Photo Illustration: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

SoftBank’s Vision Fund Eyes Investment in Quantum Computing

  • Firm wants to fund creation of "de facto industry standard"
  • SoftBank’s Nyatta worries technology still too immature

SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund is scouting for possible investments in quantum computing, an experimental science being researched by companies such as Google and IBM to succeed current computer processor technology.

Shu Nyatta, who helps invest money for the fund, said the group wanted to find and back the company whose quantum computing hardware or software that runs atop it would become the “de facto industry standard.”

“We are happy to invest enough to create that standard around which the whole industry can coalesce,” Nyatta said, speaking during a panel discussion at a conference on quantum computing in Munich Thursday.

The Vision Fund, which has attracted investment from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, Apple Inc. and other large institutional backers, is investing in cutting edge technologies from virtual reality to the Internet of Things. It recently invested $500 million for a minority stake in Improbable, a London-based simulation and virtual reality software startup, that has few customers and little revenue.

Quantum Science

Once considered purely theoretical, researchers have made strides in building functioning quantum computers based around a number of different designs and approaches. 

International Business Machines Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Rigetti Computing, a San Francisco-based quantum computing startup, have created working machines around one method, while IonQ, a spin-out from the University of Maryland and Duke University, is working on technologies based on another. Microsoft is backing a third architecture, but has yet to create a working machine. 

D-Wave, a Canadian company, is the only firm to sell quantum computers today. D-Wave’s system is based around yet another architecture, but its machine can only solve a limited set of problems compared to those Google, IBM and the others have been working on.
 
“After years in the lab, there is a growing consensus among investors that we are now on the cusp of a breakout decade in quantum computing,” Jason Whitmire, a general partner at BlueYard Capital, the Berlin-based venture capital firm that hosted the conference at which Nyatta spoke. “We see some of the smartest minds driving advances among a multitude of architectures that are nearing market readiness."

In conventional computing, information is encoded in bits that can have a value of either 0 or 1. In quantum computing, information is encoded in qubits that take advantage of quantum mechanical principals such as superposition, which allows the qubit to be both 0 and 1 simultaneously. In theory, a quantum computer could tackle complex problems in seconds or minutes that would take a conventional supercomputer many hours or days to complete.

Gene Sequencing

Nyatta compared what needed to happen in quantum computing to what has happened in genomics, where Illumina Inc.’s gene sequencing technology has become the technology around which an entire ecosystem of companies has been built, or what has happened in artificial intelligence, where Nvidia Corp’s graphics processors have become the preferred hardware on which to run neural networks.

“We are happy to do it alone and at massive size to facilitate the future,” Nyatta said, speaking of SoftBank’s approach to investing in these frontier technologies.

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