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Photonic quantum startup ORCA Computing raises $15m Series A

Europe’s leading full-stack photonic quantum computing company has also struck a deal with the British Ministry of Defence to develop future data processing capabilities

By Kit Gillet

London-based ORCA Computing, Europe’s leading full-stack photonic quantum computing company, has announced a $15m Series A funding round.

The raise is another milestone for the company, which creates quantum computers using optical fibre and other off-the-shelf components, and was recently selected to lead a key Innovate UK project to develop “the quantum data centre of the future”, valued at £11.6m.

Off-the-shelf quantum computers

There is a growing sense that quantum computing is reaching an inflexion point, being able to deliver real results for specific problems in areas like pharmaceutical research and calculating banks’ investment portfolios.

Still, many questions remain, not least the best technological approach.

“Photonics is quite different from normal quantum computers, in that photonics systems are very, very fast, they’re relatively easy to work with — they’re not cryogenically cooled —and therefore they’re quite easily adaptable for things like machine learning,” Richard Murray, ORCA’s cofounder and CEO, tells Sifted.

“What we’re trying to do is build quantum computers without needing to resort to manufacturing new types of chips or very exotic things,” he adds. Instead, the company largely uses off-the-shelf telecoms components.

ORCA, a spinoff from the University of Oxford, currently has a team of 30 split between the UK, Canada, US and Poland, and is aiming to almost double that with this latest round of investment.

Murray says the money will be used to roll out near-term photonic quantum computing systems as well as software that will enable organisations to develop future data processing capabilities.

At the same time, the company’s longer-term objective is to advance work on error-correction, which Murray describes as the holy grail. Current quantum computers are highly prone to errors which makes practical use difficult.

“ORCA is quite unique in being able to step by step build up the system towards a system which is big enough to be able to run error correction codes,” he says.

Transformational technology

ORCA’s latest funding round was led by Octopus Ventures, joined by other top European deep technology investors, including Oxford Science Enterprises, Quantonation and Verve Ventures, with additional, project-based funding provided by Innovate UK.

“Quantum computing holds the potential to transform trillion-dollar industries, from drug discovery to autonomous vehicles, but scaling a system to the qubits needed to execute significant quantum algorithms is an immense undertaking,” says Zoë Reich, a fund manager at Octopus Ventures. “We believe the ORCA team is delivering on that challenge.”

“They have an ambition to put [a quantum computer] on a tank, for example. That as an engineering challenge for us is really exciting”

On Thursday, the startup also announced that it was working on a year-long project with the British Ministry of Defence to develop future data processing capabilities, using its PT-1 model, the first computer of its kind to operate at room temperature and be based on-site.

Murray says that the project is the MoD’s first significant step into quantum computing. “We get to work with them, to help them uncover and discover and investigate the first applications that could be ready,” he tells Sifted, adding that the ministry is interested in exploring lots of different use cases that can take quantum computing out of the lab. “They have the ambition to put one on a tank, for example. That as an engineering challenge for us is really exciting.”

The quantum race is on

When it comes to quantum computing, the race is still on to determine which type of quantum bit, or qubit, is best, says Murray, with photonics, superconducting and trapped-ion leading the way.

“I think photonics has a really attractive future. It’s different enough that I can see it easily coexisting alongside those other types of qubits,” he says. “It’s only photonics that allows for quantum information to be carried over distances any more than a metre. Everything else, all the information is quite localised and that makes scaling the systems up quite hard.”

ORCA’s approach to quantum computing also doesn’t require complex components, such as advanced cryogenic cooling and vacuums, which is a distinct advantage.

ORCA isn’t alone in championing the potential of photonic quantum computing solutions, with companies like California-based PsiQuantum and Xanadu Quantum Technologies from Canada also receiving strong financial backing. Murray also highlights the arrival of newer players like It’sQ, based in Germany, and French startup Quandela.

Still, ORCA is clearly doing something right: in addition to bringing in investors, it continues to win large-scale public projects.

“Our mission is to put photonic systems in the hands of users today so that we deliver value in the short as well as long term,” said Murray.

Kit Gillet is Sifted’s eastern Europe correspondent. He tweets from @KitGillet

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