior version.
By getting into the public cloud, D-Wave can start letting developers experiment with its technology in much more cost-effective ways. Brownell said they’ll even “be able to use small bits of quantum computing for free.”
‘From pure science towards engineering’
Much of the funding that D-Wave plans to raise will go towards hiring software developers as it pushes into the cloud. The company currently has 170 employees, including 40 people in software, Brownell said.
D-Wave is far from alone in the market. IBM is building a quantum computer for the commercial world and Microsoft introduced a quantum computing development kit last year. In a January report, Homeland Security Research predicted quantum computing will grow 25 percent a year through 2024, when it will reach $8.45 billion in products and services and $2.25 billion on government-funded research.
The report said that 18 of the world’s top companies and dozens of government agencies are working on the processor or software side of quantum computing “or partnering with the quantum industry start-ups like D-Wave.”
In line with D-Wave’s vision, the report had this to say about the many players in the ecosystem:
“Their ambition reflects a broader transition, taking place at start-ups and academic research labs alike: To move from pure science towards engineering.”