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Posted: February 01, 2009

Small biz tech-startup: ColdQuanta Inc.

Tech startup of the month

Eric Peterson

INITIAL LIGHT BULB: A fellow at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, a collaboration of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, Dana Z. Anderson worked with the 1995 Nobel Laureates in physics. He helped prove an old Einstein theory correct: At very cold temperatures – just a millionth of a degree or so above Absolute Zero – gas condenses into a “quantum state” and behaves like a single atom.

After selling his California-based software company in 1999, Rainer Kunz became interested in physics and wanted his next startup to be rooted in that world. A former software entrepreneur, Kunz moved to Boulder in 2001 and met Anderson’s wife in 2004. “I actually met his wife at our kids’ science fair,” Kunz says. “We got to talking and she said, ‘You’ve got to talk to my husband.’ We met by total coincidence.” Through that serendipitous meeting, Anderson and Kunz decided it was a bit early to think about commercializing ultracold technology. “We put it on ice and started talking again in 2006,” Kunz says.

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Rainer Kunz

The duo launched ColdQuanta the next year. Kunz is the company’s president and CEO; Anderson is CTO. Two other co-founders who are also scientists and professors, Munich-based Theodor Hänsch, who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize for physics, and Jakob Reichel in Paris, are now scientific advisers. The eight-employee company is in the process of setting up a lab at a new office.

IN A NUTSHELL: ColdQuanta provides tools to researchers studying ultracold atoms. “You cool down atoms with lasers, and you can actually condense matter into a cloud,” says Kunz. “The atoms actually lose their gas-like properties. Suddenly this cloud of atoms behaves like a single atom. We are the first company to commercialize it.” In December, ColdQuanta shipped its first product, dubbed the RuBECi, to a federal lab, less than two years after the company incorporated. Priced at $35,000 for the research lab market, the RuBECi produces an ultracold condensate on what is called an “atom chip.” A second RuBECi was slated to be delivered to the University of Rochester in New  York in January. Explains Kunz: “It gives you the ability to produce very cold atoms on a very small scale.” Smaller and less expensive than the room-sized systems that researchers have built for their own labs, the device allows scientists to cut 15-month setup times in half. “If you’re building your own, you’ll never get anywhere,” Kunz says. “We take a big part of the hard work out of it.”

Beyond the research market, Kunz sees opportunities for ColdQuanta’s technology in atomic clocks and precision instrumentation and navigation systems, then “unimaginable applications” that will emerge from future research.

THE MARKET: ColdQuanta’s initial market is government and university research labs, followed by Honeywell and other manufacturers of precision navigation systems for the aerospace industry. “Initially, the research world is big enough to sustain us,” Kunz says. Later, he sees ColdQuanta targeting major corporations involved in navigation and instrumentation — and ultimately emerging as an attractive acquisition for one of them. “It’s a well-known market and we know who those companies are,” he says.

FINANCING: The founders self-financed the launch with the help of private investors, and the CU-Boulder Tech Transfer Office invested $100,000. Kunz says the company is currently pursuing additional private investors to accelerate the setup of the company’s new lab in Boulder, but he does not want ColdQuanta to grow too rapidly. “We want to keep the company in our control, and we’ll grow a little bit slower because of that,” he says.

where: BOULDER   |  FOUNDED: 2007  |  www.coldquanta.com

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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