An Nvidia co-founder’s latest bet: Making ‘Quantum Valley’ in New York

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s quantum computer sits in a former chapel on campus.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s quantum computer sits in a former chapel on campus.


Curtis Priem is donating more than $75 million to help Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute become a hub for a cutting-edge technology.

TROY, N.Y.—The co-founder of the AI chipmaker Nvidia said he chose to study at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the late 1970s because it had a state-of-the-art mainframe computer. Now, he is betting that a quantum computer at his alma mater could reinvigorate the region.

Curtis Priem, 64 years old, is donating more than $75 million so RPI can have a quantum-computing system made by International Business Machines—making it the first such device on a university campus anywhere in the world.

Priem spent a decade as Nvidia’s chief technology officer. While he cashed out well before the company’s valuation topped $2 trillion, he amassed a large enough fortune to fund multimillion-dollar gifts to educational and other causes.

The goal of his latest bet is to establish New York’s Hudson Valley as an epicenter of quantum-computing research in the country, he said. His vision is to create a critical mass of talent that will lead to spinoff businesses. While school and regional officials share his optimism, the task might be tricky in an upstate New York city whose former industrial primacy faded with the detachable shirt collar.

“We’ve renamed Hudson Valley as Quantum Valley," Priem said in an interview. “It’s up to New York whether they want to become Silicon State—not just a valley."

Priem was working at Sun Microsystems in 1993 when he met two friends, Jensen Huang and Chris Malachowsky, at a Denny’s restaurant in Silicon Valley. They came up with the idea for a graphics processor that would become Nvidia’s core product. Priem is credited with developing the chip’s architecture.

He left Nvidia in 2003 and sold most of his shares over the next few years, with the money going to a family foundation. Priem now lives on a secluded ranch in California where he said his cattle sometimes break through the fence and drink from the swimming pool. The current gift to RPI will effectively use up his foundation’s resources, he said.

Today’s classical computers use binary digits, or bits, which can either be zero or one. Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, which represent and store information in a quantum state that is a complex mix of zero and one.

While quantum computers today are far from ready for large-scale commercial operation, they could be useful in tackling questions in natural materials and chemistry and even breaking the public-key cryptography used to secure the internet.

RPI has now installed an IBM Quantum System One device with 127 qubits. The school will spend $15 million a year to rent the computer, covered by Priem, and it will be upgraded to a more advanced system in several years.

Qubits need to be extremely cold to stay in a quantum state, so the physical machine includes a cryostat that keeps them about 0.015 degree Kelvin—about 1/200th of the temperature of outer space. The shiny cylinder is surrounded by museum-quality glass and sits in the transept of a former chapel, watched over by a quartet of stained-glass saints.

“Everybody will have access to it," said RPI President Martin Schmidt. “We’ll start integrating how one uses a quantum computer into the curriculum."

While IBM offers access to similar quantum computers through the cloud, having a system on campus will let students and researchers test their code without having to wait hours—or even days—to see the results. A fast turnaround is a precursor to innovating, Schmidt said.

Quantum computers are still relatively rare because the technology is young. IBM has set up around 70 quantum-computing systems around the world in the past eight years, according to a spokeswoman. Schmidt said he hoped the system would attract students and faculty.

Priem said Silicon Valley has become “social app valley" dominated by such companies as Meta Platforms and Google and said he saw more innovative work taking place in New York. He pointed to the Albany NanoTech Complex, where semiconductor companies develop new chip technologies.

State officials last year announced funding to buy chip-making equipment from ASML Holding, a Dutch company whose machines can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and are essential to making the most advanced chips possible.

New York is home to a number of large chip factories, including ones operated by GlobalFoundries, ON Semiconductor and Wolfspeed. Micron Technology is planning to invest up to $100 billion in a large factory near Syracuse, and was recently awarded $6.1 billion in funding from the 2022 Chips Act. That legislation included $11 billion for a National Semiconductor Technology Center to foster domestic chip research and development.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, who represents the Capital Region, said he hoped the presence of the quantum computer would add “another layering of justification" to the region’s push to become the NSTC headquarters. The Commerce Department designated areas in Colorado and Illinois as tech hubs for quantum, and boosters in both places are vying for federal funding for quantum research.

Situated on the east bank of the Hudson River about 160 miles north of New York City, Troy was a major manufacturing center in the 19th century. Henry Burden automated the process for making horseshoes, powered by water from a creek that plunges downhill into the river.

P. Thomas Carroll, a technology historian, called it “the Silicon Valley of the 19th century," where industrial innovations, such as some of the nation’s first steel production, brought wealth. Victorian homes and institutions from this era give the city a unique charm, and downtown streets have recently served as the backdrop to HBO’s “The Gilded Age" series.

The city’s population has declined from its peak in the early 20th century, and the region’s largest employers are hospitals and state government. Scott Lincicome, vice president of general economics at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said it is rare that a single investment would transform a region. Clustering effects depend upon other factors including natural resources and the existing labor force.

“If this quantum computer turns out to be amazing, maybe you have that gravitational pull. But the likelihood of spillovers is less," he said, referring to new businesses that officials are hoping for.

RPI students are just beginning to play with the quantum computer. On a recent Wednesday, a dozen students in the Quantum Computing Club gathered in a windowless classroom for a demonstration on how to run programs on the machine.

“A really important skill is learning how to create little toy problems to actually test bigger concepts," explained Michael Papadopoulos, a co-founder of the club. He hopes to get a Ph.D., studying the limits of quantum computing. Having the machine on campus makes staying at RPI a real possibility.

Queenie Sun, 20, came to RPI from Worcester, Mass. She said she has caught the quantum bug and wants to work on reducing errors with the machines.

“I’ll go wherever quantum goes, and if that ends up being this area, totally," Sun said.

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