Australian quantum computing software startup Q-CTRL has launched its first product to the public, Black Opal. The software brings a friendly user interface to the quantum domain for the first time, delivered via a hardware-agnostic SaaS model.
“It really is an exciting time for us as a company but also for the field as a whole,” Professor Michael Biercuk told InnovationAus.com.
“This is a really important part of a transition from purely academic science to industry. We’re building things that teams want to use and that teams hopefully want to pay for.”
Prof Biercuk explains that Q-CTRL is bringing the field of control engineering to the quantum industry in a way that research funding simply has not accounted for, which has created problems for pushing quantum computing forward.
“Control engineering is the discipline that makes everything work. It makes aeroplanes fly, it makes robots walk,” says Prof Biercuk. “Quantum systems are unstable and tend to break. We have solutions based on many years of research and now we deploy this knowledge as software to teams that have no expertise and no experience in this.”
“It is exciting for us that we are actually able to build and share a professional grade package. It is really hard when no funding agency will ever give you support to build code that is good enough to share,” says Prof Biercuk, who says that until now most code used in this space has been “grad student hacked together code”.
“They won’t let you hire a software engineer. So engaging in this commercial enterprise is a great way to boost the research and also, of course, to have commercial success.”
“This is both a statement of our capabilities and a way to show the world the new things that are available to them by leveraging this field of quantum control for quantum computing.”
Black Opal will be freely available to the public on a trial basis “into 2019” as part of the launch. Prof Biercuk says that this is about getting it into the hands of as many users as possible so people can see how the software can work for them.
“Our target is very broad. The product is built to have things that cater to junior students who are just learning about quantum physics, with beautiful visualisations and a lot of emphasis on front end user experience,” says Prof Biercuk. “All the way up to professional engineers in quantum hardware companies like IBM or Google who want to leverage the deep technical expertise that we have and that we have deployed as software.”
Q-CTRL has an even more advanced package called Boulder Opal for those after a deeper programmatic package that offers command line interface and support for different professional workflows.
“For us this is both a statement of our capabilities and a way to show the world the new things that are available to them by leveraging this field of quantum control for quantum computing and to get people comfortable with our products,” says Prof Biercuk.
Q-CTRL has been well funded by venture capital from both Australia and abroad, with funding from Data Collective Venture Capital, Horizons Ventures, Main Sequence Ventures, and Sequoia Capital. It is based at the University of Sydney’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS).
Commercialisation a tricky business
Prof Biercuk says they have been in a “fortuitous position”, to have been able to take advantage of good strategic investments in quantum research at Australian institutions over a long period of time.
But Prof Biercuk also feels there are still many roadblocks to deal with when it comes to commercialising research.
He believes talent remains a constant problem given the small size of the Australian market and the continued changes to immigration laws, but points out Q-CTRL is the first to participate in the Department of Immigration’s Global Talent Scheme so will be bringing in new technical talent through this program.
But the costs associated with moving from research to VC-backed commercial enterprise is still a big problem.
“Even being a person who is a full Professor in Physics with a PhD, if I didn’t have that capital and the ability to hire effective contractors to help solve these problems it wouldn’t be possible to start this company,” says Prof Biercuk.
“We have an opportunity nationally to try to improve some of these things to remove the barriers for people to become entrepreneurs.”
He says that AVCAL has helped to make things easier with standard templates across a number of areas of paperwork, but that things like ASIC registration and compliance, and other licensing agreements have required a lot of expertise that Q-CTRL has had the finances to deal with but others may not be so lucky.
“I’m not entirely sure why small businesses of the sort we’re talking about, like less than $10M in revenue, why do we need ASIC registration? Maybe once you incorporate you register once, just like you do anywhere else, but then if you add a Director why does this need constant form filing with ASIC?”
“I think there’s a possibility to have a streamlined category of companies – pre-revenue startups – that are attracting venture capital that want to get running and want to get running fast. A registration where you register once but you don’t fill out anything again unless you are dissolving the company or going public.”
“I feel we have an opportunity nationally to try to improve some of these things to remove the barriers for people to become entrepreneurs,” says Prof Biercuk.
But overall, Prof Biercuk still feels Australia is placed well in the quantum computing market thanks to some smart decisions that date back to the 1990s and the work of Professor Bob Clark from UNSW.
“He really started the Centre for Quantum Computation (CQC2T), he secured overseas funding from the American government at a time when that was almost unheard of and got matching funds from the Commonwealth government in Australia,” says Prof Biercuk. “It was his strategic vision alongside a number of other technical leaders, like Gerard Milburn at UQ, who built this critical mass of talent.”
“We have in Australia a very broad-based national capability that spans all of the dominating technologies,” says Prof Biercuk. “We are really excited to be one of the first movers in this space and to be helping build this new industry. And hopefully Australia will have a prominent role for many years to come.”
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