The Rising Leaders of the Quantum Prairie

Why startup founders, researchers, and students are calling the Midwest region ‘the premier hub for quantum’—and how their investments are strengthening the ecosystem

As a postdoc at the University of Oxford in England, Mirella Koleva spent her nights and weekends developing a model that accurately predicted light-matter interactions at the quantum level.

When it was clear that the model worked and could be valuable across industries to simulate quantum-photonic devices, Koleva left academia, incorporated a business called Quantopticon, and received a startup grant from the British government.

But finding additional funding proved difficult. To continue growing the business, she looked across the Atlantic Ocean to Illinois. In 2021, the company was accepted into Duality, the first accelerator in the US that exclusively supports startup companies focused on quantum technology — an area that is poised to drive revolutionary advances across multiple industries by harnessing the properties of nature’s tiniest particles. 

It wasn’t a brief trip across the pond. Two years later, Koleva still lives in Chicago, and the company is in the process of moving its headquarters here.

“Chicago is the premier hub for quantum in the United States,” she said. “It’s where many of our target customers are based, and there are just more players involved in the ecosystem who want to collaborate. So we absolutely want to have an office here.”

Koleva’s story exemplifies that of many in the quantum information science and engineering (QISE) community. Professors, researchers, startup founders, and students are finding their way to the Midwest corridor than runs from Madison, Wis., through Chicago and down to Urbana-Champaign, Ill., to be part of the growing quantum ecosystem that some call the “Quantum Prairie.”  

It’s an ecosystem built on a foundation of institutions that are home to some of the world’s leaders in QISE research — including Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) members the University of Chicago, the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Northwestern University — and bolstered by hundreds of millions of dollars in government and corporate investment, well-supported business growth, and deep local and international partnerships aimed not only at advancing quantum science and technologies but building a strong quantum workforce and driving the quantum economy.

The region was a leading recipient of funds from the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act, bringing in $280 million to build four of the Act’s 10 quantum science research centers and institutes: Q-NEXT and the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems (SQMS) Center, both funded by the US Department of Energy, and Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes for Quantum sensing for Biophysics and Bioengineering(QuBBE) and Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN), funded by the National Science Foundation.

The state of Illinois has invested $200 million for new quantum facilities for the region, and in May, at the  G7 Summit in Japan, the University of Chicago, University of Tokyo, IBM, and Google announced partnerships to advance workforce development and quantum computing — agreements that included $100 million in support from IBM and $50 million in support from Google. Also contributing to the region’s strength are international partnerships with the United Kingdom, including one between SQMS and the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory and Royal Holloway, University of London; collaborations with other institutions in Japan, including a recent agreement between UChicago and Tohoku University; and partnerships between the CQE and institutions in Israel, Australia, the Netherlands.

The Chicago Metro region’s economy is among the most diverse in the nation, with no one sector representing more than 13% of the overall regional economy — an advantage given quantum’s potential to impact multiple industries. And according to a report released by World Business Chicago this week:

  • The broader Chicago region that includes Urbana-Champaign, Ill., and Madison, Wis., is among the best positioned to supply the future quantum workforce: Chicago Quantum Exchange member universities rank second in the nation for number of quantum-related Ph.D. graduates, and the region has the third-highest number of universities engaged in quantum research activities.
  • Since 2017, Illinois quantum startups have raised $33.2 million through 27 deals — the second-highest number of deals by quantum startups after California.
  • The Chicago metro area's high-tech industry is poised to grow by 15% between 2022 and 2026.

In addition, the ecosystem, anchored by a 124-mile quantum network that is one of the longest in the nation, also includes economic and workforce development nonprofits; academic institutions like the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Chicago State University, both Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI) that are leaders in QISE education; and a growing number of quantum businesses and startups — all engaged in transforming the region from a quantum powerhouse to the heart of the nation’s quantum economy. The CQE, which facilitates interaction among these institutions — including its six members, more than 40 corporate and nonprofit partners, and other members of the quantum ecosystem — is based at UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the first school in the nation dedicated to the emerging field of molecular engineering.

“There’s nowhere else that has the convergence of institutions and deep well of talent in a robust, exciting city that has a reasonable cost of living,” said Nick Farina, CEO of quantum computing startup EeroQ, which moved its headquarters to Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood in 2022.

This summer, we talked to six rising leaders — founders, scientists, and an undergraduate student — who have come to the region not only for its quantum foundation but for the inclusive opportunities, robust collaboration, and deep business and entrepreneurial support that are helping create its quantum future. Their personal stories offer insight into the people, programs, and partnerships driving its growth.  

Thomas Searles: Creating inclusive opportunities for the future quantum workforce 

Thomas Searles
Thomas Searles (Photo courtesy of UIC Engineering/Jim Young)

Thomas Searles never thought he’d become a quantum scientist in Chicago. Growing up in Georgia, he wanted to be an astronaut. But when he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta — one of the top producers of Black physicists in the country — he was introduced to quantum mechanics, and in graduate school at Rice University he studied how light interacts with quantum materials.

After becoming an assistant professor at Howard University, Searles got in touch with his mentor, University of Illinois Chicago Professor Jeremiah Abiade, who asked if he would be open to moving to Chicago. Searles was unsure, but after a few Zoom calls in 2020, he felt intrigued by the access to Argonne and Fermilab and the national quantum research centers.

“I came to Chicago sight unseen in May,” he said. “I had to buy a coat. But then I moved my entire research group and family here. I was hoping to be accepted by Chicago’s quantum community and find opportunities for my students, and it has been way above my expectations.”

Now, as a professor at UIC, he’s continuing his research on quantum materials, computing, and networking. On August 22, UIC announced that Searles will lead a new national consortium aimed at educating the next generation of quantum engineers through a $4.8 million, three-year US Department of Energy award. The ReACT-QISE Consortium, funded through the DOE RENEW Initiative and led by UIC, will include seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and institutions serving predominantly female students. 

Searles is also collaborating with Argonne and Fermilab; is affiliated with the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center (IQUIST) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC); and uses IBM’s quantum computing systems via expanded access facilitated by the CQE for member institutions, including UIUC, and through UIC's participation in the Center for Co-Design of Quantum Advantage (C2QA) at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a relationship Searles spearheads. He also hopes to connect to the region's quantum network.

“But my main goal is to change the lives of young people,” he said. “I want to create a space where students can think freely and have a safe learning environment and become involved in the quantum ecosystem here in Chicago.”

In the city, he says, his students have three or four quantum events they can attend each week. Proximity to national labs also gives them more opportunities for research and exposure, especially for students who don’t have the ability to travel.

“Chicago is the best place in the world for quantum,” he said. “It is the epicenter of the quantum information community. Having this kind of blueprint for what a quantum ecosystem can look like is very important. As a Black man from the South to have an opportunity to live in a major city and do this type of science — if I can make it in Chicago, anybody can.”

Jennifer Choy: A quantum community fueled by multidisciplinary collaboration

As a high school student in Queens, New York, Jennifer Choy’s interest in science was spurred in biology class. But as a first-generation college student at MIT, Choy found herself drawn to quantum information science. She loved both the non-intuitive aspects of quantum mechanics and the multidisciplinary nature of the field. After getting her PhD at Harvard University, she worked for five years in industry before getting hired as a faculty member at University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2019.

It was in the Midwest that she found a quantum community.

“UW–Madison has a strong history in quantum and has a continually growing quantum science research community and is home to the first MS in Quantum Computing program in the nation,” she said.

Now, as she develops high-performing, ultra-precise quantum sensors based on neutral atoms and solid-state quantum emitters, she has joined several multidisciplinary collaborations based in the Midwest, including HQAN and Q-NEXT.

“Thanks to the cluster of universities and national labs with strong and diverse quantum research programs in Wisconsin and Illinois, I was able to become part of large research centers based in the Midwest that were started by the National Quantum Initiative,” she said. “It ended up being very lucky that I got to be here. It’s a very supportive and collaborative ecosystem.”

Since 2023, Choy is helping to lead HQAN’s education, outreach, and workforce development initiatives, including UW–Madison’s Wonders of Quantum Physics outreach program, which offers science camps and hands-on quantum exhibits to engage audiences with quantum science. Other initiatives include TeachQuantum, an annual six-week summer research experience for high school teachers in Wisconsin and Chicago that immerses them in real-world quantum research environments and prepares them to teach quantum-focused STEM concepts in their classrooms.

“Quantum science is a field that is normally taught at an advanced level in college,” she said. “There are foundational principles that can be introduced much earlier and doing so can get students interested in the field early on and equip a broader audience with basic concepts that allows them to better understand and discern quantum-related news and media.”

Getting students excited about the possibilities in quantum research and industry is increasingly important, as experts forecast a workforce shortage in the field. A burgeoning field filled with new opportunities also sets the stage for recruiting a diverse group of students into the field.

“We want to find talented students that can help continue to develop this field,” she said. “Given the wealth of research infrastructure and opportunities here, the Midwest is a great place to start and continue the journey.”

Pranav Gokhale: No need for Silicon Valley

Pranav Gokhale
Pranav Gokhale

When Pranav Gokhale was growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., scientists from the nearby National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) visited his school to give demonstrations of physics concepts — like using sunglasses to demonstrate the polarization of light. Gokhale was so impressed that in middle school, he called up scientists at NIST over and over, asking them for an internship. He finally called enough times that they gave in.

At NIST, he undertook research on quantum cryptography and ion traps. The excitement around quantum technology led him to major in computer science and physics and conduct quantum research as an undergraduate. But after graduation, he headed to the Silicon Valley, eager to become part of the startup scene.

Soon, though, he felt the draw back to quantum, and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago to work with quantum software leader Fred Chong, the Seymour Goodman Professor of Computer Architecture in the Department of Computer Science.

“I came into grad school with the mindset that I wanted to commercialize a deep tech innovation at the intersection of AI and quantum,” he said. He joined UChicago Polsky Center’s George Shultz Innovation Fund program, where he conducted due diligence on university startups. At the same time, he and Chong developed a new machine learning-based approach to software for quantum computing systems, and Gokhale began to consider how to commercialize it.

“I already had this picture in my mind that I would do graduate work at UChicago and then go back to launch a company in Silicon Valley,” he said. “But by 2019, my view on that had completely flipped. It became clear that Chicago was the right place for our company. There was so much talent here and so much interest from local industries in finance, energy, and logistics. The strong role of national labs like Argonne was icing on the cake.”

The duo incorporated in 2020 and were accepted into Argonne’s Chain Reaction Innovations two-year fellowship program. Then, in 2021, they were accepted into the 12-month, Chicago-based Duality accelerator, which is led by UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the CQE, along with founding partners the UIUC, Argonne, and P33, a nonprofit organization that works to transform Chicago into a tier-one technology and innovation hub. Duality — which hosted 11 startups in its first two cohorts and welcomed four into its third cohort this summer — offered and the other startups entrepreneurial training, business expertise, industry mentorship, funding, and access to world-class facilities. That summer, emerged from stealth and began to sell their software stack to companies and research labs who wanted a software system that could be deeply integrated into the quantum computing hardware.

They quickly found that Chicago “was one of the few cities where most quantum is actively discussed by C-level executives at the board level,” Gokhale said. “The amount of attention given to quantum in Chicago is exceptional.” began collaborating with quantum technology company Infleqtion (formerly known as ColdQuanta), which ultimately acquired in 2022. Infleqtion now has two offices in the Midwest region — one in Madison and one in Chicago — so it can access the region’s deep talent pool and world-class researchers. Infleqtion raised a $110M Series B financing round last year and is investing significant resources into its Midwest operations.

“The Chicago ecosystem has been huge for the company,” Gokhale said. “It’s still very hard to hire people who have expertise in quantum computing, but we can find it here. We’re hiring here, we’re growing here. We had our board meeting here. Everyone believes this is the epicenter of quantum in the U.S.”

Adrian Portales: Finding a path to quantum through the Open Quantum Initiative

Growing up in South Texas, Adrian Portales was drawn toward science — especially the experimental nature of research. In college at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, he majored in mechanical engineering and sought various research experiences around the country. He soon found himself working in nanotechnology, renewable energy, microbiology, fluid dynamics, and power electronics at national labs and universities, an eclectic assortment of topics that fed his voracious appetite for learning about the potential applications of science and engineering.

With the emerging field of quantum science on the rise, Portales was quickly captivated by its potential to change the world.

“It’s definitely an exciting time to be in quantum,” he said. “At some level, it incorporates all the different areas I’ve worked in, but in an entirely new and interesting way.”

In 2022 Portales was a part of the inaugural cohort for the Open Quantum Initiative (OQI) Undergraduate Fellowship, which provides students with summer research experiences working in quantum science laboratories and research groups at CQE affiliates.  

Soon, he was in the Chicago area working to build scalable hardware for quantum networks at Argonne National Laboratory with Supratik Guha, senior scientist/senior advisor to physical sciences & engineering at Argonne and a professor in UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

“Being surrounded by some of the smartest people and greatest user facilities in the world was truly a transformative and unforgettable experience,” he said.

That summer, he met the 11 other OQI Fellows who had come to the Midwest to engage in quantum research. Over the next year, he kept in touch with several cohort members, forming relationships he believes will last well into his career. Portales also experienced how imperative the partnerships between academia, industry, and national laboratories are to advancing the field — especially in quantum networking, the area he is currently pursuing.

“So much of the progress in quantum networking is happening right here in the Chicago area, and if I wanted to be a part of it — and I did — I knew I needed to be here,” he said.

At his final OQI presentation, Portales was approached by a representative from California-based HRL Laboratories, a research center that, among other areas, is a world leader in developing solid-state technology for quantum computing and networking. That conversation led to Portales securing a masters intern position at HRL for the summer of 2023, where he continued his effort toward enabling quantum networks.

In the fall, Portales will head to Harvard University to continue conducting research in quantum science and plans to eventually get his PhD in the field.

“I’m doing fundamental research that truly excites me,” he said. “I’ve realized this field is where I want to be, and I plan to stay for many years to come.”

Nick Farina: The best place to recruit talent

When Farina, the entrepreneur who moved EeroQ to Chicago, met physicist Johannes Pollanen in 2011, they became fast friends. At the time, Farina was the co-founder and CEO of software startup JetZet, and Pollanen was a graduate student in physics at Northwestern University.

They hadn’t planned to collaborate, but years later, after Farina co-founded and sold another software startup, he visited Pollanen at his new post as a professor at Michigan State University (MSU).

Pollanen became interested in quantum computing during his postdoc at Caltech, and thought electrons on helium — first proposed by Phil Platzman of Bell Labs and Mark Dykman of MSU in 1999, and expanded upon in 2003 by Princeton Professor Steve Lyon, now EeroQ’s chief technology officer — could be a winning dark horse candidate for quantum computing. Farina, who was also an angel investor on the side, saw the opportunity.

“I recognized that the method Johannes was using to build a quantum processor had enormous potential to achieve scalability, a major hurdle on the road to commercial viability, and that no other company out there was doing it,” Farina said. “I also saw how the power of quantum computing could change the world in a way that was a rare opportunity.” 

Together they launched EeroQ, and Farina recruited investors to sponsor the research. For the next five years, Pollanen continued to optimize the technology. In 2022, it was time to get venture capital funding and open a brick-and-mortar headquarters. The team conducted a search, analyzing potential locations around the globe.

They landed on Chicago.

“We had no bias toward Chicago,” Farina said. “Our primary concern was accessing the talent we needed to do the hard thing we are trying to do.”

After raising $7.25 million last year in a funding round led by B Capital, the strategic venture partner of the Boston Consulting Group, Farina began working to expand his staff. He assumed it would take six months to hire the eight employees they needed.

They filled the positions within a month.

“We found our talent both within Chicago and in people who wanted to move here,” he said. “People want the appeal of a great American city with a reasonable cost of living.”

Chicago also had advantages in accessibility — it’s easy to get on a flight to anywhere in the world — and it had a low cost for operating a business. “We’re going to make our funding dollars go a lot further here because our expenditures in every category are less than if we were on one of the coasts,” Farina said. EeroQ also welcomed the help of World Business Chicago, the CQE, and P33.

In July, the company announced details for “Wonder Lake,” a scalable quantum architecture system that uses electrons on liquid helium to eventually support 2,432 qubits on one chip, produced at a standard chip foundry — a step toward building a quantum computer.  

“We want to build the best quantum computer, and to do so ethically,” said Farina, who has been a leading voice for the adoption of ethical guidelines as quantum technologies develop. “And Chicago is the place to do that.”

Mirella Koleva: From the UK to Chicago

Koleva, the Quantopticon cofounder, never expected to have a career in quantum information science. She majored in physics at Imperial College London and loved her quantum mechanics courses — one of the few physics courses taught by a woman — but in graduate school, she pursued super-resolution imaging of protein signaling complexes.

“I picked up so many skills, acquired so much knowledge from different scientific fields, and learned to communicate effectively with scientists from different backgrounds,” she said. “But then I thought the imaging technique had run its course.”

Her mother, physicist Gaby Slavcheva, had been working on a model to describe the interactions between light and matter at the nanoscale, taking into account quantum effects. But she was having trouble generalizing the model to different energy levels. Koleva, who loves to code, took on the challenge, working nights and weekends to make it work.

The model was so successful that they launched a company, Quantopticon, to commercialize it as a software package called Quantillion. Quantillion simulates quantum-photonic devices, specializing in modeling solid-state quantum systems. With it, companies and researchers can design their own quantum devices, saving hardware engineers time and money in the optimization step of the design cycle.

A grant from Innovate UK got them off the ground, but it was in Duality that Koleva found the supportive ecosystem she needed to take the company to the next level. Quantopticon was among six startups, including, that made up the pioneering accelerator’s first cohort in 2021; it was a group Koleva called “exceptional.”

“Even now we draw on each other’s experiences and act as resources for each other,” she said.

With an office in Chicago and plans to move its headquarters there, Quantopticon has now hired local employees with quantum optics and computational skills and hopes to grow its employee base as it strives to ultimately develop process design kits for quantum photonics foundries.

“The Chicago ecosystem is very open-minded and inquisitive,” she said. “In Europe, there’s much more skepticism and fear of start-ups, and less willingness to collaborate. We want to stay in Chicago."