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Trapped-ion quantum computer manufacturer IonQ is on a roll. Recently, the company said its IonQ Aria system hit the 20 algorithmic qubit level — a measure said to reflect a quantum computer’s qubits actual utility in real-world settings. The company also made IonQ Aria available on Microsoft’s Azure Quantum platform for what it describes as an extended beta program. 

Moreover, IonQ reported its first quarter as a publicly traded company. It reportedly gained $2.1 million in revenue in 2021 and expects revenue for 2022 to be between $10.2 million and $10.7 million. For quantum computing, it is still early days when the players seek big partners to test out concepts.

A net loss of $106.2 million for 2021 belies the challenges ahead for IonQ, as well as other multi-state quantum computing players that look to surpass conventional binary computers someday. Early application targets for such machines include cryptography, financial modeling, electric vehicle battery chemistry and logistics.

By some measures, IonQ was late to the quantum computing race in 2019, when it first announced access to its platform via cloud partnerships with Microsoft and Amazon Web Services. An appearance on Google Cloud marketplace followed, thus making a ‘Big 3’ cloud hat-trick. 

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But, if IonQ was later to the quantum computing race, it was early to the quantum computing IPO. 

Last year, IonQ claimed standing as the world’s first public pure-play quantum computing company. The IPO transpired as part of a SPAC, or Special Purpose Acquisition Company, which has come to be seen as an easier mechanism companies might use to enter the public markets. 

SPAC path to quantum computing leaps

The SPAC path is not without controversy, as companies taking this route have seen their shares slide after less than splashy intros. That doesn’t bother Peter Chapman, CEO of IonQ. The company grossed $636 million in a SPAC-borne IPO that will go toward the long-awaited commercializing of quantum hardware, Chapman told VentureBeat.

“I no longer have to think about raising money and we are no longer subject to market whims or external affairs, which seems, with [war in] Ukraine and everything else going on, like a really good decision,” he said. 

The IPO funding also gives IonQ staff a clear gauge on their stock options’ worth, he said, adding that this is important in the quantum talent war that pits IonQ versus some of the “biggest tech companies in the world,” many of which use superconducting circuits rather than ion trapping. 

Clearly, raising large sums from VCs or public markets is a ‘to-do item’ for quantum computing hardware makers like IonQ. The company arose out of academic labs at the University of Maryland that were originally propelled by a research partnership in quantum science with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

Now, it must move lab prototypes into production, which is where much of the moneys raised will be spent as quantum computers seek to go commercial, Chapman indicated.

“We knew that within roughly 18 months from IPO, we were going to be gearing up for manufacturing and that was going to require a lot more money. And so being able to run faster, was also a huge piece of what we wanted to be able to do,” Chapman said.

On the atomic clock

Moving to larger scale production is a hurdle for all quantum players. Ion-trapping technology advocates may claim some edge there, in that parts of their base technology employ methods have long been used in atomic clocks.

“With atomic clocks, you take ions and suspend them in a vacuum, levitate them above the surface using an RF field and you isolate them perfectly. They’re very stable and they’re extremely accurate,” Chapman said, touching on a factor that leads ion-trapping advocates to claim qubits with better coherence – that is, ability to retain information – than competitive methods.

Chapman notes that important atomic clock components have undergone miniaturization over the years and versions now appear as compact modules in navigational satellites. That augurs the kind of miniaturization that would help move the quantum computer out of the lab and into data centers. Of course, there are other hurdles ahead.

For IonQ, another bow to manufacturability is seen in the company’s recent move from ytterbium ions to barium ions. This is said to create qubits of much higher fidelity.

In February, IonQ announced a public-private partnership with Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) to build a sustainable source of barium qubits to power its IonQ Aria systems.

Chapman said the ions of barium qubits are controlled primarily with visible light, rather than the ultraviolet light that ytterbium set-ups require. Such UV light can be damaging to hardware components, so visible light has benefits over UV light. 

More important, according to Chapman, is the fact that so many commercial silicon photonics work in the visible spectrum. Using the same technology found in a range of existing commercial products is useful as quantum computing looks to miniaturize and boost reliability.

Along with IonQ’s partnerships with cloud players, comes a series of partnerships with industry movers such as Hyundai Motor (for electric battery chemistry modeling), GE Research (for risk management) and Fidelity‘s Center for Applied Technology (for quantum machine learning for finance). More such deals can be expected, as IonQ’s quantum computing efforts ramp up and roll out.

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