Investors lack quantum-computing startups to fund, so they’re turning to these guys

Serguei Kouzmine, managing partner at the newly formed QWave Fund, would like very much to fund a startup pushing a commercial-grade quantum computer. But it’s too early to do that.

Quantum computing promises to think about questions probabilistically, taking into consideration humongous data sets and spitting out answers much faster than traditional computing methods. Rather than process information in binary zeroes and ones, a quantum computer can accept any number between zero and one, or both.

“What people sort of always miss is that it’s pretty similar to how humans think, except that it’s absolutely perfect,” said Kouzmine, who worked on nuclear reactors as a physicist in the Soviet Union.

The problem is that a commercial-grade quantum computer doesn’t exist yet. D-Wave, the closest thing, has a few known commercial customers, but Kouzmine and other people don’t think it qualifies as a true quantum computer. And so Kouzmine and his partners are going after research and products that approach the quantum way.

“What I am trying to push people to think about (is a) quantum calculator first. You have to start somewhere much simpler first,” Kouzmine said.

Such a device is still now in lab tests and can only be used for finding the prime factors of a few numbers, Kouzmine said. But there are indeed startups that have made strides in physics, materials science and other areas that could help bring about quantum computing down the line, or employ related models of computing. And QWave, with offices in Boston and Moscow, wants to fund them.

In December it launched as a $100 million fund. On Tuesday, QWave identified three companies it has already pumped a total of $7 million into:

  • Centice has developed a portable kit with a Raman spectrometer for quickly sensing the chemicals comprising a small substance, such as a pill, without breaking it up. A substance’s make-up is compared against the company’s database to see if it matches up with other known substances, such as illegal drugs. The technology is an example of one area Kouzmine is interested in — “what we broadly call quantum devices, but in essence, highly sensitive detection mechanisms,” he said.
  • Clifton works on gallium-arsenide crystal growth for the sake of making semiconductor diodes and chips with higher performance than what’s possible with silicon. “It’s very important to make your AC/DC switches much smaller and much more efficient,” Kouzmine said. “So that’s, I think, in a broad picture (what Clifton aims to do).”
  • Nano-Meta Technologies is looking at ways to exploit imperfections inside diamonds in order to generate photons that can be used for quantum computing. “The beauty of this is that it can be manipulated at room temperature and behave absolutely as a quantum system,” Kouzmine said. That sounds like technology worth looking at, given that a quantum computer typically requires absolute-zero temperatures (457 degrees below zero) in order to function.

These investments could lay the foundation for a quantum ecosystem involving lots of players and components. It could simultaneously position the investors as quantum enablers. That way, once researchers move beyond incremental progress and have real commercial quantum gear, QWave could be known as the go-to quantum VC group.

But Kouzmine and his fellow investors might have to wait a while for a clear winner worth pouring money into, if there will be one. Commercially viable technology is decades away, my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote in a 2010 GigaOM Research report (subscription required).

This story was updated at 10:58 a.m. PT after a QWave Fund spokeswoman clarified that the company recently changed its name from Quantum Wave Fund to QWave Fund.