Investors longing to own a piece of the quantum computing future could get their chance in the next several years. A stock market listing could be on the way for D-Wave Systems, the Canadian company that has built what it describes as the world's first commercial quantum computers.
The company aims to have an initial public offering within a "couple of years," said Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave, in a Financial Times interview. That optimistic view comes despite the fact that in recent studies D-Wave's approach to quantum computing has yet to prove it can outperform classical computing, most recently in a paper in the 19 June 2014 issue of the journal Science. Still, D-Wave has already found customers willing to lease its quantum computing machines—Google, NASA, and Lockheed Martin. And these customers have helped double the company's revenue each year since it sold its first machine to Lockheed Martin in 2010.
Corporations such as Google and Lockheed Martin may be willing to bet on D-Wave's machines because the potential payoff could be huge. Unlike classical computing that represents information as bits of either a 1 or 0, quantum computers can perform many simultaneous calculations using quantum bits (qubits) that can exist as both a 1 and 0 at the same time. That means quantum computing holds the promise of tackling tough problems that would take classical computers forever to solve.
Most quantum computing labs have only built devices consisting of a few qubits, because they want to develop error-correction techniques that can protect the delicate quantum states and ensure accurate computer calculations before building bigger machines. In contrast, D-Wave has already built machines as large as 512 qubits based on "quantum annealing" architecture—an approach that D-Wave says is fairly resistant to quantum computing errors. (For more, see IEEE Spectrum's recent look at D-Wave's quantum computing hardware.)
But bigger quantum computing arrays have not translated into definitive success just yet. D-Wave's machines have not demonstrated "speedup" over classical computers in benchmark tests conducted by academic researchers during the past year or so.
Still, D-Wave has not apparently had any trouble raising private investments to continue building larger machines. The company recently announced it had received $30 million in funding from both old and new investors—including Goldman Sachs, BDC Capital, Harris & Harris Group, and DFJ—for a total of $160 million overall so far. If the company can demonstrate some progress on its particular quantum computing path in the next few years, any future IPO could potentially become a very big deal.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.