Forbes article on the origins of ParityQC: “A Quantum Future”
A quantum future
In the quiet town of Innsbruck, the scientist Wolfgang Lechner and the entrepreneur from Forbes’ “Under 30” list Magdalena Hauser are working on a new future. With their start-up ParityQC, the two want to help shape the global race for quantum computers. The fact that the company exists is – just like quantum computers are – a (mathematical) miracle.
Actually, this story should have been over before it even began – because the physicist Wolfgang Lechner had mathematically proven to himself that his idea could not work. Roughly speaking, Lechner, who conducts research at the University of Innsbruck, wanted to develop a scalable quantum computer.
The model, which he developed together with his colleagues Philipp Hauke and Peter Zoller, was intended to remedy the fundamental limitations of quantum computers developed up to that point and to make it possible to solve very general optimization problems through a software architecture. “Despite the evidence, I kept working on my idea. I don’t know why. I just thought to myself: you have to be able to solve that!”Lechner says today.
And he did. After many months of work, Lechner finally managed to put his method into practice – and applied for a patent for its discovery in 2015. “With 263 paragraphs, that was the largest patent that the University of Innsbruck has ever submitted.” The work was so groundbreaking that Lechner had the chance to present the so-called “LHZ architecture” in 2015 at the most important industry meeting, the Quantum Annealing Conference (AQC) in Zurich.
Lechner’s team was then sought after by interested buyers from all over the world. When he received an offer from a well-known US company, it was clear to him that he was on to something big. “We didn’t even get the offer for the patent, but for the application for a patent.” Lechner does not want to confirm who the interested buyer was – although it was quite obviously one of the greatest players in quantum computing like Google or IBM.
“If a registration alone leads to a purchase offer, you should first see what you can build with it yourself”, says Lechner. No sooner said than done: from 2017 he set up a research team in the field of quantum optimization at the University of Innsbruck, which includes 13 people today. At this point in time, the Austrian investor Hermann Hauser had already kept an eye on the researcher’s work. Hauser was working on the organization “I.E.C.T. – Hermann Hauser ”: he wanted to offer tech companies in Austria (and especially in Tyrol) a network and support them financially. Hauser’s niece Magdalena was in charge of the I.E.C.T. – and says about the approach: “That Hermann observes someone for as long as Wolfgang is very unusual. We were very happy that Wolfgang ultimately chose us.”
As Co-CEOs, Wolfgang Lechner and Magdalena Hauser run their start-up in Innsbruck, which now has ten employees. In 2019, the start-up ParityQC was founded, based on Lechner’s fundamental patent. Hermann Hauser is on board as an investor together with business angel Herbert Gartner. They invested a mid six-figure sum for 23.75% of the shares; the University of Innsbruck holds 11.875%, as does the Academy of Sciences. Founder Wolfgang Lechner is the largest shareholder with 47.5%, Magdalena Hauser, who was on Forbes’ “Under 30 DACH” list in 2018 and who acts as CEO alongside Lechner, holds the remaining 5%. The start-up has chosen one of the largest industries of the future, because advances in quantum computers could fundamentally change our lives.
Our digital world is based on two states: 0 and 1. That’s because bits, on which our common computer systems are based, can only have either the value of 0 or 1. Every app, every smartphone, every PC is based on millions of these bits, each as a combination of zeros and ones. The problem with this is that our world doesn’t work that way. There are grey areas, nuances, and nature knows more than two mutually exclusive conditions. Most of the time our world is based on uncertainty. This uncertainty is not covered even by supercomputers. Physicists have therefore started to test the limits of what is possible and established a new field: quantum mechanics. In order to carry out arithmetic operations that include uncertainty, new computers are needed: quantum computers. They are based on qubits, which, in contrast to normal bits, are also capable of “superpositions”: Instead of only existing in state 0 or 1, they can also be 0 and 1 at the same time – or any state in the spectrum.
A common example is a coin toss, the result of which is binary: heads or tails. But as the coin spins in the air, in a sense it takes on both forms at the same time – and can be heads and tails, both, or everything in between. So while bits are a coin lying on the table, qubits are the coin spinning in the air. In addition, bits always act independently from one another. If two coins are tossed, the outcome is independent of each other. Qubits, on the other hand, can be entangled, which creates a connection between them – if one coin is upside down, the second coin automatically does the same.
This means that information can be moved even under uncertainty. Several entangled qubits provide answers to arithmetic operations that would take the best computers millions of years to complete. One promising application is the discovery and development of new drugs: these processes often take ten years or more, since classic computers can only make the necessary comparisons with molecules up to a certain size. Quantum computers could dramatically shorten this process and thus significantly reduce costs. Other use cases are new types of batteries for electric cars or the solution to the decades-old “traveling salesman” problem: Which route leads through a large number of cities and then back to the starting point – the shortest route? Normal computers have massive difficulties with this – quantum computers do not.
Google received a lot of attention in 2019 when it announced the achievement of “Quantum Supremacy” – that is, that a quantum computer outperformed a normal computer for the first time. Competitor IBM immediately contradicted this claim, but the discussion shows how far the technology has advanced.
Such promises naturally attract money. Tech giants such as Google and IBM are intensively researching the technology, while companies such as Daimler, Volkswagen and Airbus are hoping for possible applications. The US is investing $ 1 billion in research hubs in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing; the EU makes the same amount under Quantum Technologies Flagship. China plans to invest a whopping $ 10 billion, according to unconfirmed rumors. Private investors have smelled a deal as well: In 2015 there were only two deals worth four million US dollars in this area in the USA – in the first five months of 2020, however, related start-ups received around 300 million US dollars, according to the data provider Pitchbook.
We want to be an ecosystem. The ParityQC architecture is a huge platform that solves fundamental problems. Everyone could benefit from this.
“We’re not a normal company,” says Lechner. “We have to develop a lot of things from scratch.” Much of the start-up’s work is not necessarily about software engineering, but about fundamental mathematics. Ten employees work for the Innsbruck start-up, including quantum physicists who can program – and programmers who understand quantum physics. Instead of getting involved in the race for hardware, ParityQC wants to build an operating system for quantum computers: “ParityOS”. Lechner: “We understand the word operating system in the most honest sense: as an interface between hardware and user.” The product is already able to benchmark initial problems. But the solution has to be continuously developed and improved.
“Our goal is to have one key in hand that everyone can use,” says Hauser. “Our business model only works internationally, our customers are in the USA, Asia and Europe.” Ultimately, we want to cooperate with all manufacturers. The company is set to earn money in two ways: the ParityQC architecture, which is based on Lechner’s patent, is to be sold as a hardware license, at a cost of at least six figures; the ParityOS operating system is to function as a software-as-a-service model, where hardware manufacturers or end users pay for use on a subscription basis. It is difficult to predict when quantum computers will arrive to the general public. For Lechner it is only clear that optimization problems – present in all companies – will be the first use case. The way to get there is unclear, however: “There is still an open question as to whether the universal quantum computer will ever exist. It may come down to different solutions that specialize in certain optimization problems and that can then be adapted and improved”says Hauser. It is important to them to build more than a successful start-up: “We want to be an ecosystem. Our LHZ architecture is a huge platform that solves fundamental problems. Everyone could benefit from this.”