Quantum computing pioneers fueled by imperial expertise | imperial news

Professor Ian Walmsley




Quantum technology startup ORCA Computing is using ties to Imperial to gain a head start in the race to create the world’s first widely used quantum computer.

ORCA Computinga company co-founded by Imperial’s Provost Professor Ian Walmsley based on EPSRC– Y CKDFunded research he carried out when he was a professor at Oxford University aims to compete in quantum computing with giants like IBM and Google. Located at Imperial’s White City Research and Innovation Campus – and with outposts in Canada, Poland and the US – is making use of Imperial facilities, technological innovations and a recruiting pipeline.

Support from Imperial and Oxford is helping us create technology that could help lead a quantum computing revolution. Professor Ian Walmsley Provost of Imperial and co-founder of ORCA Computing

Professor Walmsley said: “With ORCA Computing, we are building a technology platform that could help lead a quantum computing revolution. As a company, we can have a huge impact on the world. But the intellectual property and resources provided by Imperial and Oxford University are crucial to supporting this. It has proven to be really valuable for the company to be located in a vibrant research and entrepreneurial community.”

quantum computing

equipment used in the ORCA computer lab
Photo: ORCA Computing

Quantum computers have the potential to revolutionize fields such as cryptography and artificial intelligence by using magnitudes of computing power greater than traditional computers.

Information comes in at one end and you have a lot of really fast switches. As it flies through the fiber optic network, it performs quantum computing on the fly, Dr Richard Murray CEO of ORCA Computing

The power of quantum computing lies in the fact that it uses the quantum properties of matter to process information. While a traditional computer uses the bit, which is always in one of two possible states (0 or 1), quantum computers use the qubit. Using superposition, a property of quantum particles like photons, a qubit can be in two states simultaneously. This allows quantum systems to complete certain information processing tasks in fewer steps than classical systems, an advantage that increases exponentially as you add more qubits.

The power of quantum computing is expected to enable tasks in fields such as drug discovery, logistics, materials research, and cryptography that would be impossible with ordinary computers. While quantum computers are already commercially available, they are currently noisy and difficult to scale, meaning further development is required to enable them to realize their potential. “The race is on to get to the million qubits people need to run quantum software,” says ORCA Computing CEO Dr Richard Murray, a quantum technology expert who co-founded the company with Professor Walmsley, the Dr. Cristina Escoda and Dr Josh Nunn from the University of Bath. “We are in this race against the big boys: Google, IBM, Amazon.”

Optical fiber

Optical fibre wiresQuantum computing is a broad field that encompasses many different approaches. The main thing that distinguishes ORCA Computing’s approach is that it uses optical fibers. “Information comes in at one end and you have a bunch of really fast switches that process the information as it comes through. As it flies through the fiber optic network, we do very fast switching, memory and measurement in a way that quantum computing does on the fly,” explains Dr Murray.

We are in this race against the big boys: Google, IBM, Amazon. Dr Richard Murray CEO of ORCA Computing

A key advantage of the technology is that optical fibers are already available off-the-shelf, potentially making a quantum computer much easier to assemble. “We’re pretty confident that we have a technology that is scalable enough to compete with others, and at a fraction of the cost,” he says.

An agile approach

Members of the ORCA team posing with equipment
From left to right: Dr. Jamie Francis-Jones (Head of Hardware), Dr. Kris Kaczmarek (Head of Product), Dr. Paris Andreades (Electronic Engineer), and Dr. Richard Murray (Co-Founder and CEO). Photo: ORCA Computing

An important potential application of quantum computing is machine learning. “Our philosophy is to never lose sight of the usefulness of these systems and try not to leave that to the end,” says Dr. Murray. “We are translating lasers and beam splitters into machine learning problems. We found that we can translate a physical beamsplitter in our system to nodes in a machine learning system, and if you have a lot of beamsplitters, the physical system can be used to represent and solve some complex machine learning problems.”

The CEO hopes the company’s agile approach will help it compete against the big players. Describing the innovation process, he says: “It’s like building on quicksand. You get a team to build a thing based on assumptions from another team. But things on one side, let’s say the hardware side, may become different or better, which will change the other side, machine learning. Over time, your assumptions become less hypothetical and more real. This is the language of startups.”

White City HQ

the white city campus
The White City Campus brings together researchers, corporate partners and entrepreneurs to turn research into benefits for society.

Dr Murray says the company was drawn to London not only because of Professor Walmsley’s move to Imperial, but also because of a desire to be located in a major city.

There are plenty of coworking spaces in London, they all have a great vibe, but few of them have a forklift or compressed air supply. Dr Richard Murray CEO of ORCA Computing

The company has been headquartered since May 2020 in the Translation and Innovation Center (I-HUB) in the new research and innovation campus of the White City of Imperial. The campus was opened to offer new and growing deep science companies the opportunity to locate close to each other and in close proximity to Imperial’s academic expertise and resources. One advantage that Dr. Murray highlights is the physical resources that the I-HUB offers.

“We spent about three months looking for warehouses and other types of places that we could rent. We were looking at old single glazed carpet mills in Islington and the technical team was saying ‘it kind of works’, but there’s a big risk that the temperature stability isn’t right, and that was too big a risk to take.” . he says.

“There are also plenty of coworking spaces in London, they all have a great vibe, but few have a forklift or compressed air supply. You ask people: ‘We need to bring a 400kg optical table to this room, where is the nearest elevator?’ and they have no idea what you’re talking about. In the early days of startup, when you’re just trying to make things easy, it’s nice to walk in and know that the lab space is going to work, right out of the box.”

“Only the I-HUB stood out as a place where we could have really easy access to the world-class lab space we needed. We only have a year, a few months after forming the company, we had our first results. It was how all systems go. And that’s how you have to be a startup. The whole world is not waiting for a quantum computer, and neither should we.”

Business meets academia

ORCA Computing is working with Imperial academics investigating closely related approaches to quantum computing, not only Professor Walmsley but also Dr Steve Kolthammer, Professor Myungshik Kim Y Dr Michael Vannerall in the Physics department. The Department has recently made a significant investment in upgrading the laboratory space used by the teams.

Commenting on the relationship between academic and commercial research and development, Dr. Murray says that the two activities have different competencies but have the potential to complement each other in useful ways. “We are less able to spend resources looking for novel schemes for long-term memory, things that are at an earlier stage and may not lead to anything, whereas that may be the bread and butter of Ian’s research as an academic.” .

It’s like building on quicksand. You get a team to build a thing based on assumptions from another team. But things on the one hand can become different. Over time, your assumptions become less hypothetical. This is the language of startups. Dr Richard Murray CEO of ORCA Computing

The company built its first product, the time interval interferometer, using the principles identified by Dr. Kolthammer and Professors Walmsley and Kim. They are currently also using a technology developed by Dr. Kolthammer and his Imperial group.

As the company grows, Dr. Murray says the company hopes to continue collaborating with academic researchers. “The model I see in the future is that we communicate what we are doing, our long-term research goals, and maybe academics share theirs with us. Then we have options on how we can support them. One model is to join collaborative research projects, where we dedicate a portion of our funding to academia to do work that feeds into our roadmap. We certainly support them with letters of support: we can articulate the importance of the research well because we really care. As new concepts emerge from the university’s research base, we license them to the company.”

The company also provides technology to Imperial, including a laser system that is being used in a research project led by Dr. Kolthammer and supported by the EPSRC Quantum Computing and Simulation Center.

talent pipeline

Students in a conference room
Physics students in one of Blackett’s lecture rooms. Co-location with Imperial can make it easier for companies to recruit talented graduates with the right specialist experience.

One of the most important points of contact between ORCA Computing and Imperial is student recruitment. The company has already hired four Imperial graduates and plans to hire several more in the coming months. Its most recent addition, due to join in May 2021, is Dr. Alex Neville, a former postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Kolthammer’s group.

Dr. Neville has already completed a six-month stay with the company, financed by Imperial through a Impact Acceleration Account funded by the EPSRC. “When we recruit people from the university, they get down to business. Alex’s secondment was a great opportunity to really understand each other’s work and get to know each other, so he now feels comfortable joining ORCA. Once he comes on board, he will continue to nurture the relationship that we’ve had with Steve,” says Dr. Murray.

entrepreneurial ecosystem

Dr. Murray says the company benefits from being part of the Imperial business ecosystem. “The clustering and ecosystem effect is one of the reasons we’re also in White City. It is important to have a pleasant environment where you can meet people in the hallway. And it helps with the recruiting and investor side. You really don’t want your building to be a burnt-out carpet factory.”

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