Academic research towards quantum computing and other quantum technologies is beginning to pay dividends, but continued progress will rely on strong cooperation between academic, industry and government partners.
The advent of quantum computing will have momentous implications but for the industry to truly flourish, work must be done to support its fledgling spinouts.
According to CB Insights, only four emerging quantum computing companies had raised more than $50m in venture funding as of July 2019. Although overall deal count rose more than 200% over six years to 24 in 2018, GCV Analytics data suggests very few have corporate backers.
These figures belie the enormous potential of next-generation quantum technologies, not just with regards to computing, but also in materials, sensors and communications – known collectively as Quantum 2.0.
There is palpable anticipation from industry in drug design, aerospace and data analytics, among other areas, where quantum computing technology could reel through masses of information to great effect.
A general-purpose quantum computer (QC) is potentially decades away, but powerful systems could materialise sooner from “fault-corrected” technology: executing specific tasks by using software to correct noisy, imperfect quantum machines.
With their extensive pedigree in quantum sciences, universities are set to helm this revolution, however, the stern technical challenge means their commercialisation play must be carefully considered.
It is difficult to comprehend just how tough QC is without first outlining the quantum mechanical theory of entanglement, which, essentially, proves two entangled particles will behave in tandem even if they lay distances apart.
Empowered by quantum bits – known as qubits – QCs is expected to leverage entanglement and a quantum mechanical state called superposition to probe near-infinite possibilities in situations where today’s most powerful supercomputers would stall in perpetuity.
Elaine Loukes, an investment director for physical sciences on the seed funds team at Cambridge Enterprise, the university’s tech transfer arm, said: “Even the most powerful classical computers do not have the processing power to model complex physical systems; if you want to get the information in a realistic time period (minutes rather than billions of years), then you will simply not get the accuracy.”
Although prototype QCs contain an increasing number of qubits, many magnitudes more are needed, and with greater stability, to reach the ultimate objective of fault-tolerant, universal QC technology.
But we are certainly drawing closer. Last week, technology conglomerate Alphabet’s Google subsidiary claimed its 53-qubit QC had performed a pure random number generator validity test uncalculable by binary supercomputers in just 200 seconds, achieving a landmark known as “quantum supremacy” in a paper published in scienfitic journal Nature.
Google’s achievement, while questioned by some peers, is all the more impressive when you remember the complexities involved. Consider for instance that QCs function improperly once their qubits have been observed, leaving our computations wholly dependent on estimated probabilities, due to quantum mechanics.
“I always say quantum computing is not for those interested in a fast return with little effort. There are still lots of obstacles to overcome, but the potential is enormous and there has definitely been substantial progress in recent years which is in many aspects staggering.” said Marco Palumbo, senior licensing and ventures manager at Oxford University Innovation, the university’s tech transfer office. “10 to 15 years ago I would have told you to forget about quantum computing, but today I see them as a very realistic prospect.”
“There are very early stage machines you could use today if you wanted and possibly some hybrid solutions will be out in the medium-to-short term, but a fully-functioning universal quantum computer will, in my opinion, take at least 15 to 20 years – we shall see.”
Most prototypes are only fleetingly accurate before their computations begin to deviate – but this can be overcome with hybrid quantum-classical models, which fuse functioning qubits with emulators of the technology on binary supercomputers. The early signs for these hybrid QCs are encouraging, with several software-led spinouts in the field having unveiled funding in recent months.
University of Cambridge quantum software spinout Riverlane is confident its algorithms would spare months of manual lab work expended on routine biotech experiments, by optimising scientific investigations of drug-protein interactions and materials.
Founded by Steve Brierley, a former Cambridge senior research fellow in applied mathematics, the spinout recently raised a seed round of $4.3m from Cambridge Enterprise, Cambridge Innovation Capital and Amadeus Capital Partners.
“The quantum computers at the moment are between 50 and 100 qubits and that is not enough to run these algorithms, however Riverlane have developed an emulator which can run their software on classical systems demonstrating their quantum algorithms are viable and have demonstrable benefits in computing power and speed,” Loukes said. “So, although I think we are probably a decade away from a commercial quantum computer, we are actually developing and validating the Riverlane software and its advantages now.”
Elsewhere, Harvard University-founded Aliro Technologies is working on a hardware-agnostic software engine that would ease the development path for any hybrid quantum system, making quantum computing markedly more accessible. The company, which recently raised $2.7m of seed funding from investors including Q Fund – a vehicle owned by consumer electronics producer Samsung’s early-stage investment unit Next, was co-founded by Prineha Narang, an assistant professor of computational materials science whose research has won multiple awards.
Other software developers have built corrective algorithms to reduce decoherence in the earliest QC machines. University of Sydney’s Q-Ctrl is working on these lines, having raised $15m of series A capital in a September 2019 round described as making Q-Ctrl one of the 10 most successful quantum fundraisers globally. Its algorithms underpin the cloud-based Black Opal platform, a visual interface aiding software builds for noisy QC systems.
Built on a decade’s prior research championed by Michael Biercuk, director of University of Sydney’s Quantum Control Laboratory, Q-Ctrl received strong support from Main Sequence Ventures, the VC firm owned by Australian research agency Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which backed its seed round in 2017 and series A.
Whatever the solution, quantum computing’s inherent intricacies require the finest scientific research, and that makes the availability of patient capital especially important.
CVCs will form part of the answer if academia can make corporate backers congenial to investing, by fielding outstanding business proposals that are perceptive of industry priorities.
Further proof this is possible has come from QC software developer Zapata Computing, a Harvard University spinout. The company’s $21m series A earlier this year attracted CVC vehicles for chemicals producer BASF, industrial technology and appliance supplier Robert Bosch and mass media conglomerate Comcast, as well as The Engine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s tough tech incubator.
Markus Solibieda, managing director of BASF Venture Capital, expects Zapata software will soon become the requirement for businesses hoping to glean advantage across multiple sectors, adding that preliminary QCs could be executing optimisation and machine learning tasks within one-to-three years.
BASF has a solid strategic rationale for its investment: quantum computing’s ability to expediently analyse sundry combinations is perhaps one of the more impactful routes to digitising its chemical manufacturing operation.
“From my point of view, quantum computing will enable BASF to investigate complex questions more efficiently,” Solibieda said. “Furthermore, it will shorten process times, for example, the time it takes to launch very new products.”
While the maturation of quantum software is edging forward, there remains the arduous task of finding a fabrication method to produce robust QC units.
Achieving scale is a major bottleneck. To function, each qubit needs extensive wiring, creating a spiralling farrago of connections that, with more powerful machines, can only propagate further.
Many believe the answer lies in superconducting circuits, which have no resistance when cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Among those pursuing this line of enquiry is SeeQC.EU, a spinout of superconducting systems producer Hypres with roots in the European innovation ecosystem.
Matthew Hutchings, co-founder and chief product officer at SeeQC, said: “SeeQC.EU is essentially creating a digital controller for qubits and quantum computing systems. If you look at the early age of classical computing, it was recognised it would be difficult to scale if every additional bit resulted in an increased number of wires. Removing this bottleneck will enable quantum systems to scale. That is what we believe our superconducting circuits can do for quantum computing.”
SeeQC.EU’s academic alliances include R&D labs at University of Naples’s Monte Sant’Angelo campus dedicated to superconducting quantum technologies, in addition to foundry partnerships with Royal Holloway University of London and University of Glasgow.
Hutchings said: “Universities are very important. Although we are building a commercial product and cannot rely solely on academic institutions, there are a number of difficult challenges that need to be resolved to build larger and more effective quantum computers.
“This is where academic involvement is highly valuable – if we can build a commercial quantum computer, the question is how we can improve that by taking on board future advancements. We want to be closely aligned with academia as it starts to develop this next-generation technology.”
Britain’s quantum edge
Governments are pouring billions into the quantum revolution, creating frequent opportunities for universities with capacity in the field.
Within the industry, the UK’s approach is well-regarded. Its National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP) has received $1.1bn in government funding since 2013, including up to $402m committed in 2018 and a further $193m announced in June this year.
That foresight has seemingly paid off in terms of deal flow, with more than 30 quantum tech businesses with academic links forged since NQTP was founded, aided by partnerships which include 26 universities, according to the Financial Times.
The UK now boasts four quantum tech hubs, each pooling researchers and industry to probe Quantum 2.0 use-cases – in sensors and metrology, quantum-enhanced imaging, network quantum information technologies and quantum communications.
Each hub has multiple university participants and is notable for fostering partnerships between institutions rather than rivalries, ultimately bringing more academic quantum research to the fore. There are also plans for a National Quantum Computing Centre to work towards general-purpose quantum computing machines.
Olivia Nicoletti, commercialisation manager at Cambridge Enterprise, said: “Quantum technology is a nascent industry. It will require collaboration not only within the Cambridge quantum technology scene, which includes spinouts Riverlane and NuQuantum, but also at a national and international level. Universities, investors and corporations will all play significant roles in the growth of this sector. This is an area where Cambridge and the UK have a strong focus and can contribute significantly.”
Andrew Collins, enterprise director at University of Bristol’s Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC), a fellowship-styled accelerator formed under the NQTP’s EPSRC-funded systems engineering skills and training remit, affirmed that his program’s output dovetailed with the wider national strategy.
“Both as an incubator as an accelerator, we are set up to help the whole of the national program, though it is certainly true that it is Bristol-based and that Bristol has a fantastically strong department, and that makes external partners feel confident when they come here that we know what we are talking about.”
There are very few quantum business programs as sophisticated as QTEC, which has blazed a trail for the UK’s grassroots innovation landscape. Geared towards postdoctoral scientists, the program provides business coaching and help to validate their concepts over a year-long curriculum.
Some complete the program concurrently with their PhD, but the principal objective is enticing more scientists out from the lab to found quantum businesses, by equipping them with vital expertise. Now in its third cohort, QTEC has incubated 17 companies to date.
GUV attended the incubator’s recent investor day to witness its latest graduates pitch for cheques sized between $123,500 and above $1.2m. Its grant budget is enough to support one further batch and its remit is increasingly moving beyond quantum to support a wider range of deep technologies.
University of Bristol’s reputation has certainly benefited, and that has led to further government funding, with about £35m ($43.1m) in active grants available to the institution at present for quantum-related projects.
It is now rolling out a new 3,500 square metre Quantum Technology Innovation Centre (QTIC) providing pay-as-you-go facilities and access to a diverse cast of quantum tech and business support to developers that may have outgrown formal tech transfer assistance, of particular relevance to quantum startups facing considerable facilities expenses and skills shortages.
Mustafa Rampuri, a senior program manager for research and innovation at University of Bristol, said: “The market failure we see is that it is very expensive to translate new technologies emerging from research through to a commercial product. So, the centre will seek to provide access to facilities, equipment and technical support so these new businesses can rapidly get off the ground in an affordable way.”
“One of the challenges we have seen is the difficulty raising VC investment for the high-risk quantum startups that are hardware-based. So, this is a way of helping derisk the companies so they are not burdened with the sunk costs of acquiring expensive equipment, they can hire equipment as part of the QTIC package.”
With its collaborative spirit, the NQTP is yielding yet more quantum spinouts. University of Cambridge’s recent pipeline includes photon detector spinout and QTEC graduate NuQuantum, which successfully pitched for $840,000 at the aforementioned investor’s day, having already raised pre-seed funding.
Carmen Palacios-Berraquero, chief executive of NuQuantum, said: “This is a cutting-edge research environment in which we have developed our intellectual property for a number of years, and so we have no doubt benefited from it, from the different UK and European funding arrangements and quantum partnerships. Cambridge is probably one of the best places in the UK and Europe for startups – not only because of the university but the whole environment.”
University of Oxford’s ecosystem is also well-equipped, Palumbo said, providing a “full repertoire” of tools for building quantum-driven products, though he noted the university’s strengths lay especially in hardware development.
He added: “If you can name a qubit architecture, we probably have someone in a lab somewhere working on it.
The theoretical aspect and understanding of quantum computing is also well developed. Oxford is possibly less strong in quantum computing software development, but I see some interesting collaboration developing on that front as well.
“[The strength of the regional ecosystem] is important, obviously, or it would all stay on a drawing board or a PowerPoint presentation. You cannot improvise yourself as a leading centre for quantum technologies from one day to another. It takes years, lots of clever people and money.”
NuQuantum is focused on Quantum 2.0’s most pressing ethical dilemma: effectively protecting communications during the quantum age.
Classical encryption will be compromised once fault-tolerant quantum machines become available, rendered useless by advanced algorithms which expediently crack cyphers such as prime number equations, jeopardising critical information stored over the course of several decades.
Palacios-Berraquero noted one of the keys to robust quantum security, and indeed any quantum hardware, laid in accurately sourcing and detecting single-photon states to send down communication channels. That way, due to quantum mechanics, an indelible mark will result from any interference.
NuQuantum expects its single-photon detectors to remain operational at room temperature, Palacios-Berraquero said, a key contrast with quantum technologies that rely on expensive, cryogenic cooling.
While that could put a number of applications in the frame – the company recognises an opportunity in delivering low-light imagery for autonomous vehicles, for instance – the urgent need in cybersecurity makes a particularly compelling use-case.
“Once you have a universal quantum computer, or perhaps an intermediate machine some way towards it, data stolen years or decades ago may be decrypted in a reasonable amount of time,” Palacios-Berraquero said. “Quantum cryptography is the solution because the security of the data does not rely on mathematics or computational power. It relies on how you share the secret key, how you send it from one party to the other, giving both parties a secret channel within which they can communicate. Crucially, none of that relies on a mathematical calculation.”
University of Bristol’s Kets Quantum Security has also taken a hardware-led approach, though its director of operations Caroline Clark indicated the eventual end goal might leverage a combination of hardware and software to create complete, quantum-secured products.
Founded in 2016 by four members of University of Bristol’s Quantum Engineering Technology Labs – Philip Sibson, Jake Kennard and Chris Erven and Mark Thompson – the company ultimately wants to fit its technology onto a single chip, using materials such as silicon that can be fabricated at existing plants. Kets already has functional prototypes of its products and now aims to minimise their form factor, with the support of industry partners which include telecoms firm BT and aerospace firm Airbus.
Clark said: “The chips are about the size of your little fingernail. They are similar to the electronic chips in your phone – they are made with the same kind of technology in silicon foundries – but instead of electronics running around in them, it is light. You generate light into one side which then travels through the chip in special circuits that establish the quantum states, outputting ones and zeroes in the form of encrypted photons.
“We have probably got it down to two-or-three circuit boards that control the technology now, but the next level would be to reduce that to one board which looks like a graphic card.
The card could be plugged into the computer with an optical fibre connection, just like broadband, to exchange the security keys between the two parties.”
Despite academia’s strong record in quantum research, Hutchings predicted licensing arrangements would be preferred to equity spinouts for many new inventions.
Tech transfer offices less versed in flexible IP and equity policies risk deterring follow-on investors by exacerbating risk, he argued, spelling trouble for QC spinouts with tough go-to-market trajectories.
“Academia is a source of excellence and intelligence – that is also their role in quantum, providing good, new ideas, but I think they are more likely to benefit from that through licensing of IP rather than creating spinouts. Though licensing IP comes with its own challenges,” Hutchings said. “From a European perspective, I think a couple of things could be tweaked to make it easier for companies to exploit IP and, if they want spinouts, it must be easier for a business to be spun out of their home university.”
Tie in the concerted government interest and this feels like fertile ground for industry-academia partnerships that push the paradigm forward while exposing academic quantum talent to relevant market resources and acumen.
Take the QuTech quantum research hub, a public-private partnership incorporating TU Delft, research body Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research and industry affiliates including chipset maker Intel and software publisher Microsoft.
Projected to double in headcount over coming years, QuTech gives industry access to frontier research from academic investigators in areas including topological qubits, a purely hypothetical approach that, if realised, would yield massive performance advances.
Monika Lischke, communications manager at Intel, said QuTech and similar partnerships augmented Intel’s expertise as it looked to devise viable quantum computing systems.
While QuTech and others keep Intel abreast of deep quantum research, scientists can access its quantum systems over the cloud, where they will act as co-processors, Lischke said.
“Keep in mind, it is going to take a massive amount of computing power to design, model, build and operate these systems,” she said. “Joint research being conducted with QuTech and others builds upward from quantum devices to include mechanisms such as error correction, hardware- and software-based control mechanisms, and approaches and tools for developing quantum applications.
“Our roots in process technology engineering put us in a unique position to help advance quantum computing toward true commercialisation. We also believe we have the best academic partners in QuTech and other quantum computing researchers around the world.”
Itaru Kobayashi, from the media relations team at electronics manufacturer Toshiba, confirmed academia was instrumental to its future R&D plans.
Toshiba launched the UK’s first “quantum-secured” communications with University of Cambridge, within reach of its Cambridge Research Laboratory. In its home market, the corporate has aligned with University of Tokyo to develop machines that rely on quantum behaviour visible to the naked eye, a discipline known as macroscopic quantum science.
Elsewhere, technology firm IBM is collaborating with more than 75 organisations in its IBM Q Network ecosystems, which also includes academic institutions, industry partners, startups and government-funded research labs.
Joining Q Network provides cloud-based access to IBM’s commercial quantum systems, expertise and resources, and the corporation believes embracing co-operation on a deep level is pivotal to delivering applications with significant, practical benefits beyond the capabilities of classical computers alone, according to Robert Loredo, Watson-in-Support product lead at IBM and an ambassador for the Q Network.
Loredo said: “It is a bit like if everyone in the 1950s had five to 10 years to prepare for the mainframe while they were still prototypes. Applications with a ‘quantum advantage’ are still a few years away, but now is the time to get ‘quantum ready’ and begin exploring what we can do with quantum computers across a variety of potential applications and industries.”
University of Colorado Boulder was added to IBM Q Network in April 2019, months after the launch of its CUbit Quantum Initiative linking internal university R&D with other schools and national quantum labs.
Stephen ONeil, the initiative’s executive director, was confident of the university making headway, having created CUbit as an entry point for quantum research that includes a partnership with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He said: “If it is not currently feasible to do drug design, general computing or high-volume secure communications by quantum technologies, that does not mean we stop and wait. In both university labs and corporate research departments, scientists and engineers are always pushing the edges even, and especially, when those edges are far from an idealised end goal.
“To scale up substantially, we need to identify new, or refine old, qubit platforms (trapped atoms or ions, and so on) that are easily partnered in large numbers, are reliably set and quantum mechanically entangled and, once entangled, are stable against random degradation from their siblings and the environment at economically achievable low temperatures […]
“So, we need advances in materials, integrated photonics, low-temperature technologies and, in fits and starts, we need to learn a lot about how to skirt the barriers that nature uses to hide her interesting secrets.”
Quantum computing should not overshadow the rest of Quantum 2.0, as fascinating as it is. Parallel research is taking place in quantum metrology, materials and communications, each with its own goals and hurdles, and each with potential long-term impact comparable to that of quantum computing.
“To neglect the other two, or three, components in the quantum revolution is to potentially miss technological advances of equal significance,” ONeil said.
Quantum-based technologies have a slate of non-quantum computing applications, invigorating the ecosystem with medium-term relevance to investors. For example, health diagnostic tools with quantum-grade fidelity could put the industry on the radar of healthcare CVCs, which have historically focused on their own space.
Reducing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one potentially lucrative use-case. Spawned from University of Bristol and the QTEC incubator, Fluoretiq is working on quantum sensors that apply individual fluorescent photons to physiological samples to identify specific species of bacteria.
The technology would provide rapid and accurate diagnosis of bacterial infections within 15 minutes, helping clinicians select effective antibiotics at the earliest opportunity.
Neciah Dorh, co-founder and chief executive of Fluoretiq, said: “The company is exploring strategic partnerships to further develop the application space and launch into the global in-vitro diagnostics market. We are currently targeting urinary tract infections with ambitions to address AMR in a growing patient population that regularly receive ineffective or unnecessarily prescribed antibiotics. Industry partnerships are especially important to our roadmap, as we see collaboration as a means of getting access to the marketplace and strengthening our proposition.
“The connection to University of Bristol has been tremendously useful – we got our start within QTEC, enjoy a great working relationship with the university’s tech transfer office, RED, and we continue to collaborate with several other labs within University of Bristol.”
Others focused on quantum sensors include University of Oxford-founded Oxford HighQ, which is building nanoparticle analysers capable of gauging the wavelength shift of samples rather than their attenuation.
HighQ’s sensors trap light in micrometre-sized optical recesses to force operation on the relevant optical wavelength, facilitating target applications including nanoparticle and chemical characterisation.
All this innovation is accentuated by the fact no major economy wants to lose out in the quantum revolution.
China has upped the ante with plans for a behemoth quantum laboratory in Hefei, a move no doubt occupying the minds of US policymakers, who approved a $1.2bn national impetus package last year. In an influential paper last year for the Center for a New American Security, authors Elsa Kania and John Costello wrote that “China is positioning itself as a powerhouse in quantum science. At the highest levels, China’s leaders recognise the strategic potential of quantum science and technology to enhance economic and military dimensions of national power.
“These quantum ambitions are intertwined with China’s national strategic objective to become a science and technology superpower.”
Its leading institution in this field is University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), based in Hefei near Shanghai. Xi Jinping visited USTC in 2016, where he met with Pan Jianwei, the schools’ vice-president and China’s “father of quantum” after he returned to the country having studied at the universities of Vienna and Heidelberg about 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, a golden opportunity has arguably arisen for Europe, long burdened by the perception it has lagged in the innovation stakes.
See-QC’s Hutchings said “fantastic” scope for European quantum developers potentially lay in a number of niche markets, adding: “The US is not that far ahead – we are some way from a commercially-useful quantum computer – so Europe has room to make a big impact.
“This might be in specific niches and certain areas. For example, Europe could take a stand in the quality fabrication of qubits – they already have fantastic foundry services. If there is a push towards foundry services for superconducting quantum technology, then the EU could play a valuable role with even US companies having to come to Europe to access the manufacturing of good quality qubits.”
However, he cautioned more central funds would be needed for the EU to truly “take hold” of the technology and convince more risk-averse partners to the table.
“They have already invested a lot, but it is going to need a lot more. We know there is a pull [for industry] from the companies with interest and for whom quantum may disrupt business, but we want to see government support to work with industry to de-risk their involvement in these highly-disruptive, high-risk technologies.”
With relations between China and the US at a recent low – and cybersecurity has played its role – it is tempting to focus on the geopolitical element to present the quantum race in a Cold War-esque narrative.
But there may be enough room for all to benefit. In the Financial Times recently, Imperial College London’s provost of experimental physics, Ian Walmsley, predicted the UK’s strengths in quantum computing would be enriched by the “global nature of science and innovation,” as ideas are exchanged by scientists moving across borders.
Quantum is no zero-sum game, Walmsley maintained. With China, the US and Germany among others now competing in earnest, the invention of commercially-viable quantum systems may come sooner than anticipated – changing the paradigm for good. Last month, IBM joined forces with Fraunhofer Society to explore the potential of quantum computing, backed by a government plan to invest €650m ($717m) over two years in wider research in the field.
The road ahead
The quantum age might be on the horizon but there are precious few shortcuts to market, and academia will be crucial to its maturation given the onerous scientific and engineering requirements.
A virtuous loop of government funding potentially awaits institutions with reputed quantum centres, enabling them to take on additional projects and join forces with global industry names to establish a foothold in the space.
A broad spectrum of quantum-powered technologies is set for impact in the medium-term, bolstering the health of the overall ecosystem. In terms of quantum computing, spinouts are becoming more viable with the validation of hybrid quantum computing products and an environment that fosters co-operation.