The focus of the EU’s €1b Quantum Flagship programme is not basic science, nor is it simply about bringing new technologies to market. The end-goal is driving wealth creation, jobs and societal benefits in Europe. This requires kick-starting the competitive position of European industry in this sector and making Europe the region of choice for ongoing innovative research, business and investments in Quantum Technology. Can it succeed?
The Flagship launched the first 20 projects of its ramp-up phase at the end of 2018. Its inaugural annual conference, EQTC 2019 , in Grenoble was an opportunity to take stock on the progress of the EU’s quantum technology programme so far and the challenges it faces in a period of accelerating quantum activity. This briefing focusses on three questions:
- How is business engaging with the Flagship?
- In what quantum sectors can Europe gain a competitive advantage?
- What challenges does the Flagship face?
Early strategies for big business
A ‘valley of death’ traditionally faces innovations seeking to make the journey from the academic to commercial sector. Public support for pre-prototype demonstrator projects is one tool to remedy this. Another key factor is securing interest and involvement from large established businesses. The Flagship can score as a success the early involvement of several business majors. Three companies prominent at EQTC 2019 illustrate alternative strategies for large companies seeking early engagement with the quantum sector.
The aerospace and defence business Thales has a long experience of high tech R&D and it has been quick to seek to capitalise on its natural affinity with the area of quantum technology closest to market – quantum sensing. Thales was strongly engaged with the initial conception of the Flagship and is now itself co-ordinating the ASTERIQS project. This is bringing a series of sensing applications to market, with Thales itself developing an RF spectrum analyser. It is also involved in the Qombs project where it is seeking to develop quantum cascade lasers for Lidar applications and the SQUARE project where it is providing enabling photonic technology. Having invested the effort of Thales’ senior scientists such as Thierry Debuisschert, Thales stands to benefit not just from the immediate benefits of specific projects, but also from the network of connections it is nurturing across the ecosystem.
The IT services and high performance computing business Atos has seized the initiative in becoming the first major European based business to launch a commercial quantum computing offering, a space that has seemed dominated by the press of the North American majors. The Atos Quantum Learning Machine is a software development and emulation environment, not a quantum computer per se, but this could prove a canny niche and bridge to further activity over the coming 2-3 years. In addition to 9+ academic customers, it is striking that Atos has secured Bayer as its first commercial sector customer. Atos is a partner in the AQTION project which is developing a trapped ion quantum processor. However, its strategy is ultimately quantum hardware agnostic, the experience it gains working on AQTION will be transferable to other devices that may one day act as a NISQ Quantum Accelerator to augment the Atos QLM. Atos is also involved with the PASQuanS project where it is focussed on applications and is co-ordinating a wider group of industry end-users.
The Atos quantum programme also addresses quantum safe cryptography. Here its approach emphasises the maths-based algorithms of the NIST PQC process rather than the QKD based approaches that feature elsewhere in the Flagship programme.
Airbus is another leading European aerospace and defence business with growing activities in Quantum Technology. It is involved as an end-user partner in the PASQuanS project, it has practical experience with D-Wave’s quantum annealing hardware and current activity in the UK includes drone-based QKD trials. However, their big initiative grabbing attention at EQTC was the Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge. This identifies five commercially relevant problems in flight physics that are currently constrained by the limitations of conventional computing power. Airbus wants to work with the community to identify breakthrough approaches to these problems. The ideal outcome will be hybrid solutions that can be realised on NISQ era hardware, however at a minimum Airbus will better understand the strategic timeline of opportunities that quantum computing presents its business. Importantly, through this process Airbus will greatly improve the quantum awareness of its own team and their contacts across the community. So far 292 teams and individuals from 44 countries around the work have registered for the challenge, already a significant impact. Submissions are open until Oct 2019, with awards expected in Q1 2020. The progress of the challenge will be closely watched both within the aerospace sector and beyond. This model is one that players in a number of other industries may choose to follow.
The involvement of big business will provide one route for innovations to cross from the lab into commercial products. Commercial returns are still distant in some sectors, but nearer in others. Competitors may ultimately regret allowing these businesses a head start.
Europe’s quantum ecosystems
Large business alone is not enough to drive a modern developed economy! Long term sustainable success requires an ecosystem spanning research, startups and businesses of all shapes and sizes; each operating in a dynamic and competitive market for labour, goods and services. The history of previous industrial revolutions points to the importance of emerging clusters of economic activity in driving success.
In which areas of the quantum technology value chain can Europe look to secure an advantage?
The manipulation of photon interaction and transmission is a key enabling technology for the wider quantum sector. This is an area of strength for Europe. Flagship projects S2QUIP, 2D-SIPC, Qombs, PhoG and PhoQus have an overt photonic focus, but overall no less than 19 of the initial 20 projects involve photonic technology at some level . This was by far the most developed ecosystem on display at EQCT 2019.
PICs: VLC Photonics, Smart Photonics, VPIphotonics (design),
Single Photon Detection: MPD, Photon Force, PicoQuant, Qutools , SingleQuantum,
Supporting Tech: attocube, Acktar, ppqSense
The photonics industry is already growing rapidly to meet conventional optical networking and optical sensing opportunities. This potent mix of established medium sized businesses and new deep-tech startups suggests that its consolidation may be a lucrative (and lower risk) sub-plot of the Second Quantum Revolution.
Strength in photonics also will promote success in the most closely related areas of quantum technology.
Building on photonic tools, the manipulation of nitrogen vacancy centres in micro and nanofabricated diamonds is a specific quantum technology where the European ecosystem is already advancing. Many European universities have established research groups and commercial startups have already formed. (The fact that the development of this area has been aided by DIADEMS, a previous EU initiative is itself a positive sign for the outlook of current Flagship projects.)
Synthetic diamonds: Element Six (a De Beers company)
Probes/components: SQUTEC, QZabre
Applications: QNAMI, NVision
Project ASTERIQS is a great illustration of the strength and market potential of this sector. the project co-ordinator is Thales and project partners include the De Beers company Element Six, the global leader in high purity synthetic diamonds. Bosch is developing a miniaturised magnetic sensor and an NMR based ‘lab on a chip’. Thales, as already mentioned, is separately developing this same technology as the basis for an RF spectrum analyser for electronic warfare applications.
Project MetaboliQs seeks to further leverage the natural affinity of NV diamond technology with medical applications. Co-ordinated by NVision, this initiative seeks to revolutionise hyperpolarised MRI imaging. The value of this technique is already well established for the prompt diagnosis of heart conditions, but its use is limited by the cost and limitations of conventional equipment. Project partner Bruker is well placed to take the new system to clinical customers.
This is a leading example of an area of quantum technology that is close to market. We can expect to see its profile grow steadily in coming years.
Individual charged ions trapped not in diamond, but by an electric field in a high vacuum is a leading contending qubit technology for quantum computing. Europe is at the forefront of this field, with the Univ. of Innsbruck and the Univ. of Oxford vying with NIST in the US to operate two-qubit quantum gates at levels of fidelity that beat any other platform.
US based IonQ has stolen a march in unveiling the first operational trapped ion quantum computers , but Europe can still expect to be competitive in the medium term development of this technology. Project AQTION is taking its trapped ion technology out of the lab by developing a 50 qubit rack-based system. Project leader Thomas Monz was able to present at EQTC the impressive scaling properties of the new AOM multi-qubit addressing approach his group has implemented. This should be useful both for error correction protocols, and also for NISQ era algorithms. (Given the growing sensitivity of rival fidelity claims, it was pertinent to see Monz referencing the work of Quantum Benchmark in validating his measurement approach).
In parallel, the Flagship MicroQC project continues to refine global microwave field gate technology that also promises to simplify scaling. This approach is expected to be used by UK startup Universal Quantum.
At first glance it may seem that European groups have a long way to go to catch-up with the superconducting qubit headlines generated by IBM, Google, Intel and Alibaba. However this picture is more complex than it seems. IBM Zurich is already a key part of IBM’s quantum network, QUTech has established itself as a gateway for Intel and Microsoft’s research in Europe. Microsoft also has a Quantum Materials lab at the Univ. of Copenhagen. A number of other academic groups in Europe have leading positions in superconducting qubit research. This is not a mature field, with further improvements required in terms of understanding junction surfaces and fabrication patterns, leaving space for a diversity of future contributions.
The OpenSuperQ project brings together the leading experimental expertise in superconducting qubits of Andreas Walraff’s group in ETH Zurich and that of WAQCT in Sweden’s Chalmers Univ. of Technology. Project leader Frank Wilhem-Mauch’s group from Univ. of Saarland brings theoretical clout and a track record of previous collaboration with all the other big names in the field, including the IBM, Google and QUTech groups.
OpenSuperQ’s roadmap to build a 50-100 superconducting qubit device is further strengthened by the presence of experienced commercial partners Zurich Instruments (control electronics) and Bluefors (dilution refrigerators).
Another leading dilution fridge supplier, Oxford Instruments, is a key partner in the QMiCS project. This seeks to demonstrate coherent quantum links between neighbouring dilution fridges for the first time – a significant outstanding milestone on the roadmap to scaling-up cryo-dependant quantum computers.
Wider Cryogenics and Cryo-CMOS
Superconducting qubits require temperatures below 100mK. Other quantum technologies slightly relax the temperature at which they need to operate; photonic circuits and potentially silicon spin qubits can potentially take advantage of the 0.3-1.5K region. Overall Europe is a leader in cryogenic technology, with a wide range of companies supporting the quantum sector.
Oxford Instruments: offers a widely based approach across instrument and control solutions for high technology applications. It has long standing experience with dilution refridgerators (it is reputed to be a supplier to D-Wave).
Bluefors: offers the benefit of a specific focus on cryo technology and is strengthened by its association with QUTech (where it has recently opened an R&D office).
attocube: is bringing its experience with optical-cryo and cryo-friendly nano positioners to the Flagship via project SQUARE.
kiutra: a startup that leverages magnetic cooling rather than the helium-3 commonly used in dilution refrigerators (a significant advantage given the difficulties inherent in the helium-3 supply chain).
ICEoxford: has installed specialist photonics-optimised cryo systems at Univ. of Bristol.
Leading expertise centres in nanofabrication and cryo-CMOS technology include the Quantum Silicon group at Grenoble (CEA-INAC/CRNS-NEEL), CEA Saclay, EPFL and QUTech. In 2018 France’s CEA signed an agreement with Australia’s first quantum computing company, SQC, to develop silicon-CMOS based qubit technology. It will be no surprise if these strong groups win leading roles in the supplementary round of Flagship projects now planned to take forwards silicon spin qubit technology.
IDQ has long been the leading commercial champion of this sector in Europe and has recently been strengthened by investment from SK Telekom.
However, medium term leadership in quantum communications in Europe will be a competitive race. Large Telecom Operators such as Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom and Orange are involved in the CiViQ project to develop telecom infrastructure friendly CV QKD. BT is involved in a similar way in the UK Quantum Network.
While not ready for formal announcement at EQTC 2019, the OpenQKD project was a subject of discussion among delegates. This LEIT project aims to build an ambitious European QKD testbed network spanning Spain, Switzerland and Poland. Participation of all major equipment vendors is anticipated. Quite apart from the practical technology demonstration, the role that this network could play in the standardisation and certification of equipment for the EU’s single market could make it a very significant development. Telefónica in particular is set to benefit from the momentum that this brings to last year’s QKD demonstration in Madrid.
Without disputing the merits of the various projects presented, Fact Based Insight feels that EQTC did betray its current physics-bias in this area. Many projects place too little emphasis on making a balanced and considered case for the role of QKD in conjunction with PQC. At worst, if one simply tries to disparage PQC in general terms, it is strange to then rely on maths-based symmetric crypto for message body encryption (as almost all current practical QKD schemes do). A much more balanced evaluation of the pros and cons by use-case is required.
Surveying the field, Qiang Zhang of USTC, the home of China’s world leading quantum communications programme, reminded the EQTC audience of the need to pragmatically address the side-channel vulnerabilities of real-world QKD systems and the desirability of moving to more advanced protocols. Qiang announced recent work that builds on the innovative TF QKD approach developed by Toshiba in Europe to extend effective QKD range.
All cryptographic protocols need a good source of random numbers, and QRNG devices are another current market opportunity. Project QRANGE is developing a new family of QRNG devices. Notable partners include IDQ, Bosch and the startup Quside.
Trapped Atom Sensors and Clocks
Magnetic sensors based on thermal vapor cells are already available commercially. The Flagship MacQsimal project is taking this further with a range of extended applications from MEGIN (practical medical diagnostic helmets for MEG), Spectratime (miniature atomic clocks for telecoms and space) and Bosch (NMRG for dynamic vehicle control). The near market nature of these developments promises to make this an exciting initiative to follow.
Atomic clocks are another area of European strength. Project iqClock is seeking to bring the latest optical lattice technology from the lab to a deployable device. Project partners include photonics specialists Toptica, NKT Photonics and Acktar, vacuum system supplier Teledyne e2v. Chronos and BT provide an end-use perspective.
However, probably due to the limited funds available, no other major project exploiting cold atom technology was selected for the Flagship ramp-up phase. This is doubly surprising as many of these technologies are also very close to market. A great deal of work is going on in this area and was presented at EQTC via a parallel meeting of the AtomQT COST Action group. Strikingly iXAtom grabbed attention by describing their plans to test their hybrid quantum inertial navigation device on a boat later this year. M-Squared are developing a similar device and are thought to be considering plans for a ‘moving vehicle test’. Interest in such devices is a response to the desire to support navigation in situations where GNSS is unavailable, or may be disrupted by a hostile power.
Analogue Quantum Simulators
Analogue quantum simulators are controlled quantum systems that can be used to model another system or problem of interest. Canada’s D-Wave is the leading example of a commercial device inspired by this philosophy. EQTC 2019 was able to hear Markus Greiner describe Harvard’s world-leading ultra cold atom optical lattice based simulator. Such systems do not offer the fully flexibility of universal quantum computers, but they may offer value for certain classes of problem significantly in advance of large scale fault tolerant quantum computation becoming available.
Compared to other national and regional quantum programmes, the EU’s Quantum Flagship stands out for the prominence that it has given to this approach. Projects such as PASQuanS, Qombs, PhoG and PhoQus are giving this approach a high profile and funding that may not be available elsewhere.
Antony Laing gave a plenary presentation at EQTC 2019 on his group’s ground breaking work modelling molecular vibrations  using a photonic quantum simulator. This promises applications from renewable energy to drug discovery. Future generations of such devices may have much to offer in the NISQ era and beyond.
The quality of the involved institutes and companies notwithstanding, the Quantum Flagship faces a series of challenges in an increasingly competitive geopolitical race. Fact Based Insight sees three main challenges:
It no longer looks like the EU will identify a quantum technology ‘mission’ as one of the ‘moonshot’ ideas to headline Horizon Europe (its next major research and innovation initiative due to run 2021-27). This may be a blessing in disguise, as a focus on just a single headline objective might have distorted the balance of the Quantum Flagship overall. However, the Flagship’s funding beyond 2020 and into the Horizon Europe period does look secure. Indeed many highly placed in the community clearly believe an increase in funding is justified and can be secured.
Already the initial 20 projects look like they will be strengthened by a further call for proposals in silicon spin quantum computing (€15m), quantum software (€5m), international collaboration (€0.5m) as well as a further round of the geographically more broadly based QuantERA initiatives (€20m). While this is not new funding, it is indicative of political support behind the programme.
EQTC saw further grass roots pressure for additional funding for cold atom sensors (a very notable omission from the current funded projects given that these are one of the closest to market quantum technologies) and for Education and Training. There remain many more compelling funding cases than there are funds available at the moment. The Finnish presidency is likely to see these matters come to a head in the second half of 2019.
The Flagship concept correctly builds in the assumption that complementary initiatives will take place at national level. This is not just a means for increasing overall funding, it also is a vehicle to allow all areas of Europe to play their part and secure their share of the benefits from these economic opportunities. Beyond what Jürgen Mlynek has called ‘the usual suspects’ progress is not clear. This may be particularly relevant to the task of securing the deep geographic clusters of expertise so prominent in the history of the digital revolution. Politically such centres are less easy to promote via central EU funding. Such centres are a major focus of phase II of the UKNQT . QUTech in Delft is perhaps the best known existing hub. Other emerging centres include Paris, Munich and Vienna.
Brexit hangs as a cloud over the co-ordination of the very strong UK National Quantum Technology programme and wider European initiatives. The UK government has guaranteed the funding of UK participants in current Horizon 2020 initiatives (inc. current Flagship projects) against any Brexit outcome. Future UK involvement in Horizon Europe as a non-EU associated country remains to be negotiated. The outcome and speed with which a future agreement can be reached will likely depend on the tone of relations set by the main Brexit negotiations. Collaboration via the wider and looser QuantERA consortium remains an additional possibility.
Broadening the engaged community
Through events like EQTC, Strategic Research Agenda working groups and the Quantum Community Network, the Flagship is already working to retain the engagement of those not directly involved in a centrally funded project. However the scope of the community also needs to be extended. Quantum physics is one of the founding disciplines of quantum technology, but on its own it will be far from sufficient to build a thriving commercial sector. Engineering, computer science, and the algorithmic insights of quantum information science are all vital.
The EQTC programme certainly did its part to promote this broadening: the event was hosted within the impressive MINATEC micro and nanotechnology innovation campus; presenters such as Ross Duncan (CQC’s new t|ket> compiler) and Ronald de Wolf (quantum optimisation algorithms) powerfully illustrated what mathematics and computer science bring to the table. However the delegates, and the engaged community that they represent, haven’t yet spread far enough beyond their original physics home.
The supplementary wave of funding expected for quantum software initiatives is welcome, but to Fact Based Insight €5m still feels constraining. The cost of supporting a typical postdoctoral researcher for 3 years is about €300k (inc. overheads), so this could support perhaps 15 roles across Europe and perhaps 2 significant collaborative projects. That seems far below the potential that this community can contribute in value.
A key part of creating wealth from quantum technology is preparing a workforce able to take part in its ecosystem. This workforce will not principally be physicists; it will be much more broadly based. Promoting education and training is a vital strategic function of the Flagship and is recognised as such. Exactly what skills need to be taught is harder to define at this stage. The emphasis placed at EQTC on improving equality of opportunity across gender was welcome, and is itself part of the process of maximising the number of EU citizens that can support and benefit from this new economy.
In truth this is only the beginning of the long Flagship journey.
The Flagship sails on
A well thought out governance model for the Quantum Flagship was outlined at EQTC by Gustav Kalbe, Head of HPC and Quantum Technology at the European Commission. This builds on lessons from previous Flagships and provides a structure suited to tackling the challenges outlined above.
The new central coordinating QFLAG team have been announced, and the energetic and charismatic Tommaso Calarco moves up to chair the Quantum Community Network (a group central to driving the much needed engagement with national initiatives). Thierry Debuisschert will chair the Science and Engineering Board (central to effectively delivering the Flagship projects).
One key piece of the jigsaw currently remains outstanding. The composition of the Strategic Advisory Board has not yet been revealed (it is awaiting approval by the responsible European Commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, which is expected shortly). Many delegates at EQTC would certainly expect Jürgen Mlynek, much respected for the role he has played so far in bringing together the Flagship, to continue to play a prominent role. It will be interesting to see how effective the make-up of the SAB is able to be in driving the widening scope of the quantum technology community.
European Quantum SWOT
Strong academic tradition founded on having discovered quantum mechanics in the first place.
A wide spread of world class institutions and research groups.
World leading capabilities in photonics, a key enabling technology.
Leading activity in many parts of the quantum sector with activity closely related to photonics: NV diamonds, trapped ions, trapped atoms and QKD.
Leading players in superconducting, cryogenic and control technologies.
An early focus on analogue quantum simulator technologies which could be particularly relevant in the NISQ era.
A strong RTO sector provides many players able to support transitional projects.
Long established national quantum programmes in the UK and the Netherlands.
Recent national quantum programmes in Germany and Sweden
…and even without a formal national quantum programme, the French were very impressive at EQTC 2019.
The majority of European states have no defined national quantum programme in place.
Formal mechanisms for co-ordinating national quantum initiatives across Europe are weak.
Popular political support for quantum technology investment in Europe is unclear.
EU politics makes it difficult to focus central funding on geographic centres of excellence or on reinforcing momentum in already successful regions.
Venture capital funding in Europe is not as accessible as in the US.
European patent activity lags behind that in other countries, for example:
- Quantum computing – Europe lags behind the US, Japan and Canada;
- QKD – Europe lags behind China, the US and Japan;
- Cold Trapped Atoms – Europe lags behind China and the US.
A strong university tradition in almost all European states provides a potential base for education and training initiatives to forge an extended quantum aware workforce.
Initiatives to combat gender-imbalance in quantum related disciplines can help further grow and diversify the future workforce.
Natural synergies with other EU programmes such as QuantERA, EURAMET, COST Actions and ESA.
The EU controls access to its internal large single market via regulatory approval and certification processes (c.f. initiatives such as OpenQKD).
Major internationally oriented RTO players, such as Fraunhofer, TNO and Imec, are well placed to win work in quantum related projects around the world.
Continuing collaboration on quantum basic science issues with countries such as the US, Canada and Japan can build on strong existing academic links.
Europe has unique connections to the Chinese quantum community (several leading figures in China’s quantum programme completed their PhDs in Europe, and maintain strong scientific ties).
The level of central EU funding committed so far seems constrained compared to what is likely to be spent centrally by potential rivals such as the US and China.
Perceived institutional bias towards traditional ‘core’ nations at the continuing expense of the EU ‘periphery’ could undermine support for Europe’s programme (some delegates at EQTC privately expressed this view).
Brexit threatens to weaken the realisation of synergies between the EU and UK quantum programmes, leading to a duplication of resources or failure to fully leverage opportunities.
Overly simplistic business cases for QKD deployment could be knocked off course as leading PQC protocols establish themselves; a more balanced analysis of use-case pros and cons is required on both sides of the debate.
The total conventional R&D spend of Big Tech players such as Alphabet (Google), Huawei, Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu spend is in excess of $65b annually. Unless Europe can secure its role as a host for a significant share of this spending, it will quickly be left behind when these players start to spend seriously on quantum technology.
As a brand, the Second Quantum Revolution is still relatively unknown. To the extent that it becomes associated with the wider notion of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (where awareness is rising) it risks being swept up in an eventual reaction to something not of its own making.
Actions for Business
Global businesses must ask not just how they should respond to the Second Quantum Revolution, but also where geographically they should locate their initiatives:
- What skills do I need to grow within my organisation and where can these best be accessed and developed?
- Do I have offices or research labs within one of the growing clusters of quantum activity?
- Do I have links to partners engaged in emerging quantum ecosystems that will keep me informed ahead of time of developments that will affect my business?
Regional businesses should be alert to the opportunities emerging in their own sphere of operation:
- Where quantum technology threatens to disrupt my sector, how will my competitive position be affected by the landscape of the global quantum sector?
- Am I making the most of publically supported infrastructure and funding opportunities to help grow my business?
Startups should recognise the unique opportunities provided by regional and national programmes to help strengthen and grow their businesses:
- How can I gain visibility beyond my home institute and geography?
- How can I protect my business if current sector hype is followed by a quantum winter for new investment?