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Updated on Oct. 23, 2023: On Monday, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration announced 31 Tech Hubs, or 11 more than anticipated. Another 29 received Strategy Development Grants. See list of Tech Hub designations. The story was revised to include the latest information.

Word is traveling around Friday morning that Colorado was picked to be an official U.S. Tech Hub, a designation that includes a bit of federal funding and the promise of greater recognition for an ecosystem that has the potential to become a Silicon Valley of quantum technology.

The designation was one of 31 awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program, enacted as part of the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The goal is to invest in American-built innovation and spread the commercialization and workforce beyond the two coasts. There were 192 applications in 10 key technologies submitted, including at least three others from Colorado. The full list of winners isn’t expected to be released until Monday.

“I am over the moon at this opportunity for our state,” said Wendy Lea, when reached Friday morning after learning that Colorado scored one of the 31. Lea is an entrepreneur who helped organize a private effort called TechHubNow! to narrow down proposals.

Quantum, which refers to the science of probabilities down to the atom and the tech that can speed up complex computer calculations, got attention early on as a technology that would fit the Tech Hubs program. Lea’s group settled on quantum technology and advanced energy, which were endorsed by Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. 

“It wasn’t just like, ‘quantum is cool,’” Lea said in an earlier interview. “It turns out, we are in the top three. … We don’t have the most research. But this is not about research. This is about accelerating commercialization and startups. This is an industry-led opportunity.”

A group formed called Elevate Quantum, a consortium of private quantum companies, investors, startups and universities like University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines. At least three Boulder-area companies are building their own quantum computers in a race to offer more qubits, akin to computer data. The quantum industry is projected to bring $3 billion in funding to Colorado over the next decade plus provide jobs for 30,000 future workers who don’t necessarily need Ph.D.s. 

Corban Tillemann-Dick, CEO of Maybell Quantum, monitors the temperature of a dilution refrigerator that houses a quantum computer Oct. 19, 2023, in Denver. Quantum computers require specific environmental conditions, like a base temperature of 10 Millikelvin, equivalent to nearly -450 degrees Fahrenheit, to operate. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Out of the effort, Corban Tillemann-Dick, CEO of Maybell Quantum in Denver, became the ad hoc spokesman for quantum. His company builds very cold fridges that get down to near absolute zero — approximately minus 459 Fahrenheit —  so that quantum computers can effectively operate.

“Quantum technology isn’t just a novel concept; it’s pivotal to the economic and national security of the U.S. in the coming century,” Tillemann-Dick wrote in an email Friday after hearing about the award. “Tech Hub designation affirms Colorado’s unrivaled history of innovation in quantum and helps set us on a trajectory for global leadership as the industry matures. …This is a significant milestone on Colorado’s quantum journey, and it’s now up to us to live up to this potential by coming together and building this Hub.”

Another member of Elevate Quantum is Atom Computing in Boulder, which is working to scale its quantum computer, currently offering about 100 qubits (IBM is the leader with a 433-qubit processor). Last year, the company picked the state to a research and development facility and has continued to its expand operations.

“Atom Computing chose to build our quantum computers in Colorado and invest $100 million in the state because of the rich and diverse quantum research and development ecosystem, which includes universities, national labs, companies, and talent,” said Rob Hays, Atom Computing’s CEO, in an email. “Federal support to make Colorado a national quantum tech hub will accelerate U.S. leadership in quantum information science and bolster the state and regional economy. We are excited to continue collaborating within this growing quantum ecosystem.”

Dr. Laura Wadleigh, a quantum engineer at Atom Computing, tunes an optical distribution system for the company’s next-generation quantum computing platform at its Boulder, Colorado facility. (Courtesy of Atom Computing)

While the state already has many efforts to support other technologies, including advanced manufacturing and aerospace, the additional recognition was welcomed by Polis, who said in a statement, “We will take full advantage of this decision to help create jobs, and support businesses and entrepreneurs because Colorado is the best place for tech and innovation.”

The quantum ecosystem is largely in the Boulder and Denver region and “range from startups in the sensor space that are deploying technologies to sense methane plumes in fracking sites to companies like Maybell or Vescent or Meadowlark (Optics) or Octave (Photonics), who are building the kind of picks and shovels for the quantum gold rush that is enabling the hardware that these folk need,” Tillemann-Dick added. There’s also “some of the largest and most important qubit builders, the ones looking forward to five, 10, 20 years down the road when quantum is the defining technology of the next century.”

Details of the winners are expected to be released by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Planning grants of up to $500,000 were also available but haven’t been announced either. Those designated a Tech Hub will be able to apply for “implementation” grants of $50 million to $75 million through the Commerce department program. 

“To be chosen is unbelievably exciting,” Sen. John Hickenlooper said. “And the key here is to recognize that Colorado already is a leader in a lot of these things. … I think these designations, a tech hub, especially when you’re talking about things like quantum … have the potential to make Colorado 20 years from now the center of quantum.”

Some looked at the Tech Hub effort as a way to get cities and regions nationwide to identify their potential ecosystem and start supporting its growth, even if they didn’t get the official designation.  

Mark Muro, a senior fellow at nonprofit think tank Brookings Institution who has followed the process, shared earlier, they “likely have assembled a compelling strategy that will stand them in good stead and give them a plan going forward and maybe even be a target for funding from other sources, whether it’s philanthropy or the private sector.”  

The other proposals from Colorado included the Colorado CleanRange Consortium, which aimed to commercialize new products and services within the clean energy sector, and a cybersecurity-focused effort out of Grand Junction to better manage the Colorado River.

An advanced manufacturing proposal ended up combining with an aerospace team in Colorado Springs and applied through Wyoming, according to the organizers of the application. The group, led by Heidi J. Hostetter, CEO of H2 Manufacturing Solutions and Colorado Tech Shop, shared a statement:

“We are so honored to have represented the states of Wyoming and Colorado in competing for the EDA’s tech hub designation. Our Advanced Manufacturing Tech Hub team worked tirelessly on behalf of our region’s aerospace and defense, academic, non-profit and private sector partners to put forth a proposal to strengthen our national security and advance the Wyoming/Colorado workforce, particularly the underserved. We are proud of this team’s efforts and wish to express nothing but gratitude to them while wishing Wyoming/Idaho’s West Nuclear Energy and Colorado’s Elevate Quantum teams much success.”

This story was updated on Oct. 23, 2023 with the list of Tech Hub winners.

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...