Quantum Computing

Federal and Queensland governments bet big on US-based PsiQuantum in $940 million deal to bring quantum computing home

- April 30, 2024 3 MIN READ
quantum chip
A quantum chip. Image: AdobeStock
The federal and Queensland governments have put the house on a US quantum startup over local rivals in a financial package worth $940 million (US$620m) to build a quantum computer in Brisbane.

PsiQuantum was founded in Palo Alto, California in 2015 by expat Australian professors Jeremy O’Brien, Terry Rudolph, Mark Thompson and Dr Pete Shadbolt. The company hopes to build the “world’s first useful quantum computer” by 2030. The quantum startup has raised $700 million for its technology, which uses photons as a representation of qubits instead of electrons, and is currently valued at $5 billion.

Its backers include Australian VC Blackbird, which backed the quantum startup during 2021’s $450 million Series D.

The funding is a mix of equity, grants, and loans that will see PsiQuantum set up shop near Brisbane Airport to build the world’s first utility-scale quantum computer there. The company says it has “an aggressive plan to have the site operational by the end of 2027”.

A fault-tolerant quantum computer will be able to solve commercially useful problems and transform critical industries including renewable energy, minerals and metals, healthcare and transportation.

The challenge and holy grail for quantum computing is building a computer with enough physical qubits to enable error-correction – a key issue – as it operates in an absolute zero  (−273.15 °C) environment. PsiQuantum fusion-based architecture uses a photonics- approach, encoding qubits into particles of light, and leveraging advanced infrastructure in the semiconductor manufacturing industry to fabricate and test millions of photonic devices.

In May 2023 the federal government released its National Quantum Strategy, with the goal of building the world’s first error-corrected quantum computer in Australia amid predictions that the sector will create 19,400 jobs by 2045.

The PsiQuantum project is expected to create up to 400 new, high-skill jobs.

By last August the federal government was quietly seeking expressions of interest for its quantum computer ambitions, with PsiQuantum already earmarked as a frontrunner for federal support. The choice nonetheless raised concerns in the locally-based industry, which includes Silicon Quantum Computing. Founder Professor Michelle Simmons, who received the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science last year for her cutting edge work in the sector.

Queensland premier Steven Miles declared the state a global leader in the quantum technology industry.

“Quantum will bring billions in economic opportunity to Queensland, which will deliver thousands of high paying tech jobs and the chance for Queenslanders to work in careers that will change the world,” he said.

“This investment partnership is as significant for Queensland and the nation as the first silicon microprocessors were to California that established Silicon Valley.”

A big player

Federal science minister Ed Husic said in a speech last year that Australia has “the ambition to be a big player, not a bit player” in quantum.

In January PsiQuantum revealed it scored a contract with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work on the Underexplored Systems for Utility-Scale Quantum Computing (US2QC) program, which is looking at whether others approaches to quantum computing, such as the startup’s photonic approach, is capable of achieving operation faster than conventional predictions.

Jeremy O'Brien

PsiQuantum cofounder and CEO Jeremy O’Brien

PsiQuantum CEO Prof. Jeremy O’Brien said his company has the potential to spark the next industrial revolution.

“A utility-scale quantum computer represents an opportunity to construct a new, practical foundation of computational infrastructure and in so doing ignite the next industrial revolution,” he said.

“This platform will help solve today’s impossible problems and will serve as tool to design the solutions we so desperately need to safeguard our future. We’re thrilled to partner with the Australian and Queensland governments.”

The company’s chief business officer Stratton Sclavos said the government support is “another critical milestone” in their plan to build the world’s first useful quantum computers.

With a utility scale quantum computer in sight, our applications teams have been working with leading companies in pharmaceuticals, semiconductor manufacturing, aerospace, chemicals, and financial services to ensure that fault tolerant quantum applications are ready to deploy when the system is operational,” he said.

Australian at heart

Blackbird general partner Michael Tolo emphasised that the company remains “Australian by heart and spirit as much as it is by origin” despite its US base, and endorsed the government support as a “bold and ambitious” decision.

“It is a stunning nation-building milestone that entrenches our position as the global leader in quantum computing and shows the most ambitious founders around the world that Australia is the best place to scale critical technologies,” he said.

“PsiQuantum has long flown under the radar in Australia but it has always been – and will continue to be – an Australian story. Founded by Australian academics who built upon research developed in Queensland and moved abroad as expats to test themselves against the best in the world.

“This project creates a path for Australia to capture the economic benefit of research and talent that it has helped to nurture, and for our country to build unfair advantage in the many applications that utility-scale quantum computing will enable across materials science, physics and drug development.”

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