Zero Point Cryogenics closes deal involving National Research Council

· The Pulse

Zero Point Cryogenics has been awarded a contract to build an ultra-low temperature dilution refrigerator — a piece of equipment that enables researchers to explore the possibilities of quantum technology — for testing by the National Research Council of Canada.

It's a deal that will help the Edmonton-based company catapult to the next level, said CEO Christopher Cassin.

"It is a huge opportunity to showcase deep-tech for Alberta and for us as an organization," he said. "To have trust in us all the way up to the federal government, it's an honour."

The test will be funded through the Innovative Solutions Canada Testing Stream program, which partners with small and medium-sized Canadian businesses to award contracts to innovators who are developing novel solutions. The contract was awarded by Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Dilution refrigerators cost $500,000 to $2.5 million, Cassin said. The customers are big — academic institutions, government labs, or quantum computing companies — and the sales cycle is long. But a federal contract makes it a lot easier to go to the bank for the kinds of resources the company needs to keep growing.

"We are hiring, we are selling, and we are growing," Cassin said. "And we're building systems," added chief technical officer John P. Davis, who co-founded the company in 2017 at the University of Alberta and spun it out into its own space in 2021.

Davis, a physicist who has been studying the effects of ultra-low temperatures for decades, caught the entrepreneurial bug as he noticed that more and more of his students were entering industry instead of academia. "I started diving deeper and deeper into entrepreneurship ... to better help train my graduate students for their future careers," he said.

Grant applications tended to ask how his research would diversify the economy or otherwise benefit Alberta.

"I took that question very seriously," he said. "I started asking myself, how could we turn what we do in the lab into a business? What we decided was it wasn't really the research we do that we could commercialize. But it was the tools we use to do our research that we could commercialize."

Christopher Cassin and John P. Davis smile beside a furnace-sized box attached to a stand with pipes feeding into a cylinder

CEO Christopher Cassin and CTO John P. Davis of Zero Point Cryogenics have been awarded a contract to build a dilution refrigerator for testing by the National Research Council. Their company manufactures the devices in south Edmonton. (Zero Point Cryogenics/Facebook)

A dilution refrigerator is essential to quantum research because it's the thing that removes thermal energy, which changes what goes on at the subatomic level.

"You'll attach your quantum processor to a dilution refrigerator to cool it down and to access these low temperatures and allow, for example, for interesting properties like superconductivity, the flow of electrons without resistance, which is critical for a lot of architectures of quantum computers," Davis said.

Notwithstanding the company's name, its refrigerators are actually cryogen-free — that is, they don't use the kind of liquid coolants you might be familiar with from science experiments or fancy cocktails. "Instead, we make dry fridges, or cryogen-free fridges," Davis said. "It'll still allow you to access these ultra-low temperatures, but without any of that hassle. You just plug it in, and you hit go, and it runs."

Providing hassle-free equipment to researchers is a big part of Zero Point's value proposition. Another selling point is that it is Canada's only manufacturer of dilution refrigerators, with most of its competitors in Europe and a big part of its market in the United States, where trade agreements should offer an advantage.

Quantum computing itself is still nascent, but governments are bullish on the possibilities, as seen in projects like Quantum City in Alberta and the federal government's investment of $360 million to launch a National Quantum Strategy. One of its first applications will likely be in cryptography, which makes a secure supply chain important and increases the value of a made-in-Canada solution, Davis said.

Zero Point decided to make as many of its components as possible, dedicating half of its facility at 9773 45 Ave. to a machine shop. That makes it easier to build custom fridges, iterate quickly, and ensure security. It also creates jobs for the kinds of machinists and technicians that NAIT trains as well as the physicists emerging from the U of A.

"It was an expensive decision to build our own machine shop, but I think the right decision in the end," Davis said.

Learn more about how the Zero Point Cryogenics team came together and what's next for their company in the Sept. 29 episode of Bloom, the podcast about innovation in Edmonton.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the dilution refrigerator will be tested by the National Research Council but was funded by the Innovative Solutions Canada Testing Stream program.