Patrick Moorhead, Chief Analyst and founder of Moor Insights and Strategy, and I recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Boulder, Colorado, for Atom Computing’s new research and development facility. Building a new facility was a very important step for the young company.
Atom Computing’s CEO and President, Rob Hays, explained the expansion in the context of the company’s vision.
“While today marks a historic milestone in the company’s history,” he said, “it’s only the beginning of our journey to build large scale quantum computers that will transform the computing industry and unlock new applications to advance humankind.”
A year ago, Atom Computing transferred several quantum scientists from its Berkeley, California headquarters to the new building where they will build a local team and develop future generations of larger and more technically advanced quantum computers.
When we arrived, the team of quantum scientists were already deep into research on various projects in five of the twelve laboratories built to investigate multiple aspects of quantum computing.
Atom Computing occupies the entire lower floor of a large multi-story modern building. We were impressed by the amount of finished room-to-grow space. Even with all that room, the company said optional space on additional floors or in adjacent buildings was available if needed.
The event was well-attended by about 100 of Atom Computing industry and academic partners. Officials from the federal, state, and local governments were also there. The ribbon cutting was significant enough that Jared Polis, Governor of Colorado, gave the ceremony’s opening remarks and why he believed Atom Computing was important to Colorado.
“I want to recognize the team at Atom Computing for taking this step in Colorado,” Governor Polis said. “And of course, we’re also excited about all the quantum industry supporters and the ecosystem in our great state.”
He went on to explain that Atom Computing would thrive in Colorado because of its existing quantum related businesses. The Governor believes the company will be helped by public-private partnerships at the University of Colorado and the forward-looking Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade office that sees Colorado becoming a quantum hub.
In addition to support from Colorado, Atom Computing and NIST have a long-standing research relationship. Dr. Andrew Wilson, NIST Quantum Physics Division Chief at JILA, reinforced ongoing NIST support of Atom Computing in his remarks at the opening ceremonies. Dr. Wilson represents NIST on the Steering Committee of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C). He is Physicist and Principal Investigator in the Ion Storage Group of the Time & Frequency Division at NIST.
“We look forward to opportunities to collaborate with Atom Computing on research and development,” Dr. Wilson said. “We will also support efforts needed to achieve the full potential of scalable quantum computing. We know that a lot of progress is being made at Atom Computing, which is wonderful, but we also know there’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of interesting things to work on and discover.”
Earlier in the year, Patrick and I visited Atom Computing’s headquarters and research facility in Berkeley, California, where its first-generation 100-qubit neutral atom quantum computer was developed and running.
After two days of technical briefings and quantum demonstrations, we came away from Berkeley impressed by the depth of Atom Computing’s research team, its technology, and its strategy. That trip gave us a basis for comparison during our Boulder visit.
In addition to seeing the new facilities, we were also curious about how much technical progress the company had made since our previous visit. We also needed to understand why Atom Computing had made such a significant financial commitment to Colorado.
Atom Computing was founded in 2018. Since then, it has received over $80 million in funding from venture capitalists, plus research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The bulk of financing came from its last round of $60 million in Series B funding that was raised for several specific reasons:
- Expand future research and development facilities in Colorado
- Increase the administrative and scientific team
- Build a larger and more advanced next-generation quantum computing system in Boulder and make it commercially available via the cloud.
Importance of Colorado
During our visit to Boulder, we had the opportunity to talk with a number of researchers and executives. It became apparent that Atom Computing had made the right decision to build its new research facility in Boulder, Colorado:
- Colorado University Boulder is one of the few places that can provide technical resources specific to Atom Computing’s unique neutral atom quantum technology.
- General technical engineering talent is also abundant in the Boulder area. According to the University of Colorado Boulder news website, a growing number of tech businesses are being founded by past Colorado University Boulder researchers. These startups are responsible for employing more than 1,000 Colorado workers for around $400 million annually.
- Dr. Ben Bloom, Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Atom Computing earned his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder, giving him many academic relationships in Colorado. Other Atom Computing team members also attended CU Boulder and also have relationships with other universities.
- Dr. Jun Ye, a physics professor at CU Boulder, is a Fellow of the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). He is currently Atom Computer’s Scientific Advisor. His research was the model for Atom Computing’s optically trapped neutral atoms to build nuclear-spin qubits. While pursuing his doctorate at CU Boulder, Dr. Bloom worked with Dr. Ye.
- Atom Computing announced plans to build multiple generations of its quantum computing systems in Colorado with $100M investment over the next three years. The company believes its expansion into Colorado, along with the other existing quantum companies and research organizations, will elevate the state to the preeminent quantum computing innovation hub in the US and globally. That will attract even more resources to the area.
- The company also joined the University of Colorado Boulder CUbit Quantum Initiative. CUbit cultivates mutually beneficial collaborations with quantum-intensive Colorado enterprises. Atom Computing’s objective is to drive R&D and talent development forward while getting better connected in the Colorado quantum ecosystem and globally. CUbit focuses on connecting the ecosystem, advancing fundamental science, developing talent, and building the foundation for rapid dissemination, application, and commercialization of quantum technologies.
Although quantum labs aren’t new to Patrick and me, most people attending the event had never seen a quantum computer much less toured a lab where a first-of-its-kind machine was being designed and built. The tour group was excited by the prospects of a behind-the-scenes look at quantum computing research.
The facility is impressive. It is located in a large, mirrored building that sits among several similar buildings in a small industrial park. The amount of research we saw underway in the new location was impressive. The newness and amount of space contrasted significantly with Atom Computing’s Berkeley facility.
It was evident that Atom Computing’s management had followed through on commitments made to raise the last round of Series B funding. As pledged, funds were used to expand research in Boulder, acquire scientists and other technical expertise, and begin building the next-generation neutral atom qubit quantum computing system.
Equally important, Atom Computing now has a presence in the two most concentrated quantum computing innovation centers in the US and globally – California and Colorado.
After the tour, Pat and I compared notes. We agreed that we had seen many improvements in the Boulder lab. Getting a bit in the weeds, here’s what we noticed:
- In the Berkeley lab, layouts were mounted on a single, large breadboard with many connections and devices wired up in seemingly random order. We need to point out that despite any criticism of the disorder, we also realize that method of breadboarding isn’t unusual for developing prototypes. It allows adjustments to be made on the fly and components to be rearranged and swapped out easily. At the same time, the lack of modularity and component exposure makes it easy to accidentally bump one device when trying to adjust or replace another.
- The Boulder lab is a striking contrast to Atom Computing’s lab in Berkeley. Researchers in Boulder have integrated optical subsystems into neatly designed black boxes with Atom Computing logos. Everything is modular and accessible. Control systems that were previously supplied by a third party have been replaced with Atom Computing’s proprietary systems and branded with company logos.
- It seemed odd initially, but we noticed the Boulder lab breadboards were smaller than those used in Berkeley where researchers used large breadboards about 30 inches by 30 inches. Boulder researchers had downsized to smaller breadboards about 18 inches by 10 inches. It was a purposeful change. Smaller breadboards use smaller devices, allowing the breadboards to be integrated into black boxes that slide into the major optical table.
- Overall, the Boulder system is better engineered than Berkeley, more compact, and with an easier-to-use hot-swappable modular system. Everything in the Phoenix system is mounted on one giant breadboard.
We estimate Atom Computing spent about twenty million dollars to build, equip, and staff the Boulder lab. The company plans to continue growing the Colorado workforce as it makes future generations of scalable neutral atom quantum computers.
Relationships are important so the management team has already begun working on partnerships with leading companies and researchers for quantum software and application development. Atom Computing didn’t disclose any specific investment information, but large future funding rounds will obviously be needed if the company executes its plan to spend $100 million at the Colorado facility over the next three years.
The next-generation quantum computer will be offered as-a-service using private and public cloud access. According to Rob Hays, the company is presently working with leading cloud service providers. These arrangements will be announced later.
Atom Computing uses a technology called neutral atom nuclear-spin qubits. Just as classical computers use bits to represent a one or a zero, each qubit is encoded in the nuclear spin of strontium atoms. Atom Computing manipulates the electronic energy levels of the strontium atom to represent either a one or zero state, or a superposition of both. Strontium atoms have unique properties that give it the potential to scale large numbers of qubits that can maintain quantum states for relatively long periods. The longer a quantum state can be maintained, the better because it allows the computer to run more complex problems. It also provides more time for error correction.
Rather than wires or cables, Atom Computing’s quantum computer uses lasers to trap and cool the strontium atoms in free space. Acting like precision optical tweezers, lasers move the atoms into two-dimensional arrays. Because a neutral atom has no charge, it can be tightly packed and experiences little interference from its neighbors.
Although no announcements were made at the opening about Atom Computing’s next generation computer, there is no question it will be a much larger machine with higher qubit count and improved fidelities.
Atom Computing’s first generation “Phoenix” machine in the Berkeley lab is equipped with 100 qubits arranged in a 10×10 two-dimensional array. We expect a significant jump in the number of qubits in its next quantum machine because Atom Computing prefers to increase its qubits in orders of magnitude rather than adding a dozen or so qubits each year.
Neutral atom arrays are tiny, and its shapes can be arbitrary. For example, an atomic array of a million qubits could be contained in a 100x100x100 3-D array.
Although it may be hard to imagine, a million-qubit neutral atom array of this size would occupy less than a cubic millimeter of space. That’s the size of a few grains of sand.
Moor Insights & Strategy Insider podcast with Atom Computing CEO Rob Hays
Wrapping it up
Despite some media hype, commercialization of large-scale quantum computers isn’t just around the corner. However, it is not likely to be more than a decade away either.
Error correction is one of the biggest obstacles to building mega-qubit machines that can outrun and out-compute our best supercomputers by billions of years. It is not yet mature enough to build a fault tolerant computer, but there is a lot of research that is producing promising results.
Atom Computing has positioned itself in the sweet spot of quantum computing. It has quality investors, a good roadmap, a promising and scalable technology, excellent management, and it is now located in two of the best US quantum research hubs. The value of being near NIST and JILA can’t be overstated. Additionally, the University of Colorado-Boulder can provide a conveyor belt of researchers and specialists specific to Atom Computing’s technology now and well into the future.
Many different types of quantum computing hardware technologies are being prototyped today. But at this stage of quantum computing, there is no way to predict which technology will be the first used to build a fault-tolerant, million qubit quantum computer. The answer might be a yet-undiscovered technology, or it could be an enhanced version of qubit hardware in use today.
Atom Computing has described itself as a company obsessed with building the world’s most scalable quantum computers out of optically trapped neutral atoms. We have no way of knowing if that will happen or not. However, after this visit, we can verify that Atom Computing is still obsessed with that goal.
- Patrick Moorhead and I are technology analysts. It’s our role to stay abreast of all facets of various technologies we cover, ranging from current and past research to a geek-level of understanding real-world applications, industry trends, and a detailed knowledge about the technologies.
- As an analyst, I am narrowly focused on Quantum, AI, Electromagnetics, and Space. At the same time, Patrick covers everything else in the technology spectrum, including networking, chips, and devices. We both write about technology to communicate our analysis and opinions.
- The ability to scale up qubits is critical to quantum computing. Is it doable with neutral atom nuclear-spin qubits? Yes, very much so. For example, PASQAL, another neutral atom quantum computer company headquartered in France, recently boosted its qubit count from 100 to 324 atoms. It used Rubidium-87 rather than Sr-87, but there are only a few minor differences. I expect that Atom Computing’s next computer will be equipped with 300 to 500 qubits. I also believe we will see that announcement toward the end of the year or at the beginning of next year. Moving up to more qubits may present technical issues such as problems with two-qubit fidelity, among other things, otherwise, PASQAL would have increased its qubit count to more than 324 qubits.
- Neutral atoms have received a lot of recent attention from the research community. There is some interesting research using ytterbium-171 for neutral atom spin qubits by Dr. Jeff Thompson at Princeton and Dr. Adam Kaufmann at JILA in Colorado. Ytterbium-171 offers some quantum advantages over Strontium-87. However, the research is incomplete, and more work is needed to fully understand the application.
- We aren’t sure where Atom Computing stands on performing research on ytterbium or any other species. I asked about certain lasers (used in ytterbium research) in the Boulder lab. Here is the answer I received from Dr. Bloom:
“At Atom Computing we have pioneered and gained expertise on a variety of neutral atom qubits, including optical qubits and pure-nuclear-spin qubits. These techniques are widely applicable to many optically trapped quantum systems, including alkali atoms, alkaline-earth atoms, and molecules. As more demonstrations of these techniques arise, we will always integrate the latest and greatest into our future machines. The benefits of taking our approach to neutral atom qubits to other group II elements is not lost upon us, including faster gates, faster readout, and less qubit-leakage.”
I respect that answer from a research perspective. In other words, Dr. Bloom is not disclosing what the company is or is not researching. That is proprietary information. Still, he fully understands the options and current research. The company will always use the best technology available.
From an analyst perspective, it would be hard not to investigate the advantages of ytterbium versus strontium.
My previous articles about Atom Computing can be read here and here. More information about the new Atom Computing Boulder facility can be read here