Quantum technology may finally have its time.
Earlier this month, one of the world’s few “pure play” quantum technology companies, Rigetti Computing, went public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC – and it didn’t miss narrowly from becoming the first publicly traded company to focus expressly on commercializing quantum technology when another company, IonQ, went public through a SPAC merger in October. Another rival in the space, D-Wave, said it also plans to go public via SPAC.
Still, in a move some might interpret as the strongest signal yet that quantum tech is ready for prime time, Alphabet said this morning it was transforming its six-year-old quantum tech band, Sandbox AQ, in its own independent company.
Jack Hidary, who was previously director of AI and quantum at Sandbox and is a longtime member of the X Prize board, will continue to lead the 55-person team in Mountain View, Calif., as as CEO.
Sandbox has also assembled an enviable group of advisers, including former Alphabet Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt; Blythe Masters, the former JPMorgan Chase executive who helped create credit default swaps; and John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox PARC.
Also notably, Sandbox – which describes itself as a SaaS company that develops commercial products for telecommunications, financial services, healthcare, government, IT security and other sectors – is rolling out with an undisclosed amount of funding at “nine digits”.
Among its new outside investors is Breyer Capital, whose founder, Jim Breyer, also joined Sandbox’s advisory board. Section 32, Guggenheim Investments, TIME Investments and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates are also part of the investor mix.
Admittedly, market demand partly explains Alphabet’s decision to create Sandbox. According to Gartner, by next year, 20% of global organizations are expected to budget for quantum computing projects, up from less than 1% in 2018.
Customers already paying Sandbox for its computing power include Vodafone Business, Softbank Mobile and the Mount Sinai Health System.
But judging by a recent conversation with Breyer, perhaps an even more important driver of the growing interest in quantum technology is the realization that while true quantum computing – i.e. the unhindered ability to harness quantum physics to cycle through many possibilities in a fraction of a second and determine a probable outcome – could be five years or more away, other related technologies, such as so-called quantum sensing technologies – are rapidly becoming a reality.
Indeed, rather than working on quantum computers, Sandbox instead focuses on how quantum technology intersects with AI, with previous work involving the creation of more powerful medical sensors.
As Breyer said when we spoke a few weeks ago, “There are huge national security opportunities for quantum businesses, and that’s where a lot of businesses are right now, with the three-way agencies letters, like the Department of Defence. But what really excites me now from an investment perspective is not necessarily the big, very capital-intensive quantum computers… but areas like quantum sensing.
Think of a very powerful 1,000x optical microscope that can be applied to medicine, Breyer offered as an explanation. “There are quantum sensing technologies today that are being tested in some of our major hospitals in the United States that I believe will revolutionize fields such as cardiology. [and] drug discovery.’
Simply put, Breyer said, quantum computing platforms will eventually play a role in helping catch diseases faster, improving security systems and protecting all kinds of data. But large organizations, including governments and corporations, are no longer waiting for these massive quantum computers to arrive.
“There are now quantum technologies where – they’re not at the breaking point of quantum computing in four or five years – but are making a very big difference,” he said. The Sandbox team, he suggested at the time, is among those leading the charge.