Qilimanjaro Quantum Tech: Shaping the Future of Coherent Analog Quantum Computing

Quantum computers have long promised exponential leaps in computational power. However, despite such expectations, they have thus far struggled to surpass supercomputers in solving practical problems. 

Digital quantum computers perform a quantum computation step-by-step, and with every computational step, they accumulate a quantum error that eventually spoils the calculation result. Analog quantum computers, on the other hand, operate in a continuous way, evolving a known quantum state into a new, unknown quantum state that encodes the solution for a computation problem. They may become very useful in a much shorter timeframe, for instance, to design new molecules in quantum chemistry or solve hard optimization problems in logistics. 

Qilimanjaro Quantum Tech was founded in 2019 by Victor CanivellJosé Ignacio LatorrePol Forn-Díaz,  Artur Garcia Sáez, and Jordi Blasco as a spinout from the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, the University of Barcelona and Barcelona Supercomputing Center to realize the potential of analog quantum computers and speed up the development of practical quantum computing solutions. It went through the Intel Ignite program.

Learn more about the future of coherent analog quantum computing from our interview with the co-founder and CEO, Victor Canivell: 

Why Did You Start Qilimanjaro?

I trained as a quantum physicist but spent my career in the IT industry working on the business side for non-quantum technologies, mostly around security technologies and biotech. But, I always kept my passion for new things, and quantum in particular. 

Four years ago, it became clear to my co-founders and me that technology had advanced so much that quantum computing could finally become a reality. It is still not clear which qubit technology will ultimately have a breakthrough, but the path toward solving those engineering problems and making quantum computers work is visible.

How Do Analog Quantum Computers Work?

Our goal at Qilimanjaro is to manufacture the first quantum computer that has an advantage for industry applications. Many computational problems in quantum chemistry and optimization involve an exponentially growing number of variables as the problem size increases, which makes them extremely hard to handle classically. 

Quantum computers have certain advantages in handling such computational problems, so they promise to solve industry-relevant computational problems that currently no conventional supercomputer can solve. The main challenge, though, is that current-day digital quantum computers make too many errors.

They need to be very isolated from their environment to maintain their fragile quantum properties. However, some interactions with the environment cannot be avoided and are even needed to input and read out information or perform a so-called quantum gate, a step in a quantum computation. Every interaction introduces a small error, which accumulates with each computational step and eventually spoils the calculation results. Like conventional computers, quantum computers need error correction, that is, a procedure to fix these errors and prevent their accumulation. 

Quantum error correction has proven extremely difficult, and the lack of error correction is the main barrier to making quantum computers useful today. We bypass that limitation by working with analog quantum computers, coherent quantum annealers, and simulators. 

Analog quantum computers do computations in a very light, continuous way that requires less interaction with the qubits. There are no computational steps: an analog quantum computation is more like a transition from a known quantum state toward an unknown one that encodes the solution to a computational problem. 

We built our analog quantum computers from superconducting qubits since we had most of our expertise there. It is also the most established quantum hardware platform today and might have the highest chance of becoming the winning platform. However, there are many different technologies with different pros and cons. Some are easier to manufacture, some don’t require low temperatures, and others are easier to control. Superconducting qubits, trapped ions, and photonics are probably the most advanced today. 

Our analog quantum computers will be most promising for two use cases. The first is solving optimization problems better for a broad spectrum of industries, such as portfolio optimization in finance, delivery routing and warehouse operations in logistics, or the pricing of energy.

The other one is quantum chemistry, where analog quantum computers can solve problems that cannot be solved with supercomputers. By designing quantum chips that reflect how a specific molecule works, that is, having a direct mapping between the molecule and the quantum chip, we can better understand the molecule, determine its chemical properties, and thus develop better drugs and materials. By scaling the number of qubits, we can address increasingly complex molecules. 

How Did You Evaluate Your Startup Idea?

Qilimanjaro started when the scientists on our team received European funding to develop a coherent quantum annealer and decided to go beyond a research project, scale it up, and make it attractive to the industry. 

Back then, there was D-Wave in Canada, another initiative at MIT in the US, and a second one in Japan. But there seemed to be no European initiative to develop coherent quantum annealers. We saw an opportunity as everyone seemed focused on other architectures, and our back-of-the-envelope estimate told us that we’d be differentiated enough to build a viable business here.

As we were devising a business plan, two international groups approached us through our scientific connections, and we won two multi-year contracts that allowed us to fund Qilimanjaro independently for three years. One was to build a quantum computer for a new research center in the UAE. The aim was to make the center self-sufficient in quantum computing after initial collaboration with external partners. The other was a French multinational that got really interested in the software side to understand how quantum computing could help with their logistic operations. 

After three years and lots of experience from these initial projects, when we started testing the water for raising a first round of capital, we started thinking more deeply about the potential size of the market. Plenty of consultants write about the market size for quantum computing, and they all land somewhere at double-digit billion dollars in 2027, mixing consulting, software development, selling machines for on-premise use, and offering quantum-as-a-service through a cloud. 

We decided to start where there is the most growth initially and develop a quantum-as-a-service cloud platform, where we’ll provide libraries that people can use to solve quantum problems. We’ll differentiate from others by providing the best performance for certain problems, e.g., advantages from coupling, good qubit-qubit interconnection density, and entanglement. From day one, we will go beyond what classical computers can simulate, beyond QUBO optimization problems, and beyond traditional quantum chemistry simulations. 

Next, we’ll develop dedicated chips, quantum ASICs, for molecules in chemistry, which currently is an interesting niche but might become our main business. We can also continue to deliver on-premise systems, in fact, some innovative versions with a tabletop footprint, as for certain use cases, users want to keep their data locally. 

What Advice Would You Give Fellow Deep Tech Founders?

You need to think deeply about which investors to select. Choose ‘deep tech’ investors, in other words, patient investors with an acumen for emerging technologies. They exist and working with them is great. 

Venture capital initially seems like the Wild West, with many different VCs and expectations. As for biotech, deep tech has its own set of investors; IT investors are usually more generic, used to internet and SaaS scalability, and not interested in longer-term bets. Identify the deep tech investors. 

Second, by definition, deep tech comes from academia, so keep a close academic network and monitor what’s happening in academia, as new ideas for your business may come out from there. Most deep tech entrepreneurs and the experts they need to hire come from academia.

Finally, someone in your team needs to understand the world of customers. Customers don’t care about quantum computers or how fantastic the tech is but about very fast and cheap computation and the ultimate value they receive.