MIT-Led Venture Firm ‘The Engine” Funds Technology Companies with Long-Term Potential; Zapata Computing One of 27 in Portfolio
(HarvardCrimson) Zapata Computing is the quantum computer company profiled in this detailed article about the MIT-led venture firm The Engine that was conceived in 2016 as a response to a troubling trend in the scientific landscape: Technologies with enormous long-term potential were being ignored in favor of those that could reach the market on a shorter timeline. In the past five years The Engine has raised $435 million in two funding rounds, the most recent of which concluded last month. MIT, the lead investor, contributed $35 million; Harvard, joining for the first time, chipped in $25 million. The money has offered much-welcomed support to select companies involved in “Tough Tech,” a term The Engine CEO and Managing Partner Katie W. Rae describes in an email as “scientific or engineering breakthroughs that have potential for big impact and [to] solve large problems in the world — often based on years of research in academia, though not required, and often have some element of physicality to them.”
The 27 companies funded by The Engine divides them into three general categories: “climate change, human health, and advanced computing.” Each company receives around one to five million dollars in seed funding, and perhaps more importantly, enters into a partnership with The Engine.
Spun out of a Harvard chemistry lab, Zapata Computing is a leader in quantum computing software. Co-founder and IP Coordinator Jonny P. Olson calls the startup a “quantum software company, in contrast to a quantum hardware company, meaning we don’t build any quantum computers.” Instead, Zapata is trying to program them: a “very non-trivial” task, as Olson puts it, in large part because current quantum computers boast a myriad of architectures and each runs on firm-specific software.
Although quantum computers are still years away from becoming a scientific mainstay, Zapata’s first product — a software called Orquestra — will help ensure the transition is a smooth one. Orquestra takes care of the enormous “learning overhead” that comes with using quantum technology; it provides workflows for project organization, as well as pre-prepared machine learning algorithms.
As for the future, Olson observes that progress in quantum computing has been faster than anyone expected. “My advisor during my Ph.D. [was] telling me there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll have 50 qubits in 50 years,” he says. “And suddenly, here we are, companies [are] building a chip and testing a chip that is 50 qubits already — it hasn’t even been five years.”