The Need for Speed: Serial Entrepreneur Heads Firm that Promises a More Powerful Computer

7/18/2013

Vern Brownell ’80 quickly points out that even though he graduated from Stevens with a B.E. in electrical engineering, he’s never worked in that field. A serial entrepreneur, he’s spent more than three decades working with computing solutions firms, even founding and serving as CEO of Egenera, a global leader in that field.

But his most recent endeavor has been the most rewarding, he said. Four years ago, he took a chance and left his company in Boston to move to Vancouver, British Columbia, to become President and Chief Executive Officer with D-Wave Systems, a computing start-up that uses quantum mechanics to solve the problems encountered by Fortune 500 companies, government and academia.

“I came out to Vancouver, which is a great city, and I fell in love with the potential that this company offered, that it could change the world,’’ he said. “It was a risk when I came out here, but it’s been worth it.’’

Founded in 1999, D-Wave’s mission is to integrate new discoveries in physics and computer science into breakthrough approaches to computation. D-Wave is built around a new type of superconducting processor that uses quantum mechanics to rapidly accelerate computation.

Two years ago, Lockheed Martin, a major American military contractor, bought an early version of a quantum computer from D-Wave and is upgrading the technology to commercial scale, becoming the first company to use quantum computing as part of its business. If it performs as Lockheed and D-Wave expect, the design could help solve science and business problems much faster than today’s classic computers. The company has been getting some buzz lately, as The New York Times recently wrote an article about D-Wave and its new computing system.

Quantum computing is faster than traditional computing because of the unusual properties of particles at the smallest level. Instead of just the ones and zeros that have been used to represent data since the earliest days of computers, quantum computing relies on quantum bits, or qubits, that can inhabit the two states of one and zero at the same time, called superposition.  Using qubits, this type of quantum computer can determine an optimal outcome among a near-infinite range of possibilities, which allows certain types of very complex problems to be solved quickly. For instance, in radar and space systems, now it takes weeks, if ever, to determine how millions of lines of software running a network of satellites would react to a pulse from a nuclear explosion. With D-Wave’s quantum computer, an operator would be able to tell instantly how those millions of lines would react. Other possibilities where D-Wave’s supercomputer could be used, Brownell explained, are in cancer therapy regimens, trading algorithms and risk analytics.

“We are solving problems for humanity that classic computers cannot do effectively right now,’’ he said.

D-Wave has received investments from the investment bank Goldman Sachs, the strategic investment firm In-Q-Tel, and from Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment company of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (“a great guy,’’ Brownell said).

“This technology is so unique, it really can be a game changer for computation. It’s a different type of high performance computer, using nature to solve hard problems directly,’’ Brownell said.

In a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports on Aug. 13, 2012, a team of Harvard University researchers presented results of the largest protein folding problem solved to date using a D-Wave One quantum computer.  “That was definitely a milestone for our company,’’ Brownell said. “It produced exciting results and showed the capability.’’           

Brownell fondly recalled his Stevens days, adding that he loved the physics courses he took. He also spoke highly of his work-study assignments with the Computer Center on campus. His family was of modest means, he explained, and the work-study program allowed him to pay for tuition and commuting expenses. In the Computer Center, he worked as a programmer and computer designer responsible for software development. It provided valuable experience and led to his first full-time job upon graduation with Digital Equipment Corp., then a major player in the computer industry.

Leslie Maltz was the Computer Center Director at Stevens for many years, including the time Brownell worked there. Now retired, she recalled Brownell as rather quiet, but a terrific worker.

“I knew he would go on to great success.  The classes that graduated in the 1980s were extraordinary. He was bright, a hard worker, practical, and a bit shy. But his work spoke for itself,’’ she said, adding that it’s “nice to see a nice person do well!’’

“Like many Stevens graduates, he knew the technical aspects of projects as well as the management. That combination usually led to great success. He was truly a favorite,’’ she said.

What was the Stevens advantage for him? “I received a broad set of engineering courses that were outside of my electrical engineering major. I learned team orientation and took on leadership roles in my assignments,’’ he said. “And I met some great, sharp people, like Mark Crispin ’77 (the inventor of the Internet Message Access Protocol, who died in December 2012).’’

The best part of his current job is that he works with a great team at D-Wave. “I work with the smartest people in the world—scientists, physicists, and I really learn a lot from them every day. It’s exciting,’’ he said.