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SMU Lands $1M For Research Aimed At Cybersecurity, Quantum Computing Breakthroughs

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – SMU's Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security has received more than $1 million in new research grants for quantum-related research.

The grants were awarded by Anametric, Inc., an Austin-based company developing new technologies and devices for chip-scale quantum photonics, with a focus on cybersecurity. Anametric got its start from a conversation the founder had with SMU researchers Dr. Mitch Thornton and Dr. Duncan MacFarlane years ago.

Thornton and MacFarlane will use the grants to investigate new theoretical approaches to enhancing cybersecurity using quantum information and to leverage these approaches to build quantum photonic integrated circuits.

These integrated circuits are designed to control individual particles of light in order to generate high-quality entropy – a string of random numbers that serves as the foundation of all modern cybersecurity. This work could pave the way for advances in quantum computing and other quantum-related applications.

"The long-term goal is to build quantum computing devices. But we have to take baby steps, and this first grant is focused on quantum-based cybersecurity devices," Thornton said. "We will focus on circuits that support important cybersecurity applications for quantum data, including next-generation encryption, to protect quantum information as it is being transmitted over a network or processed in a quantum computer."

Quantum-related technology exploits unique properties of quantum physics to enable complex tasks that would be impossible with today's computers. Currently, computers rely on classical binary digits, which can be either a 0 or 1, to perform tasks that power our digital economy. But a quantum computer can use quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. That gives quantum computers the theoretical ability to radically outperform today's computers for certain tasks.

There are a number of ways by which these qubits can be constructed. Yet individual particles of lights, or photons, are one of the few types of quantum bits that can operate at room temperature. This is significant because photonic technology could potentially be used to construct quantum devices that can operate in an office space, rather than in a laboratory.

But photons are notoriously hard to control.

With Thornton and MacFarlane's help, Anametric is trying to build quantum photonic integrated circuits with the functionalities required to create, process and detect single photons – all in an exquisitely small package.

"The trick is to find a commercially viable operating space within the current limits of photonic technology," MacFarlane said. "Our partners at Anametric have been instrumental in defining where to seek that overlap."

Thornton and MacFarlane bring a combined expertise of more than 40 years in quantum information theory and quantum photonic integrated circuit design.

Thornton is the Cecil H. Green Chair of Engineering and executive director of the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security. MacFarlane is the Bobby B. Lyle Centennial Chair in Engineering Entrepreneurship, associate dean for SMU's Engineering Entrepreneurship and executive editor for SMU's Hart Institute for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Grant Money Comes from a Company SMU Helped Inspire

Anametric's Chief Executive Officer Wil Oxford met Thornton in 2014 when the SMU engineer worked on a research grant funded by Oxford's previous cybersecurity company. They enjoyed working together so much that they kept in contact and had frequent talks about quantum informatics and the ramifications that might have on cybersecurity in the future.

"One of those monthly conversations resulted in us filling a whiteboard with some pretty radical ideas, and that whiteboard was the genesis of this new company," said Oxford, who has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science from the University of North Carolina.

The name Anametric stems from a combination of the Greek prefix "ana," which means "without" and "metr," which means "to measure." A key challenge in quantum science is that quantum states generally cannot be measured without destroying them.

Oxford, Thornton and MacFarlane already have filed seven US patents on advances that the group is pioneering, and Oxford expects that this is just the start of a long collaboration with SMU.

Thornton and MacFarlane noted their partnership with Anametric exemplifies the way engineering should work, but doesn't always.

"Both Engineering Entrepreneurship and the Hart Institute for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship seek to bolster economic development in the region by increasing the number of sophisticated companies based on sophisticated technology. In addition, a goal of Lyle's Engineering Entrepreneurship activities is to help SMU faculty increase their relevant research activity by supporting Small Engineering firms, start-ups and the Private Equity/Venture Capital funding communities," MacFarlane said.

"This relationship between Anametric and the Darwin Deason Institute for Cyber Security is a great example of fulfilling the goal of helping SMU faculty to bridge the gap between theory and research in the Deason Institute laboratories to commercial development."

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