Xanadu employees at work
Xanadu employees at work

In the quantum race, companies like Xanadu are choosing Toronto, Ontario for its strategic advantage

Xanadu logo

On the 29th floor of a tower above Toronto’s College subway station, a team of researchers at quantum computing startup Xanadu are working on technology that could change everything.

“If this plays out the way we want and hope, you can’t afford to miss out on this. I mean, think of AI on steroids or the next internet; it’s really at that level,” said company founder Christian Weedbrook.

Xanadu is in a race with the likes of Google, IBM and Intel to build quantum computing hardware that could tackle problems the world’s most powerful supercomputers would take thousands of years to solve. And the impetus for the company all started as a dream for Weedbrook growing up in Australia.

Toronto, Ontario provides the ideal launchpad

By the time he was a teenager, Weedbrook had started a few businesses but wanted to do something with larger potential. So, he went back to school to study physics and math, which led him to the fascinating worlds of photonics and quantum computing.

After completing a PhD at the University of Queensland, Weedbrook flew to Toronto to do postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto, and the experience changed him.

“When I came here over 10 years ago, I just fell in love with the city,” Weedbrook said. “I wanted to stay here and get my citizenship, and so I got my citizenship and still don’t want to leave.”

In Ontario, Weedbrook encountered some of the world’s top quantum computing researchers at the University of Waterloo, McMaster University, Queen’s University, University of Ottawa and University of Toronto, who went on to build startup networks like Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab and WaterlooEDC Quantum Technology.

With so much talent nearby, Weedbrook decided to launch his dream quantum business in 2016: Xanadu.

“Toronto is a hub for talent when it comes to quantum computing, so it wasn’t a crazy idea based on that, and a lot of incubators have formed in the 10 years since I’ve been here,” he said.

Within its first two years, Xanadu secured $9 million in seed funding led by OMERS Ventures, which administers pensions for almost half a million Ontarians.

OMERS had never done anything like that before, so that was a really big deal for them,” Weedbrook said, “but in the five years since, we’re picking up more and more investors, particularly Canadian.”

Xanadu’s edge

A quantum microchip
A quantum microchip

At its core, quantum computing has the potential to revolutionize the way a computer processes data.

For typical computers, bits switch between 0s and 1s to carry out different functions. Quantum computers rely on qubits that can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Experts believe that if quantum microchips can harness a large number of these qubits in synchrony, they could solve complex problems, including the ability to simulate atoms, which could lead to better batteries and faster development of vaccines.

“At the end of the century, it’s going to be amazing to think all these important discoveries wouldn’t have been possible without quantum computers, so that’s what really gets us excited,” Weedbrook said.

However, quantum computers haven’t been able to solve these problems just yet. One of the biggest challenges is that qubits can be disrupted by microscopic sound waves.

At Google, researchers have been addressing this dilemma by cooling its quantum chips to absolute zero, -273 degrees Celsius or -460 degrees Fahrenheit. Other companies have trapped ions to get qubits moving at the same time.

At Xanadu, researchers have managed to squeeze lasers into a microchip the size of a thumbnail to harness as many as 40 qubits at once. Impressively, Xanadu’s chips operate at room temperature and utilize telecommunications technology already in existence, so they could be manufactured using existing foundries.

“Imagine that you’ve got a laser and you keep peeling off photons, and if you keep doing it enough, you’ll end up with just a handful of photons rather than billions of photons. It’s that level where quantum effects actually occur, and that we can manipulate and do some cool stuff,” Weedbrook said.

Xanadu’s chips aren’t currently powerful enough to surpass supercomputers, but Weedbrook believes it’s only a matter of time as they improve exponentially.

“It’s always dangerous business to make predictions […], but this decade is what we’re aiming for,” he said.

Happy to call Ontario home

In its latest round of funding, Xanadu landed US$100 million led by Silicon Valley’s Bessemer Venture Partners. The funding will help the company hire 100 more people and add to their current team of 90 employees in Toronto, half of which came to Ontario from across the world because of its multicultural spirit, thriving tech ecosystem and friendly immigration policies.

“The brain gain effect is happening here. We’re encouraging people to come to Toronto, and they do, and a lot of them actually get their [permanent residency] and are trying to get citizenship as well,” Weedbrook said.

Access to funding has also allowed Xanadu to expand its Toronto office at Yonge and College, where the team operates quantum chips that partner researchers in the public and private sectors can access via the cloud.

“If you told me 10 years ago when I first arrived that there’ll be a quantum computing company above College [subway] station, I wouldn’t have believed that. So, it’s a testament to the team, the people we hire, and it’s fun to be a part of it,” Weedbrook said.

With the race to quantum advantage well underway, Xanadu has limitless potential, and Weedbrook says he’s proud it’s all happening in his beloved Toronto.

“It’s an incredible opportunity that we can do this in Toronto in Canada and get to do what we love, and I think that’s the ultimate privilege that we have,” he said.

“I couldn’t imagine setting up business anywhere else.”