The University of Chicago is launching the nation’s first quantum technology accelerator program, offering $20 million for startup companies to develop everything from unhackable internet systems and superfast computers to sensors that can detect disease on a cellular level.
Based at the university’s Booth School of Business, Duality plans to help up to 10 quantum startups per year by providing office and lab space, access to research facilities and $50,000 in unrestricted funds. If successful, the accelerator could turn the South Side of Chicago into the Silicon Valley of quantum technology — a next-generation convergence of science and industry.
“If you look at the dawn of the age of semiconductors, this is, I think, an equivalent to that,” said Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
The Polsky Center is leading the project with the Chicago Quantum Exchange, an academic research hub at the university. Duality’s other founding partners include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory and P33.
An emerging field that seems closer to Star Trek than startups, quantum technology operates at the subatomic level, building devices that detect, harness and leverage the tiniest particles to make potentially enormous advances in a wide range of applications.
David Awschalom, a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, said the accelerator will initially focus on commercializing three areas: computing, communications and sensors.
“There are all these things that are emerging as applications,” said Awschalom. “But probably the biggest things aren’t clear yet.”
Quantum computers will “exponentially speed up” calculations, enabling functions that traditional computers won’t be capable of for at least 50 years, Awschalom said.
A new class of sensors would “revolutionize medicine,” allowing doctors and scientists to explore living cells to determine how medicines are working, he said.
An early business application may be a quantum internet, an unhackable information pipeline that financial institutions could use for secure transactions. Last year, scientists from Argonne and the University of Chicago launched a 52-mile quantum loop in the southwest suburbs to test out the communications technology.