Ex-Google quantum chief joins Simmons’ silicon startup


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Google’s former top quantum scientist John Martinis, who helped the tech giant achieve quantum supremacy, has joined Australian startup Silicon Quantum Computing, lending significant validation for its approach to the technology.

Professor Martinis has already travelled to Sydney, completed two weeks’ COVID quarantine and will start work on Wednesday with Silicon Quantum Computing (SQC), a startup founded by 2018 Australian of the Year Professor Michelle Simmons, staying for at least the next six months.

Professor Martinis, a professor of physics at the University of California Santa Barbara, established Google’s quantum hardware group in 2014 and led it to achieve quantum supremacy – when a quantum computer uses quantum mechanism to do something a conventional computer cannot – before surprisingly resigning from the tech giant earlier this year.

His decision to join SQC is significant validation for the company’s approach of building a quantum computer in silicon at the atomic scale.

“I chose to come to SQC because of the promise of the unique approach in fabrication at the atomic level. No one else in the world can do what these guys are capable of,” Professor Martinis said.

“I’m hugely excited to join the team at SQC. Building a quantum computer is my life-long ambition. If we can build one successfully at scale, it will be a transformational achievement with tremendous impact for humankind.”

Michelle Simmons and John Martinis
Michelle Simmons and John Martinis on Silicon Quantum Computing

SQC was launched in 2017 with $83 million in equity funding from the federal government, the University of NSW, the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra and the NSW government, with intellectual property from the Centre for Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology, where Professor Simmons is a director.

The company has already achieved a number of world firsts, and is now working towards the creation of a 10-qubit prototype quantum-integrated processor by 2023.

Professor Simmons said Professor Martinis would help the company produce a commercial quantum computer.

“Professor Martinis’ track record of success and intense focus on building a commercially-focused quantum computer aligns with our goals at SQC. We have developed atomically-precise fabrication techniques that are uniquely suited to building a quantum computer,” Professor Simmons said.

“SQC is focusing on scaling up its technology platform. This is exactly what John did at Google. So, we are delighted that he has chosen SQC and Australia for his next move.”

Professor Martinis was namechecked by Google boss Sundar Pichai when the company announced it had achieved quantum supremacy, something he likened to the Wright brothers’ first flight.

But soon after this, he was relegated to an advisory position instead of his leadership role, leading him eventually to quit Google. In an interview with industry analyst Paul Smith-Goodson published in Forbes in April, Professor Martinis said there had been tension for years and he was ready for his next project.

“I was doing my job, but I felt uncomfortable about the direction the project was going on the five-to-ten-year time scale. After some other bad events happened, I just decided that this was no longer working, especially with my personality of definite optimism,” he said in April, soon after leaving Google.

“Google no longer seemed like a good fit. Things were going well, and the group could definitely figure out what to do on their own. But I can use my skills to do something even more productive.”

University of NSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said the appointment of Professor Martinis is more evidence that SQC is leading the world.

“Professor Martinis’ decision to come and work in Australia for SQC further demonstrates the promise of the technical capability developed by Professor Simmons and the SQC team. It’s a reminder of UNSW’s world leading capability in quantum physics and atomic engineering,” Mr Jacobs said.

Professor Simmons is a professor of quantum physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of NSW and is also the director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology. She was also named the Australian of the Year in 2018 and listed in the Office of the Order of Australia in 2019.

Earlier this month she was also appointed to the board of CSIRO for a five-year term.

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