Strangeworks: Shaping the Future of Software Infrastructure for Quantum Computing
Quantum computing is like an amazing alien technology that has landed on Earth, and now people are trying to figure out what it is and what to do with it.
Today, the value of quantum computers to organizations is primarily for R&D exploration. But as quantum computers mature and are embedded into the right ecosystem, they will be able to solve some of today’s most important problems and problems that we can’t even think of yet.
Strangeworks builds such an ecosystem of hardware, software, education, and service providers to unlock the potential of quantum computing and make it accessible to everyone – from researchers to software developers and IT administrators.
Founded in 2018 by whurley (William Hurley), David Cardona, and Justin Youens, Strangeworks raised a $24M Series A in 2023 led by Hitachi Ventures, IBM Ventures, and RTX with participation from Lightspeed Venture Partners, GreatPoint Ventures, and Ecliptic Capital.
Learn more about the future of software infrastructure for quantum computing from our interview with the founder and CEO, whurley:
Why Did You Start Strangeworks?
I founded several successful startups before, including a mobile applications company, a gaming company, and then a fintech company, which exited to Goldman Sachs. After spending some time at Goldman and then failing to start a Linux Foundation project, I was exploring what to do next. It seemed natural that it would be at the forefront of technologies, so I looked into robotics, biotech, and then quantum computing. Quantum was at the right place and time to get started.
When talking to the quantum computing community, it seemed that most of the large quantum players weren’t working together. With my experience and network from previous startups, I was in a position to help address this by building a platform that would bring them all together: Strangeworks. It started as an open-source project but eventually transitioned to a company whose main goal is putting the potential of quantum computing into the hands of the people who can make big things happen.
What Is Strangeworks Building?
In order for quantum to be widely valuable and adopted, users will need abstraction layers that handle lower-level functionality, like compiling and running a quantum algorithm on actual quantum hardware.
At Strangeworks, we’re building an ecosystem that ties together all the resources users will need to run a quantum algorithm – such as access to quantum hardware, software tools, and system management. Quantum hardware shouldn’t be developed in a vacuum but tightly integrated with the software that it will run – it needs to be a complete ecosystem.
When looking at previous technology revolutions, hardware often gets commoditized, and software is where a lot of the value accrues. For example, Nvidia’s stock went through the roof last year, but it wouldn’t be that valuable without their CUDA software. Many players are building AI chips, but the differentiator is in the software that allows just about anyone to run machine learning models easily.
Similarly, we think the software layer is where a lot of the value in quantum computing will be – that’s why we’re building a software platform that enables end users to solve hard computational problems. This includes providing a collection of readily available quantum or hybrid quantum-classical algorithms, as well as traditional software, e.g., by Wolfram Alpha or MathWorks.
The value of Strangeworks is that we are like Switzerland: our platform is completely neutral and agnostic. Others develop, benchmark, and provide algorithms for our platform, and then users choose an algorithm to run on their preferred hardware provider.
In the future, when we have million-qubit quantum computers, quantum algorithms will be machine-generated: a human could not develop a quantum algorithm involving that many qubits. This is why we’ll need an assistant, like a programming co-pilot, to take high-level ideas about a problem and its solution and devise a quantum algorithm to solve it. On our website, we made a step in that direction with Schrödy Chat, an educational chatbot built with a small language model and Langchain.
What’s the Opportunity Around Quantum Computing?
We see many people working on algorithms for quantum machine learning and optimization today – and what they’re doing is trying to retrofit quantum computing to solve today’s problems.
It’s as if aliens had managed to traverse space to land on Earth with their amazing ship using antigravity, and humans started discussing how we could use this newly discovered technology to get our kids to school down the road. That’s what I mean by people retrofitting a novel technology to their current problems. It doesn’t fit. Quantum computing is a novel technology for tomorrow’s problems.
The potential of quantum computers may not be in addressing today’s problems, like optimizing logistical transportation routes, but rather doing things people can’t fathom today: helping to cure cancer, alleviate climate change, or develop the materials necessary to become a multi-planetary species.
I’d love to see more honesty and integrity in the quantum industry. Let’s be realistic: quantum computers cost a lot of money and are not very powerful today. And even if they become powerful, no one cares if they can solve problems extremely fast if it’s still far too expensive – quantum advantage is bullshit if it’s still not commercially viable.
The quantum industry does a lot of pilot projects, but these aside, the total addressable market for practical quantum computing applications today is zero. Quantum computers today aren’t useful for anything, and there is no mass market, just like there was no market for cars in the beginning. And that’s okay because entrepreneurs will figure out how to create a market.
Quantum computing compares to classical computing, like a hydrogen car to a petrol car. Petrol has become pervasive; it’s in the fuel, in the plastics in the seats, in the dashboard, it’s everywhere. Similarly, classical computing is everywhere; it’s really commoditized and cheap.
Conversely, quantum computers are several orders of magnitudes more expensive than a GPU, so why would you use them today? When people suggest near-term applications like solving optimization problems, do they really expect a credit card company to use quantum computers to analyze their loyalty program? They have way too much data to shove it all into a quantum computer, let alone process it.
Humans are generally terrible at predicting what technology will be useful for. Just think about electricity, personal computers, or the internet – who would have known that this would lead to things like social media or ride-sharing services?
People need to look at what we can do with the spaceship – maybe it will help us develop new materials or drugs, but certainly not in the same way materials or drugs are developed today. Quantum computers will only become useful if embedded in the right ecosystem of software, integrations, services, and support to address truly novel problems.
While quantum computing may still be a couple of decades away from reaching its full potential, I am deeply committed to its promise. We have a 25-year roadmap to bring this groundbreaking technology into practical, everyday use. I’ve invested my career in this belief, and I’m dedicated to making quantum computing accessible and affordable. We’re on a journey to unlock the extraordinary capabilities of this ‘technological spaceship,’ and I’m optimistic about the remarkable innovations it will bring to our world.
What Advice Would You Give Fellow Deep Tech Founders?
First, never confuse motion with progress. That’s what the quantum industry does daily: People keep announcing world firsts, but we’re still not even close to a useful quantum machine.
Second, don’t raise a ton of money if you don’t know what to do with it. Strangeworks started with six people and has 27 people today – we stayed small and focused on purpose.
Once you raise too much funding, and you’re sitting on a pile of cash, investors are urging you to do something with it, as they could have made millions with this money already in other asset classes. So you need to dream up a market that you can address today – but again, there is no market in quantum computing today. It’s a technology looking for a problem.
Finally, read the book The Mythical Man-Month – a book written by software engineer Fred Brooks, who was frustrated with IBM management’s futile effort to throw money at projects that were behind. Throwing money and people at a project doesn’t make for faster progress (known as Brook’s law). It’s exactly what the quantum industry suffers from – $30B+ has gone into it, raised through venture rounds or SPACs, and it hasn’t moved the needle. If the fundamental science is missing, no amount of money will make research go faster.
When people started building the rail system in the States, it was great, providing faster transport and safety until they hit an ocean and couldn’t get further. In that analogy, an ocean is like computational complexity – a class of problems you simply cannot attack with classical computers. So you’d need a boat or a plane to cross the ocean. And it’s not that planes replaced trains – both co-exist today.
Quantum computing will change the course of humanity, but when and how, we don’t know yet. But it’s surely not about solving classical problems in a better way.