After hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from the federal and state governments, the Chicago Quantum Exchange has launched a quantum startup accelerator at the Polsky Center, Duality, with hopes of bridging research at the University of Chicago’s highly specialized engineering school with the marketplace.
Quantum technology, particularly in computing, is relatively new. Instead of traditional computers, which store data on binary bits — zeroes and ones coded into data — quantum bits on an atomic scale can sometimes exist as zeroes and ones simultaneously. That makes coding dramatically more efficient at storing information. This expanded capacity has ramifications for all manner of computing, from communications to sensors.
"Chicago, for quite some time, has made substantial investment in the underlying science, and the national labs and the universities have made substantial investment in research infrastructure and tool-development to build these technologies," said Dr. David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, in an interview.
"But there's always a critical key for economic development, which is how do you move these technologies into the marketplace. How do you build companies? How do you hire employees? How do you provide jobs?"
Enter the Polsky Center and Duality itself. Part of the reason why the investment was made in Hyde Park and not in southwest suburban Lemont, where Argonne is located, is because the accelerator needed to be close to the Booth School of Business. But Awschalom also pointed out that the university has two dozen quantum engineers, quantum scientists and materials scientists since it established what became the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering in 2011.
"The companies go to the talent," he said. "The presence of Stanford and Berkeley made San Jose really blossom, and the companies in San Jose made Palo Alto and that region grow really well. We have that opportunity here."
Furthermore, he said the South Side does not have the cost-of-living problem the Bay Area has: startups here may be less likely to move and take everyone with them.
Different companies have different needs as far as physical footprints are concerned: an applications company that wants to build quantum software would need a lot of office space. A company building medical sensors would need a lot of laboratory space separate from the university but close enough to it to draw upon academic expertise.
"Undergraduate students in Hyde Park can do internships at these companies," Awschalom said.
Duality will be supported by corporate and academic investments totaling $20 million, and it hopes to accept up to 10 companies into the program in the first year. The first rendition is due to last 10 years. Each company will get $50,000. Jay Schrankler, head of the Polsky Center, said the accelerator program will last 12 weeks followed by nine months of incubation. Startups will first get a technology assessment, de-risking and instruction on how to talk to customers.
"One of the biggest pieces they would do would be to talk to up to 100 different customers," he said. "They would go around, virtually, with a pitch deck that would talk about their product to customers to get their feedback." This process, called a "design sprint," leads to feedback that is then iterated into the software.
During incubation, the startups will develop a minimum viable product, or a beta launch.
Schrankler said that, rather than investing in companies or building equity (the U. of C. is not getting any ownership of the startups, as venture capitalists do), the university is making an investment it hopes will pay off down the road, in companies that will stay local. He noted that many companies pay to do research at nearby universities.
PME is not a typical engineering school, with departments in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. The U. of C. has always shied away from applied sciences, but Awschalom said that historical reticence was "an opportunity here to do something grand by thinking differently than all the other engineering programs."
"We have to provide a way to bring people here and to encourage them to build and stay here," he said. "If you want economic development in the South Side of Chicago, you better provide opportunities to do it, with high-paying jobs, with big investment, with people who think big."
Awschalom pointed to technology companies taking root in areas akin to the South Side in parts of New York, Detroit or San Jose, California as evidence that quantum technology could take off here. And what Hyde Park already can offer is an enormous number of engineers and scientists, alongside a potential workforce and an extant infrastructure available as their companies build and grow.
"If you don't do it, who's going to?" he asked. "I believe the university has already made efforts to do that by investing in businesses right in or in activities around Hyde Park. And you might argue it needs to be more, it needs to be faster, it needs to be broader, but launching an economic seed of this magnitude in an area like the South Side, which has one particular strength that very few parts of the entire country have."