Professor Coenrad Fourie is proof that necessity is the mother of invention. What began as a stumbling block during the research phase of his PhD at Stellenbosch University later resulted in InductEx. This is a pioneering set of engineering methods and software tools that has changed the global landscape of superconducting and quantum circuit design.
“I had no idea that my growing interest in superconducting circuits in the final year of my BEng degree in 1998 would lead to such an exciting, varied and innovative career,” explains Fourie, who is now a professor of engineering at Stellenbosch University.
“At a time when state-of-the-art computers worked at only 300 MHz, I was simply excited about developing superconducting circuits that could operate a thousand times faster!” It was during his PhD that Fourie faced the challenge of cooling his circuits to -269 degrees C for them to work. At the time, there were no proper software design tools – a frustration Fourie discovered was shared by superconducting circuit designers around the world.
Fourie chose to shift his focus to developing what would become InductEx – software design tools that would make the completion of his research possible.
“Once I’d completed my PhD, I began visiting various research laboratories in Europe and noticed that InductEx could handle more complex circuit structures than their current tools,” says Fourie. “That encouraged me to develop it further, and to later release a fine-tuned ‘freeware version’ to the international community.”
The response to InductEx was undeniably positive, and paved the way for its redesign into a commercially viable product with licensing capabilities. The resulting product is now sold globally through Sun Magnetics (Pty) Ltd, a spinoff company of Stellenbosch University.
InductEx has become widely used by industry and computing giants around the world, including IBM and the world’s leading metrology institute in Colorado, USA. “It really is a work in progress,” says Fourie. “The product suite is continually expanding to help customers design quantum and superconducting systems that would not be possible without it.
“It is also gratifying to hear that InductEx has become widely known as a ‘national success story’, serving as a model for other innovative research projects at South African universities to commercialise their products without resorting to venture capital investments.”
The numbers also stack up, with licence sales approaching R2 million a year after just two years. These funds are largely derived from international communities and translate to a direct influx of much-needed foreign currency into South Africa. Sun Magnetics (Pty) Ltd already pays dividends to both the founders and Stellenbosch University. The dividends are projected to grow and reach the R5-million to R10-million revenue bracket over the next three years. “I have always wanted to make an international impact,” concludes Fourie. “It is heartwarming to hear international researchers at the top of their field thank our team for delivering research, tools and results that further their research and careers. Knowing that our work spurs global progress is, undoubtedly, the most rewarding part of all our efforts.”