Startup eyes quantum leap in ‘unhackable’ networking

Beam team: (From left) Qunnect CEO Mehdi Namazi, Stony Brook University student Mael Flament and Qunnect Chief Science Officer Eden Figueroa man the SBU Department of Physics and Astronomy's "laser lab."
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Quantum-memory applications that can prevent hackers from accessing digital-communications networks? At room temperature? Pshaw, you say!

Actually, you probably don’t say “pshaw” or make any other dismissive comment, because unless you’re a quantum-information expert with a PhD in nanotechnology – or you’re otherwise familiar with quantum-repeater nodes, single-photon wave packets and other niceties of quantum IT – this likely sounds like so much recycled “Star Trek” gobbledygook.

But it’s hardly that. In fact, this super-advanced science represents the next field of battle against hackers intent on breaking into your communications networks – a perpetual red alert for individuals, companies and institutions in the digital age – and the photons are flying right now at Stony Brook University.

Searching for new ways to secure communications technologies, a research team from SBU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy has created a method of using quantum-memory applications at room temperatures – more on that in a moment – to safely store and transfer information.

And now, the Research Foundation for the State University of New York has licensed the cutting-edge quantum-memory application to Qunnect LLC, an SBU spinoff that will further develop the potential breakthrough tech to create what the university has dubbed “cybersecure quantum communication networks.”

Under the licensing agreement, Qunnect will look to commercialize the tech, with an eye on establishing hyper-secure long-distance communications networks featuring such bells and whistles as “very fast and highly accurate cyber-threat detection capabilities,” according to SBU.

The mechanic: Eden Figueroa knows quantum mechanics.

The 2017 startup was co-founded by CEO Mehdi Namazi, who boasts a PhD in physics from SBU and a boatload of experience with quantum-memory prototypes, and Chief Science Officer Eden Figueroa, a professor in SBU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and head of the university’s Quantum Information Technology Group, who’s worked with Namazi over the last several years to develop the quantum-memory technology.

The Quantum Information Technology Group – known in some mirror universes as the Figueroa Experimental Research Group – is currently developing devices known as “quantum amplifiers,” which enable transmission of information carried in photons over much greater distances. (The university did not comment on whether the quantum amplifiers can also help transporter beams penetrate Borg shields or establish subspace communications with Starfleet Command.)

All joking aside, the real-as-it-gets research revolves around quantum mechanics, a science developed in the early 20th century to explain phenomena classical physics can’t really crack. Because they don’t rely on mathematical algorithms, quantum networks are inherently more secure and reliable – though leveraging quantum-memory applications to create networks that can operate over long distances is a titanic technological challenge.

And it’s especially challenging to do it at room temperature. Without years of study and a really smart tutor, forget about understanding the super-thick science – suffice it to say that quantum computing involves the spinning of electrons at ridiculous speeds, and those speeds are negatively affected by vibrations and magnetic interactions, and in order to keep electrons spinning at longer than 100 nanoseconds at a time, you have to cool them to absolute zero, or about negative 273 degrees Celsius.

Successful spinning at temperatures that don’t instantly end all chemical reactions within a biological organism, obviously, is a big deal. There are research papers out there explaining how it can be done (in Physical Review Applied and Nature Scientific Reports); the challenge for Figueroa et al is to turn these scientific leaps into a commercialization-ready, communications-network-securing quantum-memory device.

The money: Robert Brill knows good science.

“We believe quantum-memory systems are the future for creating fast, secure data and network systems,” Figueroa said. “Through continued research in our laboratory, we hope to transform quantum-mechanics technology functioning at room temperature to where it can be designed as a foundation to create networks that are unhackable.”

The Quantum Information Technology Group’s work has already been supported by three National Science Foundation grants (totaling about $1 million), a $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps prize (awarded specifically to promote commercialization) and a $50,000 Stony Brook University Discovery Prize.

Qunnect, a resident of SBU’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, will now look to create real-world quantum communications networks that can be secured at distances above 100 kilometers, a truly monumental technological task.

Robert Brill, managing partner of Jericho-based innovative alternative investment firm Newlight Management and lead investor in Qunnect, likes their chances. Brill credited the team’s experience with I-Corps – the NSF’s public-private bootcamp designed to teach university faculty and student entrepreneurs how to identify and capitalize on valuable research-based opportunities – as a major advantage.

“Transforming a leading-edge technology into a suite of marketable products is an extremely high-risk venture,” noted Brill, who also serves as Qunnect’s chairman and president. “So many factors are beyond your control.

“But this team is doing great science,” he added. “And they learned a lot from doing I-Corps, which is an excellent program.”

Qunnect LLC

What’s It? Cybersecure quantum communication networks, based on quantum-memory applications (got that?)

Brought To You By: Cofounders Mehdi Namazi and Eden Figueroa, masters of the quantum realm

Status: Diving deep into “unhackable” digital communications (and possibly a new defense against the Romulans)