Sydney quantum start-up Q-CTRL launches first product

Sydney quantum start-up Q-CTRL launches first product

Black Opal claims world first with quantum control software

Sydney start-up Q-CTRL has launched its inaugural product – Black Opal – which it describes as “the world’s first commercially available software suite designed to improve the performance of quantum computing hardware”.

Quantum systems are highly susceptible to decoherence. The states of quantum bits, or qubits, in quantum computers are quickly randomised by interference from the environment.

Q-CTRL’s toolkit help teams design and deploy control for their quantum hardware in order to suppress these errors.

“Quantum control has for a long time been thought of as a bit of black art. Those of us who were deeply ingrained in it understood the capabilities it brings, but many others would only dip their toes in the water and that was enough,” explains Q-CTRL founder University of Sydney Professor Michael Biercuk.

“We’re aiming to remove those barriers, remove the friction points that have prevented teams from taking advantage of everything that’s possible,” he adds.

The controls in the toolkit were described by Biercuk as being able to “effectively turn back the clock” on decoherence. “So all the randomisation that occurs, unwinds; it’s like unmixing the soup,” he told Computerworld last year.

Q-CTRL founder Michael Biercuk
Q-CTRL founder Michael Biercuk

Q-CTRL launched in November 2017, the first spin-off company of the Australia Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS).

The company received financial backing from Data Collective Venture Capital, Horizons Ventures, Main Sequence Ventures, and Sequoia Capital and began work on Black Opal in January.

The product brings together a decade of academic research, coded into Python and tied to a sleek SaaS front end. The usability and design of the interface was central to the product’s development, Biercuk says.

“We needed to remove barriers. If I just deploy a Python package, the activation barrier to taking advantage of all the capability and knowledge in that can be very, very high. We knew in order to reach the most people and have the most impact we needed to reduce those barriers. One great way to do it is to make very complicated concepts and workflows visual and interactive,” he says.

“It’s a very visual product, it’s had a lot of emphasis on the front end and the user experience,” Biercuk adds.

The 18-strong team, based at the University of Sydney, is made up of quantum control engineers and product focused roles.

Despite its niche use, the potential market for Black Opal includes those who ‘just becoming quantum ready’ and learning how quantum technologies will impact their work, conventional software developers exploring the field, students, academics, professional quantum software engineers and quantum hardware engineers.

While many of the major players in quantum computing will have quantum control teams working towards similar outcomes, Black Opal provides the same in a SaaS offering.

Black Opal at work
Black Opal at work

“The question becomes – does an organisation invest many years and many very expensive, high-quality scientists and engineers in trying to build up a knowledge base, learn the literature and build up a product? You can easily imagine five people taking three years full time just becoming familiar with the knowledge base, then building some useful internal system,” Biercuk says.

“We can make any team perform like they have their own in house control engineering team without having to build one themselves,” he adds.

The SaaS model means Q-CTRL will add new features on a “roughly weekly basis” Biercuk says. In the coming months the team will also launch Boulder Opal, focused on automation and integration of control solutions into professional workflows. Enterprise versions and API access to developers are also planned.

“Black Opal helps our team directly leverage Q-CTRL's deep expertise in quantum control to solve some of our toughest problems building a new class of application-specific quantum computers,” said early Q-CTRL customer  Dr Alexei Marchenkov, founder and CEO of Bleximo, a quantum technology company based in California.

“This software – and its focus on high-quality visualisations – enables us to build intuition for very complicated concepts outside of our core areas of expertise," Marchenkov added.

In April the company was given cloud-based access to IBM’s quantum computers, as one of only eight start-ups globally to be invited to join Big Blue’s ‘Q Network’.

Q-CTRL is one of a small but growing number of Australian quantum technology start-ups. Adelaide is home to QxBranch which develops custom software for quantum computers.

Australia's ‘first quantum computing hardware company’ – Silicon Quantum Computing – launched in Sydney in August last year.

"After decades in the labs, it appears that a new quantum-powered industry is emerging and we are excited to see Q-CTRL playing a crucial role. I think we might see useful quantum computers sooner than we had thought," said Phil Morle, a partner at Main Sequence Ventures.

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