In a traditional “hackathon,” teams of software developers compete by using classical computers to solve problems.
But quantum computers represent a completely new technology, one with the potential to solve previously intractable challenges and fuel the growth of a new economy.
The BIG Q Hackathon, hosted in Chicago this fall by the Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) and the Paris-based QuantX, offered a twist that underscored the role of partnerships in the development of quantum technologies: it put technical and business experts from across the country and around the world together at a four-day, two-phase event that participants described as collaborative and cross-disciplinary.
“It wasn’t so much about winning as it was about making connections,” said Cody Castle, a quantum sensing engineer at Great Lakes Crystal Technologies and student at the University of Illinois Chicago who was on the winning business team. “The whole event was super interactive, really intersectional, and I think everyone came away with a new understanding of what quantum can really do.”
The competition, the first of its kind in the United States, was modeled on similar two-phase quantum hackathons that QuantX, an association dedicated to quantum computing technologies, has hosted in Europe and Canada. In Chicago, teams of programmers used quantum computing to solve real problems presented by businesses—such as making stronger and lighter airplane wings or simulating fusion reactions—and then teams of business experts developed strategies for bringing those solutions to market. Each phase included pitches to panels of judges, and each phase had its own winning team.
The winning technical team, “Superball,” used the Infleqtion quantum computing platform to optimize a biomanufacturing process with quantum annealing, a specific type of quantum computing that takes advantage of quantum mechanics principles such as superposition to find an optimal solution to a problem.
The winning business team, “Teq Staq,” pitched a solution for airplane wing manufacturing optimization to Boeing—emphasizing the substantial financial and climate costs that could be saved by more efficient wings. (See a list of participants and mentors from the winning teams on the CQE’s website.)
“This Hackathon was far more than a conventional hackathon, and the solutions to the use cases are only a part of its value,” said Preeti Chalsani, director of industry partnerships at the CQE. “From formulation of use cases to each step in the development of technical solutions and business plans for implementation, it was a valuable learning experience for all participants from across the quantum computing value chain. It required sustained collaboration among the technical teams, the organizations providing the use cases, the quantum computing platform providers, and the business teams, realistically illustrating an organization’s process for integrating quantum computing solutions from R&D to deployment.”
Addressing real problems
Each technical team was given a use case—a problem presented by a business where quantum computing may provide an effective solution. They were also assigned a quantum computing platform—software that allowed their classical computers to simulate and communicate with quantum computers. Both the business and the platform providers placed mentors on the teams to offer relevant guidance.
“Our mentors were really helpful and very involved, they answered all of our questions,” said Angela Abongwa, undergraduate at the University of Chicago who said this was her first-ever hackathon. “They didn’t try to do too much for us, and wanted us to think of our own answers. I think it helped us learn a lot in the process and understand where things can go from here.”
Many of the use cases involved efficiency problems that are intractable or incalculable with classical computing, or which become impractically difficult with larger numbers. An example from Boeing was how to manufacture stronger airplane wings by arranging layers of metal in the most efficient way, which is a deceptively complex mathematical problem. United Airlines asked for the most efficient maintenance schedule for their forklifts and other work vehicles, based on gigabytes of usage data from O’Hare International Airport. Both use cases demonstrated faster calculations using quantum computing.
An undisputed strength of quantum computers is that they can simulate quantum systems much faster and more efficiently than classical computers can. This has applications in a variety of fields including biotechnology and energy. CSL, a global biotechnology company, and Capgemini, a technology consulting company, presented use cases that required simulating chemical reactions at the molecular level to improve drug efficacy and optimize biomanufacturing methods. General Atomics needed to model particle scattering in nuclear reactions for the purpose of improving fusion energy, and Boeing needed to model corrosion of metals at the atomic level.
The technical teams—52 people in all—worked for 36 hours, some late into the night, in conference rooms spread throughout the coworking space of digital startup incubator 1871. The next afternoon, they presented their solutions to a panel of quantum computing experts from industry and academia.
“I’m very impressed with the fact that I don’t think anyone up here has much of a chemistry background,” Abby Mitchell, a mentor for IBM, said to the judges as she stood on stage with her team after they presented their solution to Boeing’s corrosion use case. “All of them managed to throw themselves into this pretty challenging problem, asking a lot of very insightful questions, and even challenging us as mentors in our understanding.” Turning to her team, she added: “I'm really proud of all of you—well done.”
The top five technical teams passed their solutions on to business teams—24 participants who spent the next 36 hours preparing business and marketing pitches based on those solutions. Those pitches were judged by CEOs and investors, who evaluated the presentations from a business perspective.
Some of the participating businesses said that bringing tech and business experts together was really what mattered, and the connections that were made will persist past the event.
“Even if [our team] doesn’t make it,” said Nicholas Chia, a mentor from the Mayo Clinic, “it’d be really great to keep the team together. There’s really good energy here, which is what we look for.”
As quantum computing technology advances, maintaining this kind of connection between users and developers will be crucial. Alex Krajenbrink of QuantX highlighted this in his words at the conclusion of the event.
“This is a really privileged moment,” said Krajenbrink. “It’s a consensus in the quantum industry that most use cases of interest have not been discovered yet. So to find them, we have to iterate and iterate between users and developers. And some of these use cases and solutions you’re seeing today were not possible even just a few years ago—so in a few years, I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.”
The Big Q Hackathon was sponsored by Capgemini, the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST), Johnson & Johnson Innovation, Infleqtion, Quantinuum, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Pasqal, and IEEE.