The District’s technology community woke to a shock in November when Harry Weller, a rising star at esteemed Maryland venture firm New Enterprise Associates, died in his sleep at 46. Weller was fascinated by peculiarities in how fast-changing scientific advances can reshape the world, and he rose to prominence by shepherding successful businesses in murky fields such as cybersecurity and e-commerce.
One of his last projects was a start-up called IonQ, and it may have been one of the most unorthodox investments of his career.
IonQ includes academics from the University of Maryland and Duke University who want to sell quantum computing capabilities to giant technology companies within a few years.
Quantum computing is a still-aspirational field of computer science that envisions impossibly fast computers built on the laws of particle physics. Mainstream scientists theorize that a quantum computer could perform tasks unattainable to even the most advanced traditional computers, such as seamlessly breaking data encryption or rapidly analyzing the human genome.
IonQ’s real goal is to find commercial applications that have not yet been imagined.
“What excites us is not what we already know it’s good for, but what we don’t yet know it’s good for,” IonQ chief executive David Moehring said.
The problem is that the capability has not arrived yet. IonQ’s founders admit they are a long way from even having a prototype of what they will sell to companies.
“Quantum computers don’t exist today, and therefore there is not a big commercial market based on quantum computers,” co-founder Jungsang Kim said.
In an email sent weeks before his death, Weller likened IonQ to a “discovery stage” biotechnology company, essentially a drug company in the earliest phases of development. Such investments are considered highly risky and often do not yield returns for more than a decade.
But the people running IonQ have industry heavyweights taking notice, and the firm’s founders have received about $64 million in government research funding to date. After years of badgering the IonQ founders to step into the venture capital space, Weller helped put together a team from some of the highest reaches of government and business. At Weller’s urging, New Enterprise Associates made a $2 million investment to help the firm develop a marketable product.
Running the company is Moehring, a soft-spoken technologist and widely published physicist who recently left a position at Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a government research agency.
At IARPA, he was responsible for managing government-sponsored quantum computing initiatives.
“He had this point on the mountain where he could see ‘all of quantum,’ ” Weller said last fall at a briefing at New Enterprise Associates.
Moehring’s co-founders are physicists at U-Md. and Duke.
Kim is a physicist who made a name for himself at Bell Labs, the telecommunications research unit of AT&T whose scientists have won more than a dozen Nobel Prizes.
At Bell Labs, Kim worked on projects in optical communications and wireless phone technology. But after the tech bubble burst, Kim was reassigned and dozens of his colleagues were laid off.
“In 2002, the bottom fell out of the optical communications industry, and about 50 of us within research were canned,” Kim said.
He returned to academia in search of “something much more disruptive” and soon landed a job at Duke. In 2004, he began studying the “trapped ion” approach to quantum computing, a subset of the field that relies on lasers in controlled, supercooled vacuums in place of the superconducting circuits used by research units at Google and elsewhere. He collaborated with Chris Monroe, who runs a quantum computing lab at U-Md. and became the other co-founder of IonQ.
Although quantum computing is far from matching even what is expected of a traditional computer, there is precedent for what IonQ is trying to do. Technology giants such as IBM, Google and Lockheed Martin have invested millions of dollars in quantum computing research, even though they are probably years away from commercial applications.
A company called D-Wave Systems has led the market in selling the computers themselves, reportedly for as much as $10 million apiece.
“What we’re doing is trying to help real customers solve real problems, and we’re doing a pretty good job of that,” said Bo Ewald, president of D-Wave international.
But D-Wave has been criticized by some scientists for overstating the computers’ market potential, leaving the sector ripe for competition.
“D-Wave also has a long history of making egregiously misleading claims, to investors and the public, about what a quantum computer would be useful for,” said Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who is not affiliated with IonQ or D-Wave.
Aaronson was not directly familiar with IonQ’s technology but described the company’s founders as pioneers in the field.
“Monroe and Kim are widely considered to be among the very few world leaders in ion trap experiments,” he said. “Like with every other experimental quantum computing effort, I wish them the best and hope they’ll succeed but don’t venture firm predictions as to whether and when they will.”