For fans of cult television from yesteryear, the word “quantum” might evoke images of actor Scott Bakula bouncing around points in time with a holographic sidekick in the bygone NBC show “Quantum Leap.”

But quantum technology is not science fiction.

It’s real. And the next generation of that technology is slowly emerging from research labs into the commercial sphere right now. It’s early yet, but the technology has the potential to transform everything from chemical development to self-driving car technology to computing as we know it, backers and researchers say.

Amid all that buzz, Colorado, specifically, the Denver-Boulder area, is putting its stamp on the quantum realm. The area sports decades of research expertise, a pipeline of talent and a roster of ambitious companies aiming to make waves. It’s an industry concentration that could pay huge dividends for the state’s economy if the technology lives up to its promise.

“People call Silicon Valley Silicon Valley for reason. We think about it as the Quantum Front Range,” said Tony Uttley, president of Broomfield-based Honeywell Quantum Solutions. “It’s in its absolute infancy right now but at the front of something is going to be absolutely gigantic.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Engineer Taek Oh works on a Quantum Processing Unit at ColdQuanta in Boulder on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

What is quantum?

Quantum technology already impacts people’s lives on a daily basis, said Jun Ye, a physics professor at the University of Colorado and a fellow at JILA, a joint research institute between CU and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, that has been at the heart of major quantum breakthroughs. (Note: Ye is also a fellow with NIST.)

It is used in cellphones, global positioning systems and medical devices, Ye said. The excitement percolating now is around what the physicist calls a “second quantum revolution.”

“We’ve had a good time working with individual particles when they are in a quantum state. Now we are teaching those particles to work as a team, what we call quantum entanglement,” Ye said.

When you have multiple quantum particles working together, it increases speed for computation and uses for science, Ye said. He uses quantum technology to build ultra-accurate atomic clocks.

“There are existing clocks we use to define seconds,” Ye said. “And the current clocks we are developing now already exceed the performance of those clocks by two or three orders of magnitude.”

If scientists can better harness quantum entanglement and mitigate “noise” in that process, Ye envisions applications like using quantum technology to control vehicles on Mars from Earth and providing more sensitive tools for measuring sea-level change and glacial melt.

“Quantum will continue to define the frontier of technology,” he said before adding a caveat. “In some cases, these computers are still very primitive. They are not yet powerful enough to do universal quantum computation.”

Alex Challans, of the Quantum Daily, an industry news site dedicated to making quantum technology more accessible and understandable, admits it’s not an easy topic to introduce to the uninitiated.

“You can’t explain this over a beer in the midst of a conversation because you will ruin the conversation,” he said.

The site has a detailed resource page covering terms and questions around quantum computing. When it comes to real-world applications, the Quantum Daily is preaching patience.

“We have been very cautious about companies that say that have new technology that going to change the world, We’re just not there yet,” Challans said. “If we are able to make quantum computers that are scaleable then it will be transformative.”

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Engineer Hannah North maintains a Quantum Processing Unit at ColdQuanta in Boulder on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

Like the early days of the internet

Boulder-based company ColdQuanta is jockeying to be at the forefront of the quantum revolution and it recently brought in a tech sector heavy hitter to help get it there.

Last month, the 14-year-old company named Dan Caruso its executive chairman and interim CEO. Caruso co-founded two internet infrastructure giants along the U.S. 36 corridor, Level 3 Communications and Zayo Group, the latter of which Caruso led onto Wall Street before taking it private again last year via a $14.3 billion sale.

Caruso likens the opportunities in quantum today to the early days of the internet.

“Commercialization is going to increasingly become commonplace beginning now and over the next handful of years,” Caruso said. “In 10 years, it will become prevalent across the board.”

There are different ways to harness the power of quantum computing. Google uses superconducting loops for its quantum computer. Honeywell is focused on trapped ion technology. ColdQuanta, as its name might suggest, is focused on keeping things cold.

Using what the company calls the cold atom method, ColdQuanta builds off Noble Prize-winning work at JILA, to use lasers to super cool atoms, putting them in a quantum state. In the news release announcing Caruso’s hiring, ColdQuanta calls this method the “most scalable, versatile and commercial viable area of quantum.”

Caruso said the challenge before the company, already a strong research and development outfit with $50 million in research contracts and another $54 million in funding, is turning the technology into usable products. Getting there will take more capital.

ColdQuanta last month launched a fundraising effort, leveraging Caruso’s connections to bring in New York investment bank PJ Solomon to lead the ambitious round.

“My guess it is it will take multiple months to get to the finish line because we want to find the right investors who want to take this to the full potential that we feel is in front of it,” Caruso said. “We would like to get well north of $200 million.”

ColdQuanta is hitting the venture capital market amid a craze in quantum investing. The Quantum Insider, a sister company to the Quantum Daily that provides private and public sector clients with data and information on quantum technology stakeholders, saw quantum technology investment more than triple from 2019 to 2020, hitting $930.3 million last year. This year, through less than four months, Quantum Insider has already tracked $757.2 million in investment.