U of T-supported startup Xanadu aims to lead quantum computing sector
Founded by former University of Toronto post-doctoral physics researcher Christian Weedbrook, Xanadu is working on building the world’s first photonic-based, fault-tolerant quantum computer.
Quantum computers harness the unique properties of subatomic particles to deliver an exponential increase in computational power. Unlike systems that require temperatures colder than those found in deep space, Xanadu’s method involves firing lasers at room temperature, enabling light particles to generate quantum effects on computer chips (Xanadu's architecture still requires cryogenics, but the demands are lower than for rival systems).
While that may sound complex, what it boils down to is an end goal of making quantum computers that are useful and available to people everywhere, says Ilan Tzitrin, a lead quantum architecture scientist at Xanadu.
“We’re trying to build a photonic, scalable full-tolerant quantum computer – those might sound like buzzwords, but basically all it means is that we’re trying to build a device that’s capable of solving certain things faster in principle than the world’s fastest supercomputer, something that’s not attainable using the rules of classical physics,” says Tzitrin, a U of T PhD graduate who got his start at Xanadu by doing an internship at the company while still a student.
Xanadu, an alumnus of the Creative Destruction Lab seed-stage accelerator at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, recently received $40 million in federal funding to support its leading quantum computing technology, lauded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “cutting-edge not just in Canada, but around the world.”
The company announced last year that its system, called Borealis, had achieved a key milestone by demonstrating “quantum advantage” – the ability of a quantum computer to outperform any supercomputer in the world at a specific task.
“We were working on near-term experiments that are designed to solve a specific problem provably faster than our current best algorithm run on the world's fastest supercomputer,” Tzitrin says. “Borealis was one such demonstration, and we were very excited about that – there was a lot of hard work leading up to it.
“We were able to essentially build a quantum computer – not fault-tolerant just yet, but some quantum device that was able to solve a particular math problem designed to demonstrate quantum advantage, orders of magnitude faster than any other computer. I’m talking doing something in microseconds versus 9,000 years.”
Ilan Tzitrin, a lead quantum architecture scientist at Xanadu, says the company is trying to make quantum computers that are useful and available to people everywhere (photo by Johnny Guatto)
Some of the practical applications of Xanadu’s work include the discovery of new pharmaceutical drugs, financial risk modelling and climate change mitigation. The company also leverages its quantum expertise through corporate and research partnerships, including recent work with automotive giants BMW Group, Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen as well as the Korea Institute of Science and Technology.
In his role, Tzitrin helps support both the software and hardware teams, iterating toward the ultimate goal – or the “Holy Grail,” as he calls it – of improving every component until they build the device they hope to ultimately achieve.
He credits his education at U of T – where he studied math and physics in undergrad under a National Scholarship and went straight into a PhD in physics – for his path toward joining an innovative startup like Xanadu.
“The field I was in, quantum information, was directly relevant to the work we do at Xanadu. U of T is very strong on the quantum optics front, so my knowledge from taking quantum optics courses and from doing research on photonic quantum repeaters was directly transferable and related to my current role with the company,” Tzitrin says.
He notes that his supervisor Hoi-Kwong Lo – a professor in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. department of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering who is cross-appointed with the department of physics in the Faculty of Arts & Science – also advised Xanadu CEO Weedbrook during his time at U of T.
“We continue to have a lot of nice collaborations with U of T through the Mitacs program – tangible research assistance to further Xanadu’s goals – which has been a big help,” Tzitrin says. “We've also received support from talented faculty at U of T from professors such as John Sipe and Hoi Kwong-Lo.”
As one of Xanadu’s earliest employees, Tzitrin has had a front-row seat to the company’s rapid growth – when he joined, the startup only had 30 staffers, but now has more than 160. The recent federal funding will go toward hiring new people and purchasing hardware as the company pursues its mission to build a cloud-based universal quantum computer.
Xanadu, which has historically been open about its research, will continue to publish the results of its ongoing experiments in a bid to remain transparent and also help advance the growing sector – recently bolstered by a new $360-million national strategy to advance quantum technologies.
Tzitrin, who considered a career path in academia before joining Xanadu, has some straightforward advice for those taking part in U of T’s Entrepreneurship Week and exploring a potential startup journey: stay open to possibility – and take advantage of the exceptional expertise the university and its partners have to offer.
“Do your own research and see what’s out there, but it’s very helpful to have a mentor to guide you – in my case, somebody in academia who knows about industry; or it could be somebody from industry that you seek out,” he says. “Programs like Mitacs are also an excellent way to get your foot in the door – they really give you a sense of what it’s going to be like working in the area you’re interested in.”