Samsung Joins Google and Amazon in Backing ‘Trapped Ion’ Quantum Computer Startup

Samsung and a sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates are leading a new $55 million funding round for IonQ, a startup that uses “trapped ions,” or charged particles suspended in a vacuum, as the basis for its hardware.

IonQ’s approach holds promise as a possible path toward achieving a so-called general-purpose quantum computer, a still-unrealized machine that is expected to yield tremendous scientific and business breakthroughs, such as new medicines and materials, in the years to come.

The trapped ion approach is a leading alternative in the nascent quantum computing field to using superconducting “qubits,” a route taken by Google, IBM, and startups such as Rigetti Computing. Instead of relying on suspended ions manipulated by lasers, the superconducting technique involves chilling specially designed semiconductors to extremely low temperatures.

IonQ isn’t the only company pursing a strategy based on ions. Industrial conglomerate Honeywell last year said that it is also trying to develop quantum computers using a similar technique.

Samsung is joining other tech giants Amazon and Google parent Alphabet’s venture capital arm, GV, as a backer of IonQ. The other companies, plus the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates, which led an earlier IonQ funding round, re-upped their commitments in the latest round.

Mubadala Capital, Emirati investment fund, co-led the latest round with Samsung. IonQ’s valuation was not disclosed.

Peter Chapman, who has helmed IonQ since leaving his role as engineering director for Amazon Prime earlier this year, said that he is interested in tapping Samsung’s expertise in “miniaturization.” He aspires, he says, to shrink IonQ’s technology so that its components may one day fit inside a device like a personal computer.

“It seems to me if we can put an atomic clock on a chip, there’s no reason why we can’t in the future get an ion trap down to that level,” Chapman said. He added, wryly, that “we’re not taking orders for quantum laptops just yet.”

Google and IBM’s approaches require large refrigeration units that must be carefully operated in special data centers and accessed remotely, via cloud computing.

“It’s a fallacy to think trapped ions can’t take advantage of that” miniaturization process, said Francis Ho, co-head of Samsung’s venture fund, noting that skeptics point to the bulkiness of present-day vacuum technology required for these quantum computers. He drew an analogy to Moore’s Law, a historical observation that the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip doubles every 18-to-24 months.

Ho, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University, said he attended school with IonQ’s cofounder, Jungsang Kim.

In a statement, Young Sohn, Samsung’s president and chief strategy officer, compared the advent of quantum computing to the development of other revolutionary technologies, such as the transistor, the laser, and the mobile phone. “Though it’s still early days, we see a similar revolution taking place with quantum computing,” said Sohn, who is also chairman at Samsung auto electronics subsidiary Harman, noting that it “will have a profound impact on our way of life.”

IonQ’s funding arrives on the heels of leaked news that Google has claimed to achieve “quantum supremacy,” a computing milestone that demonstrates the superiority of a quantum computer over a traditional one for a certain specialized task. IBM scientists recently disputed the result, which Google has yet to confirm.

IonQ has raised a total of $77 million to date. Other investors include ACME Capital, Airbus Ventures, Osage University Partners (OUP), Hewlett Packard Pathfinder, Tao Capital Partners, Correlation Ventures, and A&E Investment.

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