Patrick Moorhead, Chief Analyst and founder of Moor Insights and Strategy, and I recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Boulder, Colorado, for Atom Computing’s new research and development facility. Building a new facility was a very important step for the young company.
Atom Computing’s new research and development lab in Boulder, Colorado. Ribbon cutting event tent in … [+]
Atom Computing’s CEO and President, Rob Hays, explained the expansion in the context of the company’s vision.
“While today marks a historic milestone in the company’s history,” he said, “it’s only the beginning of our journey to build large scale quantum computers that will transform the computing industry and unlock new applications to advance humankind.”
A year ago, Atom Computing transferred several quantum scientists from its Berkeley, California headquarters to the new building where they will build a local team and develop future generations of larger and more technically advanced quantum computers.
When we arrived, the team of quantum scientists were already deep into research on various projects in five of the twelve laboratories built to investigate multiple aspects of quantum computing.
Atom Computing occupies the entire lower floor of a large multi-story modern building. We were impressed by the amount of finished room-to-grow space. Even with all that room, the company said optional space on additional floors or in adjacent buildings was available if needed.
The event was well-attended by about 100 of Atom Computing industry and academic partners. Officials from the federal, state, and local governments were also there. The ribbon cutting was significant enough that Jared Polis, Governor of Colorado, gave the ceremony’s opening remarks and why he believed Atom Computing was important to Colorado.
“I want to recognize the team at Atom Computing for taking this step in Colorado,” Governor Polis said. “And of course, we’re also excited about all the quantum industry supporters and the ecosystem in our great state.”
He went on to explain that Atom Computing would thrive in Colorado because of its existing quantum related businesses. The Governor believes the company will be helped by public-private partnerships at the University of Colorado and the forward-looking Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade office that sees Colorado becoming a quantum hub.
In addition to support from Colorado, Atom Computing and NIST have a long-standing research relationship. Dr. Andrew Wilson, NIST Quantum Physics Division Chief at JILA, reinforced ongoing NIST support of Atom Computing in his remarks at the opening ceremonies. Dr. Wilson represents NIST on the Steering Committee of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C). He is Physicist and Principal Investigator in the Ion Storage Group of the Time & Frequency Division at NIST.
“We look forward to opportunities to collaborate with Atom Computing on research and development,” Dr. Wilson said. “We will also support efforts needed to achieve the full potential of scalable quantum computing. We know that a lot of progress is being made at Atom Computing, which is wonderful, but we also know there’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of interesting things to work on and discover.”
Atom Computing’s First-Generation Quantum Computer, Phoenix in Berkeley, California
Earlier in the year, Patrick and I visited Atom Computing’s headquarters and research facility in Berkeley, California, where its first-generation 100-qubit neutral atom quantum computer was developed and running.
After two days of technical briefings and quantum demonstrations, we came away from Berkeley impressed by the depth of Atom Computing’s research team, its technology, and its strategy. That trip gave us a basis for comparison during our Boulder visit.
In addition to seeing the new facilities, we were also curious about how much technical progress the company had made since our previous visit. We also needed to understand why Atom Computing had made such a significant financial commitment to Colorado.
Atom Computing was founded in 2018. Since then, it has received over $80 million in funding from venture capitalists, plus research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The bulk of financing came from its last round of $60 million in Series B funding that was raised for several specific reasons:
Importance of Colorado
During our visit to Boulder, we had the opportunity to talk with a number of researchers and executives. It became apparent that Atom Computing had made the right decision to build its new research facility in Boulder, Colorado:
Atom Computing tour sign for research and development facility, Boulder, Colorado
Although quantum labs aren’t new to Patrick and me, most people attending the event had never seen a quantum computer much less toured a lab where a first-of-its-kind machine was being designed and built. The tour group was excited by the prospects of a behind-the-scenes look at quantum computing research.
The facility is impressive. It is located in a large, mirrored building that sits among several similar buildings in a small industrial park. The amount of research we saw underway in the new location was impressive. The newness and amount of space contrasted significantly with Atom Computing’s Berkeley facility.
It was evident that Atom Computing’s management had followed through on commitments made to raise the last round of Series B funding. As pledged, funds were used to expand research in Boulder, acquire scientists and other technical expertise, and begin building the next-generation neutral atom qubit quantum computing system.
Equally important, Atom Computing now has a presence in the two most concentrated quantum computing innovation centers in the US and globally – California and Colorado.
After the tour, Pat and I compared notes. We agreed that we had seen many improvements in the Boulder lab. Getting a bit in the weeds, here’s what we noticed:
Atom Computing demonstration of precise spatial light modulator control, Boulder,
We estimate Atom Computing spent about twenty million dollars to build, equip, and staff the Boulder lab. The company plans to continue growing the Colorado workforce as it makes future generations of scalable neutral atom quantum computers.
Relationships are important so the management team has already begun working on partnerships with leading companies and researchers for quantum software and application development. Atom Computing didn’t disclose any specific investment information, but large future funding rounds will obviously be needed if the company executes its plan to spend $100 million at the Colorado facility over the next three years.
The next-generation quantum computer will be offered as-a-service using private and public cloud access. According to Rob Hays, the company is presently working with leading cloud service providers. These arrangements will be announced later.
Atom Computing uses a technology called neutral atom nuclear-spin qubits. Just as classical computers use bits to represent a one or a zero, each qubit is encoded in the nuclear spin of strontium atoms. Atom Computing manipulates the electronic energy levels of the strontium atom to represent either a one or zero state, or a superposition of both. Strontium atoms have unique properties that give it the potential to scale large numbers of qubits that can maintain quantum states for relatively long periods. The longer a quantum state can be maintained, the better because it allows the computer to run more complex problems. It also provides more time for error correction.
Rather than wires or cables, Atom Computing’s quantum computer uses lasers to trap and cool the strontium atoms in free space. Acting like precision optical tweezers, lasers move the atoms into two-dimensional arrays. Because a neutral atom has no charge, it can be tightly packed and experiences little interference from its neighbors.
Although no announcements were made at the opening about Atom Computing’s next generation computer, there is no question it will be a much larger machine with higher qubit count and improved fidelities.
Atom Computing’s first generation “Phoenix” machine in the Berkeley lab is equipped with 100 qubits arranged in a 10×10 two-dimensional array. We expect a significant jump in the number of qubits in its next quantum machine because Atom Computing prefers to increase its qubits in orders of magnitude rather than adding a dozen or so qubits each year.
Neutral atom arrays are tiny, and its shapes can be arbitrary. For example, an atomic array of a million qubits could be contained in a 100x100x100 3-D array.
Although it may be hard to imagine, a million-qubit neutral atom array of this size would occupy less than a cubic millimeter of space. That’s the size of a few grains of sand.
Moor Insights & Strategy Insider podcast with Atom Computing CEO Rob Hays
Wrapping it up
Despite some media hype, commercialization of large-scale quantum computers isn’t just around the corner. However, it is not likely to be more than a decade away either.
Error correction is one of the biggest obstacles to building mega-qubit machines that can outrun and out-compute our best supercomputers by billions of years. It is not yet mature enough to build a fault tolerant computer, but there is a lot of research that is producing promising results.
Atom Computing has positioned itself in the sweet spot of quantum computing. It has quality investors, a good roadmap, a promising and scalable technology, excellent management, and it is now located in two of the best US quantum research hubs. The value of being near NIST and JILA can’t be overstated. Additionally, the University of Colorado-Boulder can provide a conveyor belt of researchers and specialists specific to Atom Computing’s technology now and well into the future.
Many different types of quantum computing hardware technologies are being prototyped today. But at this stage of quantum computing, there is no way to predict which technology will be the first used to build a fault-tolerant, million qubit quantum computer. The answer might be a yet-undiscovered technology, or it could be an enhanced version of qubit hardware in use today.
Atom Computing has described itself as a company obsessed with building the world’s most scalable quantum computers out of optically trapped neutral atoms. We have no way of knowing if that will happen or not. However, after this visit, we can verify that Atom Computing is still obsessed with that goal.
“At Atom Computing we have pioneered and gained expertise on a variety of neutral atom qubits, including optical qubits and pure-nuclear-spin qubits. These techniques are widely applicable to many optically trapped quantum systems, including alkali atoms, alkaline-earth atoms, and molecules. As more demonstrations of these techniques arise, we will always integrate the latest and greatest into our future machines. The benefits of taking our approach to neutral atom qubits to other group II elements is not lost upon us, including faster gates, faster readout, and less qubit-leakage.”
I respect that answer from a research perspective. In other words, Dr. Bloom is not disclosing what the company is or is not researching. That is proprietary information. Still, he fully understands the options and current research. The company will always use the best technology available.
From an analyst perspective, it would be hard not to investigate the advantages of ytterbium versus strontium.
My previous articles about Atom Computing can be read here and here. More information about the new Atom Computing Boulder facility can be read here
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Moor Insights & Strategy founder, CEO, and Chief Analyst Patrick Moorhead is an investor in dMY Technology Group Inc. VI, Dreamium Labs, Groq, Luminar Technologies, MemryX, and Movand
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