In 2019, Caltech announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services to resurrect a 21,000-square-foot building as a shrine to quantum computing. Inside, researchers from MIT, Stanford, Harvard and more are planning to build out quantum computers that may look more like the giant IBM computers from the 50s than our current laptops.
Now, the building has officially opened.
Simply put (without getting into Scrodinger's cat), quantum computing has the ability to take a problem with several variables, generate millions of permutations or outcomes and pick the best or most efficient one.
This kind of technology has the power to transform industries that need to take a lot of risk into account. For instance, it could help pharmaceutical companies create more effective drugs without having to experiment as much. It could help doctors deliver personalized medicine by leveraging the human genome sequence. It could also help the financial sector sift through data projections of different companies to understand the risk of an investment or an acquisition. It could help delivery companies find the most efficient route in a matter of minutes.
Fernando Brandão, a professor of theoretical physics
The systems that power cell phones and laptops don't have the ability to process large, complex problems that could sift through millions of permutations to calculate the best solutions.
In a landmark study for quantum computing in 2019, Google said it was able to feed a problem through a quantum computer and get results in minutes. That same problem would have taken a normal computer 10,000 years to complete.
The Caltech building is one of many quantum computing projects in Amazon's portfolio. The company previously unveiled a cloud-based quantum computer called Amazon Bracket to rival Azure's quantum offering in the never ending cloud wars between the two companies.
We sat down with Fernando Brandão, a professor of theoretical physics who is co-leading the AWS Center for Quantum Computing.
How did this partnership between AWS and Caltech come about?
A lot of computing probably started 40 years ago. It was actually Caltech's Richard Feynman, who was a professor here back then, that had this idea that, on a fundamental level, nature is quantum mechanical. We need to build our computers out of something right out of quantum mechanical systems then actually quantum mechanics has some pretty different problems from the physics we learn at school, and therefore, there is an opportunity for building a better kind of computer using quantum mechanics. For 40 years, he had been developing this idea, and Caltech had played a major role.
But if you really move to the next step and scale up the technology and build a quantum computer at a scale that can be useful for society and for people, then you need very serious engineering effort and special investments; this is not something cheap to do. We need a big player, either in government or industry, to do that. Caltech can bring all the scientific expertise. And Amazon can bring other expertise in engineering and all the investment necessary to really go to the next step.
What is quantum computing?
You want to make a company that has to optimize the routes to deliver some product to a customer. What is the best route to deliver this product? This question is challenging because there are so many different possibilities. So quantum computation is exploring all of the options at the same time.
But it is not like parallel computing. There's a second step where you have to find a clever way to make the solution interfere in a way that only gives you one of the options. So Quantum computation will not speed up every problem. There are particular problems for which it gives an advantage. So the problem has to have the right structure. And a lot of the research in quantum computing is to find out which problems have the right structure so we can explore them to give better quantum solutions.
What sectors will have the first or most immediate impact of quantum computing?
This goes back to the vision of Richard Feynman from 40 years ago, where he said, "Look, let's actually build this quantum computer for nothing else than just simulating very complicated quantum mechanical systems."
I've seen industries where the bottleneck to making progress is to simulate very large quantum mechanical systems. For example, we know in pharmaceuticals we want to understand the quantum structure of molecules to make new drugs. But it's very easy to get complicated molecules [that are] out of reach for the computers that we have today.
In material science for people who are looking at batteries, for example, we have to model how these batteries work on a quantum level, and it can get very complicated, very quickly. So it would be a lot of R&D research for companies that work in energy or in pharmaceuticals or in chemistry. I think they would find quantum computation very useful.
Then at some point if you had even better machines, faster machines, bigger machines, you might end up in applications for optimization problems for logistics, currency, finance.The issue there is quantum can give an advantage, but it is a small advantage than for these simulation problems like pharmaceuticals or material science. So you need a more sophisticated machine to get there.
What are some of the bottlenecks here? What's preventing us from building this quantum computer and deploying it for pharmaceutical companies everywhere within the next year?
In a quantum mechanical system, they are very fragile, unlike the systems that we experience in our everyday life. So there is a rule of quantum mechanics that whenever you go and see how the system is, you've disturbed the system.
So what this means is that all kinds of information like the magnetic field of the environment or the temperature of some particles in the environment all affect your quantum system, so it's very hard to isolate your quantum system from these detrimental effects of the environment. And that's the challenge of quantum computers. If you don't isolate them, then there is noise in our quantum computer and this noise will spoil our operations.
At the same time we want one qubit [a unit of information in quantum computers] to interact very strongly with the other qubit to do the operation.
So you have two conflicting requirements. You want to completely isolate your qubits in the quantum computer from the environment, and that's very hard for quantum mechanical systems. But at the same time, you want [the qubits] to couple very strongly. So making these two things happen at the same time and at the scale that we need for a large number of qubits, we think that's possible. We don't see any roadblock, but it's just that it is very ambitious scientific engineering.
Where will quantum computing be in, let's say, 10 years?
I'm hoping within the next decade or so, we start getting to this stage of quantum computers where they start impacting society in a meaningful way. It's an ambitious goal, but I think we are well-positioned. So by the end of the decade, we may start having quantum machines that can solve problems of society that cannot be solved on our current computers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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The University of Southern California was among a group of universities awarded a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to invest in and incubate startups.
The new program is called NSF Innovation Corps Hub: West Region. USC, UCLA and UC Riverside are among the participants, along with Caltech, the University of Colorado Boulder, the Colorado School of Mines, University of New Mexico and the University of Utah. The plan is to add more university affiliates as the program develops.
The colleges will identify potential startups and provide mentoring, campus resources and labs to help standout companies develop. Each university will also monitor work happening in campus labs that might lead to the next big company.
USC Viterbi School of Engineering will lead the program, guided by Dean Yannis Yortsos.
"There is a big diversity of the population in the West," Yortsos told dot.LA, "and so that's something that we also are going to focus on. The idea is to also engage more and more other institutions in this and keep increasing the footprint."
The program will look to invest in scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who are people of color or "from the many diverse backgrounds of the Western United States."
It won't directly invest in startups. Instead it will look to connect startup companies to potential investors. "We are helping people demystify the process of innovation," Yortsos added.
The USC-led West Coast hub is one of five that the NSF is investing in. Each will receive $3 million every year for five years, contingent on progress milestones, rather than one lump sum upfront.
Yortsos said "the emphasis is on funding deep technology — by this I mean, technology that is not simply creating an app for something, but doing something that has fundamental technological value that can then essentially transform the landscape in different ways, whether this is bioengineering, defense, aerospace [or] artificial intelligence."
Yortsos pointed out that several big technology companies started with support from the government or NSF funds, including Qualcomm, which was created by USC Engineering School namesake Andrew Viterbi.
"Viterbi started with a startup and this startup was funded by National Science Foundation grants," Yortsos said, "then it became what is known as Qualcomm."
"Google, in some sense, came out of intellectual property that was developed by support within Stanford," Yortsos added.
The I-Corps Hub West will also give its startups opportunities to show off their work and court potential investors at technology scouting showcases and by leveraging its existing connections with accelerators and national laboratories. No companies have been selected for this year's class yet; the program begins in January 2022.
The National Science Foundation created the I-Corps in 2011, and a decade later is adding this division to focus specifically on emerging startups in West Coast markets. The NSF reports that since the program's ceration, roughly 1,280 colleges and universities have helped launch over 1,000 startups— and those companies have gone on to raise more than $760 million in funding.
Correction: This story was updated to clarify that USC was not the grant's sole recipient.
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'They Know You Better Than Any Venture Capitalist': The California Crescent Fund Aims to Boost SoCal's Student Founders
College kids have hatched some of the biggest ideas throughout tech history, sometimes before they even finish school. But students who aren't as lucky as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates usually have to backburner big ideas to focus on earning a degree and getting a job. Only then can they hope that their ideas will someday see the light of day.
California Crescent Fund, a new student-run venture capital firm that exclusively funds student startups based in Southern California, wants to offer young founders the option to turn their ideas into reality while they're still in school.
Based in Costa Mesa, Crescent, which refers to the arc of schools curving south from UC Santa Barbara to UC San Diego, is run primarily by six student or recent graduate co-founders — or "managing partners" — and a network of student "university partners" in engineering-heavy schools including UC Irvine, USC, UCLA, UCSD and the Claremont Colleges.
University partners keep an ear to the ground at their respective schools in hopes of finding the most promising startup ideas, which they then pass along to the folks at Crescent. Candidates who are deemed worthy receive a $40,000 check. Since the managing partners began fundraising in December 2020, they've raised $200,000 of soft-circle capital and added one company, Lolly, to their portfolio. Now, they're aiming to raise a total of $1 million in the next six months.
"A lot of these early-stage venture firms are trying to find the best deals" through accelerators, summer programs and scout networks, said Prerit Seth, a co-founder who graduated this year from UCI with a degree in economics and now works as an associate product manager at Citrix. "Having students directly on campus closes that gap." Investors typically spend at most a day or two with startup founders, he points out, but "the student partners on our campuses have known some of their peers for a long time."
Student venture funds are nothing new. The University of Michigan's Wolverine Venture Fund, the country's first student-run VC fund, was founded in 1997. Since then, groups like Contrary Capital, Dorm Room Fund, A-Level Capital and Rough Draft Ventures have sprung up to tap the student creator market. But by and large, said Seth, those funds are focused on Ivy League universities and a handful of Bay Area schools.
All but one of Crescent's co-founders went to Southern California schools, where they observed the wealth of engineering talent —and dearth of startup funding relative to the Bay Area — first-hand. So in the fall of 2019, Keyan Kazemian, a junior majoring in computer engineering at UCI, pitched the idea for Crescent to fellow junior Praneet Sah, who was on the same campus studying computer science and helming the school's Hedge Fund Society. Together they assembled the rest of the team and set out to secure funding from angel investors, institutions and high-net-worth individuals in the region.
"There is not a lot of capital available for the Southern California area," said Sah. "The bridge to that capital is different. We're trying to be that bridge."
Sah said the region's student startup ecosystem is bursting with so many ideas that the fund sees a dozen startups from their target schools every month. "Some with super-interesting ideas, some with straight-up weird ideas," he said.
So far, Crescent has invested in only one company: Lolly, a Gen Z video dating app described as TikTok meets Tinder, which went live in December 2020 and closed a $1.1 million seed round in January with help from the fund's $40,000 investment. A Crescent student partner at the Claremont Colleges named Zach Friedman knew Lolly co-founder Marc Baghadjian and his partners for years and introduced them to the Crescent team in late 2020.
"The thing about the fund that's so amazing is that they know who you are from third grade, because they went to high school, to middle school with you," said Baghadjian. "They know you better than any professional venture capitalist would know. Because they're my demographic and my age, and they get my product, they can give me better feedback than any adult would."
Like Lolly, many of the other consumer startups founded by younger generations are also geared toward youth, like the L.A.-based PearPop, which lets users bid for screen time with their favorite TikTok stars, and Poparazzi, a photo-sharing platform that lets users post photos to their friends' profiles. Funding from a student venture capital fund can help boost the product, and the profile, of youth-led startups, making them more visible to traditional investors. It also allows youth to drive their own tech trends, rather than let older investors dictate them.
According to L.A. Tech Week co-organizer Michelle Fang, student venture capital programs like Crescent are "empowering my generation to accelerate the bubbling tech scene here in Los Angeles beyond traditional means."
"Gen Z is among the first to adopt new products and drive internet trends, from Social Media 3.0 to crypto, and on," she added. Student VCs are "the perfect alignment to empower this same generation to invest in what they know best."
Crescent is currently accepting applications from students online, and though they see a lot of A.I., blockchain and biomedical startups, Seth said the fund is "industry agnostic—we're just trying to understand the trends." And to ensure the fund's perspective on tech remains student-focused, the co-founders, all of whom graduated this year, are preparing to hand over the keys to the fund to the next batch of Southern California students.
Lead art by Ian Hurley.
Editor 's note: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the Claremont Colleges.
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