Bennett joins the quantum computing arms race

Naftali Bennett credit: Yoav Dudakovich Yediot Ahronot
Naftali Bennett credit: Yoav Dudakovich Yediot Ahronot

Naftali Bennett's new job on the board of Israeli startup Quantum Source puts him on the front line in the West's battle with China for cyber supremacy.

A relatively unknown Israeli startup called Quantum Source, founded two years ago near the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, took the country's tech industry and political scene by surprise earlier this week, when it announced that former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was joining its board of directors.

Bennett joins a team that already includes senior partners in the venture capital funds that have invested in the company and its founders Gil Semo, a former senior executive at Apple and Dan Charash, who has previously sold a chip company to Broadcom for more than $300 million.

The encryption layers will be breached

Quantum Source is developing quantum computing, in other words computing that utilizes natural chemical processes of light particles to produce computing operations at a rate and power millions or billions times greater than supercomputers - which are themselves considered extremely powerful computers.

Quantum computing may save many computing operations, reduce expensive and slow computing processes and significantly speed up new product development processes. If the vision becomes a reality, computing may bring with it good news in a variety of fields, from the development of medicines and fertilizers for agriculture through to the design of cars.

Bennett initiated talks and meetings over the past few months with several startups and ultimately was interested in joining Quantum Source after a two-hour meeting with them several weeks ago. The agreement was made almost immediately. Sources at the company talk about Bennett's past experience in Israel's tech sector in which he brought US cybersecurity company RSA to Israel, the leading company for encryption protocols, when he sold to them Cyota, the company he had founded.

But there is also a geopolitical component to Bennett joining Quantum Source. The Israeli company, like a range of US companies, is an unofficial participant in the inter-bloc arms race in quantum technology. In practice, Israel plays a role in the US and Western network that is supposed to create a relative advantage for itself and at the same time block China and its allies from achieving a breakthrough, which would allow them to penetrate the Western cybersecurity defense layers and develop formidable weapons.

Although the quantum computing industry is young and in its infancy, there is a consensus among the scientists and entrepreneurs in the field that this breakthrough is expected to come sooner or later, and when it happens - the country that reaches it may break the central encryption layer that is the basis of cyber protection, and also serves the banking and finance industry, and even chat apps, including WhatsApp.

More than science fiction

Quantum computers take advantage of the underlying properties of the smallest particles that exist on earth: electrons, atoms and photons, for computational purposes. While the popular silicon processors work with the traditional method of calculation based on the way electrons flow - which is binary and based on the representation of the digits zero or one, quantum computers try to imitate the behavior of particles by different means.

According to quantum theory, the particles contain several properties simultaneously and are even able to exist in several states at the same time. Thus, each particle receives many more representation possibilities than zero and one, and the number of calculation possibilities increases exponentially and reaches a scale of calculation never previously seen.

Classiq Technologies cofounder and CEO Nir Minerbi said, "Although it sounds like science fiction, nothing is more scientific than this. Nature is probabilistic and not binary. But the challenge for the industry is to control the nature of the quantum particles to perform calculations."

The quest to harness the properties of the particles in nature has fascinated scientists, entrepreneurs and huge companies in an industry that has been operating for nearly 20 years, but in practice it has encountered quite a number of obstacles that have kept it as a small and expensive niche that has not achieved mainstream status.

The biggest obstacle is the development and production of the quantum computing units, known as qubits, which correspond to the smallest electrical circuit in the silicon chips, the transistor. These require activity at a temperature slightly above absolute zero, i.e. near minus 270 Celsius, and this requires expensive cooling systems that only a few have the ability to build and maintain.

Approaches to developing quantum computing are also different and many: while IBM, Google and Amazon build on the use of superconducting materials, other leading companies use ion particles, which attach electrons to atoms. The wide diversity in the industry results in different shapes and sizes of quantum computers. "You can see computers spread over an area the size of a basketball court and others the size of a coin," says Minerbi.

The computer of Quantum Source, the company that Bennett has joined, looks to the observer like an optician's desk: light lenses and laser projectors mixed with countless coils and electronic components. The challenge facing the company is to shrink the table to the size of a small server box, one that houses the millions of server farms of cloud giants like Amazon, Google and IBM.

Dell Technologies Capital (DTC) partner Omri Green believes that the photonics approach is five to ten years away from being realized. "The companies that deal with this area have already proven that they can overcome the scientific challenge and now the obstacle is engineering and feasibility," he tells "Globes."

Green has twice invested in Quantum Source, once as a partner in Dov Moran's Grove Ventures and one month ago he led an investment of millions of dollars after joining DTC.

Not all quantum companies are engaged in developing computers from scratch, because it is an expensive business that consumes hundreds of millions of dollars. Israeli startup Classiq, for example, developed an operating system that allows large companies to conduct simulations on its software, using quantum services offered by technology giants such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM, which currently offers the highest computing capacity with 433 qubits.

One of thew Israeli startup's customers is Rolls-Royce, which performs simulations for the development of new jet engines on the Classiq system.

Team8 Capital cofounder and managing partner Sarit Firon, who invested in Classiq, says that investment in companies that are not developing complex computers but rather operating systems and software for the quantum field brings more investors to be interested in the quantum niche due to the lower risk inherent in them. "Pioneering software companies in the field have the ability to become giants in this market. If it succeeds, such a company could be the Microsoft of the quantum industry. And if it is less successful, it can always join one of the hardware companies and help it acquire market share."

The West lags behind

There are currently 17 countries managing a quantum computing strategy. China is one of the leaders having invested $25 billion to date in development. China's quantum computing efforts are led by Pan Jianwei, a prodigy who was responsible for launching the world's first quantum computing satellite into space in 2016, and in 2021 unveiled a quantum computer with 56 qubits.

Two years ago, China unveiled a five-year plan to develop quantum computing and ignited a struggle that led the White House to ban the export of quantum technologies from the Western bloc - including Israel - to China. Judging by R&D expenditure in the field, the West lags behind: of the $30 billion invested in the field in 2022, China was responsible for half the amount, according to the World Economic Forum, while the EU was responsible for a quarter.

The US openly spent only $1.2 billion dollars last year. Bennett now has the opportunity not only to sit on the board of a commercial company, but also to be a partner in a technological cluster of companies that cooperate with each other in order to ensure a critical advantage for the West.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on May 17, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

 
Naftali Bennett credit: Yoav Dudakovich Yediot Ahronot
Naftali Bennett credit: Yoav Dudakovich Yediot Ahronot
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