Nation’s first quantum startup accelerator, Duality, launches at UChicago’s Polsky Center and Chicago Quantum Exchange

The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Chicago Quantum Exchange today announced the launch of Duality, the first accelerator program in the nation that is exclusively dedicated to startup companies focused on quantum science and technology—a rapidly emerging area that is poised to drive transformative advances across multiple industries.

Duality’s purpose is to help quantum startups bridge the gap between the laboratory and the marketplace that is a critical barrier to success for emerging technologies. Led by the Polsky Center and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, Duality is also reinforced by founding partners, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory and P33.

The launch of the quantum accelerator comes at a time when countries around the world are racing to unlock the potential of quantum technology. The Chicago area has emerged as a leading global quantum center, notably last year when the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation announced that three of the eight federally funded quantum information science research centers and institutes would be based in the region. Quantum science and technology has the potential to transform industries in the same way that the internet has reshaped the world in recent decades, and leaders hope that the Chicago area is positioned to benefit as the center of the quantum world in the same way that Silicon Valley transformed as it became the center of the tech revolution.

With a minimum $20 million investment over the next 10 years from a broad ecosystem of corporate and academic partners, Duality will help up to 10 quantum startups per year grow their businesses in the Chicago area. The program will be based within the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a global leader in management education. Chicago Booth is widely known for its thought leadership—with nine Nobel laureates—and its impact on the global business community.

The name Duality refers to a core principle of quantum mechanics, in which a single entity may act as both a particle and a wave. The name also evokes the accelerator’s unique role of bringing together the dual expertise from both leading quantum scientists and business partners to grow and scale quantum startups. Duality will provide entrepreneurs with support from leading quantum researchers, as well as business and entrepreneurial expertise from Chicago Booth, Chicago Quantum Exchange’s corporate partners, the Polsky Center’s broad network, and the networks, facilities, and programming from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory, and P33. Students and researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign will have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from experts in this expanding quantum technology development ecosystem.

Duality is taking applications through its website for the first cohort. Companies are invited to apply and will be considered on a rolling basis until May 14, 2021. Actively promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, the program is seeking a range of diverse applicants, in terms of race, gender and ethnicity.

“The Chicago area has a vital role in generating new science and technology, and Duality will provide critical support to bring quantum science from breakthroughs in the laboratory to practical applications that can foster new businesses, create jobs and improve aspects of the quality of life,” said Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago. “This program leverages the unique strengths of the University of Chicago and our partners to convene industry, researchers and venture capitalists to realize the potential of quantum science while simultaneously providing mutual benefit to the research and academic mission of the University of Chicago.”

The state of Illinois has made a strong commitment to support quantum research overall, and Duality will further enhance the region’s ecosystem for technology development and commercialization. 

“The sheer potential of quantum to transform the way so many sectors operate has been matched at only a few points in human history, and Illinois’ advantages in the quantum revolution have already centered our state as a leader. Illinois has the world’s foremost quantum scientists, experts, and leaders as well as a diverse and formidable network of some of world’s best educational institutions. We have two national laboratories, more than 100 tech incubators and accelerators, and world-class research universities with global leadership in business, engineering, and the sciences,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “As a leader in technology and innovation, it is no surprise that the nation’s first quantum incubator-accelerator is opening here in Illinois at the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center. Thanks to this partnership between the University and the Chicago Quantum Exchange, entrepreneurs in the quantum science and technology space will have access to critical resources as they work to transform the economy of tomorrow.”

“We are building the future of technology right here in Chicago,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “This program taps the extraordinary talent in the city across fields from science and innovation to entrepreneurship, manufacturing and development, and is a testament to the strengths of this incredible city and its residents.”

The 12-month accelerator program will focus on supporting and advancing companies that are building quantum technologies, products and applications, and related enabling technologies. Starting virtually in July and continuing in person when COVID-19 restrictions lift, each cohort of companies will have the opportunity to access state-of-the-art facilities, office and lab space, and each startup will receive $50,000 in unrestricted funds.

“The region is uniquely positioned to lead in quantum engineering and other areas of deep tech, meaning the types of early-stage technologies that rely on fundamental scientific breakthroughs to move innovations into use in the world,” said Juan de Pablo, vice president for national laboratories, science strategy, innovation and global initiatives at the University of Chicago. “The combined efforts of the partners in the Duality accelerator, along with our expanding global reach, will further elevate the scientific footprint of Illinois and the larger region.”

A key feature of Duality is that it is based in Hyde Park on the city’s South Side. The University of Chicago, along with partners at UIUC and Argonne, has been actively developing a blueprint for inclusive innovation in the context of quantum engineering and other emerging technologies, whose goal is to expand economic opportunities and drive economic inclusion for South Side residents and diverse businesses.

Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement and external affairs at the University of Chicago, noted, “our commitment to inclusive innovation means not only will investments in quantum research and innovation be creating new companies, but we will simultaneously be working in partnership to prepare South Side businesses to grow with these new companies, and residents for the jobs that such companies will generate. We want to continue working with our local communities and civic partners to bolster the access, education, and training needed to reach this goal.”

David Awschalom
Prof. David Awschalom

“Quantum technology has the potential to revolutionize our everyday lives—from enabling secure communications to developing ultra-precise sensors that can help detect and treat disease,” said David Awschalom, UChicago’s Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, and director of Q-NEXT, a U.S. DOE Quantum Information Science research center led by Argonne National Laboratory. “The accelerator will not only support the efforts of early-stage quantum startups to grow and bring their critical technologies and applications to the marketplace, but will also help to expand the ecosystem to include a more diverse and inclusive community and workforce.”

“The Polsky Center was launched at Chicago Booth and has a proven track record of launching new startup companies and bringing groundbreaking ideas to market,” said Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and adjunct professor at Chicago Booth. “Deep tech innovations, such as quantum technologies, can take a longer time to reach market-ready maturity than typical business model innovations. Duality will provide the necessary infrastructure, guidance and world-class business training to ensure these new quantum startups are successful.”

“Duality fills a key need in educating quantum entrepreneurs and promoting investment in development of these technologies,” said Vanessa Chan, DOE’s Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions. “Attracting funding is essential in a field that has the potential to radically change technology development itself. Through the launch of Duality, Chicago is showing the world that it has the critical elements needed to incubate and launch these types of ventures.”

UChicago began building a quantum information science program in 2013 with the addition of quantum science faculty and resources. In 2017, the Chicago Quantum Exchange was created to bring together academia, industry, and government to advance the science and engineering of quantum information and train the quantum workforce of the future. Since then, the Chicago Quantum Exchange has scaled to include six academic institutions and national laboratories and more than two dozen industry, nonprofit, and international partners, making it one of the largest collaborative teams working on quantum information science in the world.

The quantum science ecosystem in the Chicago region has grown rapidly. In 2020, scientists from Argonne and UChicago launched a 52-mile “quantum loop” that was among the longest ground-based quantum communication channels in the country. Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy announced at the University of Chicago in July their plans to build a national quantum internet, which will create virtually unhackable networks to transmit information. The following month, the DOE and the National Science Foundation announced that three of the eight federally funded quantum information science research centers and institutes would be based in the Chicago area—including DOE QIS centers, one led by Argonne and one led by Fermilab, and a National Science Foundation quantum leap challenge institute led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

—Article was originally published on the UChicago News website