Cool Startup: IonQ

Quantum computing is certainly getting a lot of buzz lately. We’re following last week’s profile on Rigetti Computing with another on one of the other top contenders in the race to commercial quantum computing. IonQ, a quantum computing startup based out of Maryland, recently secured $20 million from New Enterprise Associates and GV (formerly Google Ventures) to get a viable, user-ready quantum computer to the market by late 2018. What remains to be seen is how the computer’s going to look and work, and how IonQ can follow that tight timeline.

IonQ was founded in June 2016 by Jungsang Kim and Christopher Monroe, two leading names in quantum research whose previous work spanned from AT&T’s famous Bell Labs to academia. During all their ventures along the way, Kim and Monroe have envisioned that the key to unlocking quantum computing’s notorious difficulties lies in their unique “trapped ion” approach.

Not all quantum computing companies and researchers use the trapped ion approach. This method replaces the superconducting circuits used by most quantum researchers with lasers and extremely cold vacuum freezers. By suspending ions in electromagnetic fields and using lasers to couple qubits together, the trapped ion approach seeks to instill ions with more stable, longer lasting quantum states.

Proponents of ion trapping argue that it is more likely to perfectly reproduce qubits. They also believe that ion trapping could push ions into quantum states for much longer than typical quantum-conducting chips. This is key to quantum computing’s extreme processing power. Issues remain with scaling and, of course, cost and practicality. Still, ion trapping seems like one of the more probable directions quantum computing could take to commercial viability.

Even with ion trapping, quantum computing as a commercial venture might be forced to enter niche markets first. Large companies looking to process massive amounts of data could actually fork over the piles of cash initial quantum computers will go for on the market. Then, as quantum computers replace supercomputers and server warehouses, the theory goes, the technology will eventually start to shrink.

Think of how standard digital computers, phones, essentially all electronic devices have shrunk over the years. They begin as these monoliths with industrial power and little personal practicality. But over time, the tech can eventually fit reasonably on a desk or in the palm of a hand. Since IonQ is moving into a space dependent on physical hardware, this shrinking process will be essential to creating some kind of quantum computer for personal and home use.

Like Rigetti Computing, IonQ is one of a few startups looking to compete with huge tech companies that have been quickly assembling their own teams to push quantum forward. Everyone is looking to protect their own methods and secrets, of course. But IonQ’s ion trapping approach remains the company’s most defining feature and sets it apart from the rest of the crowd. If ion trapping can create stable quantum states that last for relatively long periods, IonQ might just leap forward past the competition. Be on the lookout the next few years for dramatic steps forward in quantum in general—especially for what kind of quantum method emerges victorious. So many methods are out there at this point, experimented on by teams big and small, that some freak accident or unforeseen circumstance may be the turning point.