Tuesday June 3, 2014 0 comments
By Phil Lindeman
BOULDER -- For ColdQuanta, a pioneer of high-concept Bose-Einstein technology, breaking into a new and uncertain industry is as simple as building a table.
That table just happens to be made, however, of Nobel-caliber material.
But first, a lesson in atomic carpentry.
As the brainchild of Dana Anderson - a University of Colorado professor and one of the first scientists to experiment with ultracold atoms - Boulder-based ColdQuanta has earned a sterling yet unorthodox reputation in the quantum physics world.
The company's flagship product, a matter-producing device dubbed RuBECi, sits in the middle of a high-tech table filled with lasers, optics and imaging computers - everything needed to create and capture ultracold atoms.
The hard-to-come-by ultracold matter, including the recently discovered Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), is the promising cornerstone of modern atomic clocks, quantum computing and even submarine navigation systems. But here's the catch: BEC can only be made when a cloud of bosons is kept at temperatures right around absolute zero, hence the sci-fi hardware.
Yet portability is the key to ColdQuanta's success. Like its dining room cousin, the table-sized RuBECi system is surprisingly nimble - a far cry from the large, unwieldy ultra-high vacuum systems it's meant to replace - and is turning heads as the first commercially available BEC technology, despite a price tag of $100,000.
Less than 15 years after Anderson first began tinkering with ultracold atoms - a key element of the 2001 Nobel-winning physics work at CU-Boulder's Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) - the company has molded his findings into a lucrative business, thanks in large part to government contracts and clients like the University of Hawaii.
"We make products for the people who want to experiment but also want to save time," says Ranier Kunz, the company co-founder and chief executive officer. "Look at it like a computer: If you're experimenting with a machine, you don't rebuild the processor. You just build off what's already out there. We provide that. Quantum computing is something very different, something really cool to do."
At seven years old, ColdQuanta now boasts a rapidly growing line of products, from miniscule atom chips to lab-ready control computers, and was named "Boulder Company of the Year" by the CU Technology Transfer Office.
"They're commercializing a technology that's groundbreaking," says Ted Weverka, a case manager with the tech transfer office. "It was a herculean effort to work with this new technology, and it speaks to a lot of enthusiasm for the company, to put out a product that was only experimental a few years before."
Bootstrap to bosons
ColdQuanta's road from what-if experiments to industry-changing products has been unusual, particularly for something as high-concept as BEC.
Kunz, a native of Germany, spent decades in the computer startup world. He's held business development positions for Apple, Broadcom and other titans of Silicon Valley, where tapping into venture capital can mean the difference between growth and death for a young company.
But ColdQuanta didn't fit the normal profile. BEC technology was still untested when Kunz met Anderson at - fittingly - the judges table of a science fair at Summit Middle School.
"It became very clear to me that this was very, very early to start a company," Kunz remembers from the initial business meetings. "People don't want to hear that your technology has potential in 10 or 15 years. They want to see a return right away, so we decided to bootstrap the company."
At the time Kunz was semi-retired, but he was immediately intrigued by the promise of quantum computing. ColdQuanta's first round of BEC products was built with funding from friends, family and CU-Boulder, which invested $100,000. The first employee was even a grad student.
The company's new 8,000-square-foot facility is also a testament to that bootstrap philosophy. It now has 22 employees, including a handful of former professionals who wanted part-time jobs beyond working as office jockeys.
"In a sense, even though it's a high-tech business, we did it the old-fashioned way," Kunz says. "One sale funds your next project so it's very a slow process, but since it is such a new field, we didn't have much competition."
Kunz soon found that the concept was too tantalizing to fail. In 2010, the company won two lucrative research and development project through the federal government. The most promising, a $700,000 investment by the Office of Naval Research, led to the first RuBECi table, also known as the Tabletop BEC.
Thanks to the federal contracts, both of which continue through the end of 2014, ColdQuanta reached the $1 million mark in 2010. That milestone was a boost for the company's three-tiered business plan. It now splits production evenly between the commercial market, governmental R&D and custom engineering.
"As with any small business, nothing goes smoothly all the time," Kunz says. "With three distinct revenue sources, you can get by if one of them isn't doing well. It creates a very nice balance, but we really didn't know where it would lead."
The final frontier
Kunz eventually wants to highlight ColdQuanta's commercial products, but the most enticing new client is a bit out there: the International Space Station. The company is currently working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to tweak a RuBECi table for the space station's 2016 Cold Atom Lab.
Again, portability is paramount. Kunz says the NASA system will fit in an ISS-bound cube of roughly 16 square feet - an unimaginably small space for BEC technology when JILA researchers took home the Nobel Prize - and Anderson is still on-board as the company's chief technology officer to see his work reach outer space.
"It was extremely important that the inventor of this technology became part of the company," Kunz says. "If you simply license something without the person who truly understands it, it is much more difficult to get things up and running.
"It is still exciting to be involved in this new market, and that's when you really need people with a positive attitude around you."