Venture capital for quantum physicists

July 2, 2013: 6:09 AM ET

The $100 million QWave Fund is the first venture capital collective of its kind.

By Clay Dillow, contributor

120829053110-nanobot-red-blood-cell-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- The old adage says invest in what you know. But what do you invest in if you're a quantum physicist working at the very edge of the knowable? Apparently, the answer is sensors, information processing, and more sensors. The $100 million QWave Fund is the first venture capital collective of its kind, tapping an advisory board packed with laboratory expertise to make investments solely in technologies derived from the mind-bending fields of quantum physics and materials science. Its first investments: $7 million spread across an Indiana-based maker of optical metamaterials (designed for high-resolution sensors and next-generation information processing), an Estonian high-voltage superconductor manufacturer, and next-level sensor designer out of North Carolina.

"Under the cover of some other technology waves--the Internet, I.T., social media and all that--materials science has quietly acquired new skills," says Serguei Kouzmine, nuclear physicist and managing partner for the QWave fund. "Now we've come to a very important threshold where on the engineering level--not in the scientific lab, but in the actual manufacturing plant--you literally can discuss with engineers how to construct nano-structures, how to build at the atom-level, stuff like that. That's very important, because you can discuss cool technology all day long, but if at the end of the day you get to the engineer and he has no clue what you're talking about, that's as far as you can go."

In other words, there's a whole lot of technology out there that's been living in the lab--some of it for a quite a while--that is now poised to move into the commercial product realm. But when it comes to a field as challenging and complex as quantum physics, the key is differentiating mature technologies from those that still need to incubate, and then recognizing the applications that might not be readily apparent. For that, QWave looks to an advisory board populated by nuclear physicists, computer scientists, and Ph.D.-level engineers rather than entrepreneurial investors or venture capitalists--a global group of researchers who fundamentally understand both the physics and the implications for the technology.

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Right now, Kouzmine says, those implications are largely in high-resolution sensor devices, where new technologies rooted in physics are replacing chemical processes to scan for anything from counterfeit pharmaceuticals to explosives residue to disease biomarkers in blood or breath. These physics-based sensors can generally simplify analysis by returning results faster--chemical analysis techniques often require time, a laboratory, and a trained chemist to execute--often via a hand-held, portable device. The problem is and has long been creating sensors that are reliable, inexpensive, and easy to operate--a problem that is rapidly being solved as quantum physics sheds increasingly more light on the nano-level.

"Devices are low-hanging fruit because you can bring a little bit better sensor and all of a sudden you get completely different solutions," Kouzmine says. "Think about the camera. You make a little bit better camera, and suddenly you don't need a camera anymore. You just need a cell phone, and not just for pictures, now you can scan a document. Sometimes sensitivity increasing two or three times can make a huge difference in how people do things."

In English heavily tinged by his native Russian, Kouzmine ticks off the markets where higher-resolutions sensors or materials enhanced at the atomic, quantum level could be highly disruptive: medical diagnostics, oil and gas exploration, battery technology, high-voltage energy transmission, fiber optics and other communications technologies, supercomputing, quantum computing. But, at least right now, quantum technologies aren't poised to create whole new markets or introduce new technological paradigms (that will come later). Rather, QWave is looking for technologies that can enter existing markets and do what's already being done, but do it better.

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"On the simplest level, we're trying to make money as a business," Kouzmine says. "So we're looking in the areas--mostly areas I'd call devices, materials, or processing technologies--where the utilization micro-level technology can develop much better processes for what we're doing right now. We're looking for new projects where people find a way to utilize knowledge of the micro world to make known processes an order of magnitude more efficient."

Right now, those projects include Indiana-based Nano-Meta Technologies, Inc., a Purdue University spinout working on metamaterials (that is, artificially engineered materials) technologies for next-generation optical and quantum computing applications, North Carolina-based Centice, a maker of portable chemical analysis devices, and Estonian materials science manufacturer Clifton, whose proprietary semiconductor technology can imbue normal semiconductors with high-voltage capability, enhancing power transmission and boosting the efficiency of electronics.

But the future of quantum technology--and the QWave fund--lies, perhaps unsurprisingly, in information technology.

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"We're aggressively looking into quantum information, quantum security," Kouzmine says. The world of the quantum--of the carefully controlled individual electron or photon--promises IT technologies that dwarf the capabilities of contemporary hardware; quantum computers that are hundreds and thousands of times faster than the fastest silicon-based machines, and encryption schemes that are virtually unhackable.

But in the near term biomedical applications, chemical analysis devices, oil and gas exploration and other areas where an improvement in sensor resolution or in processing speed can create new solutions in mature markets. The opportunities are there and they are many, Kouzmine says. The point of QWave is to provide source of funding for technologies that other investors might shy away from for lack of understanding the technology and how it can apply to immediate, real-world problems and markets.

"Why are we doing this? It's partially being a physicist and clearly understanding the space," Kouzmine says. "Progress in material science has come to the level where it can bear fruit, and we understand how to convert the opportunity into real money. We are not considering quantum technologies something for the 22nd century. This is technology we can use today."

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