Finding winners: quantum startups

Quantum computing makes headlines, but its sister technologies of quantum cryptography and quantum sensing are reaching market sooner.

The first quantum revolution began in 1901 when Max Planck showed that the light emitted from a heated black-body consists of discrete quanta, later dubbed photons. Nature turns out to be built in its entirety on the novel mechanics of such quanta and we now know that photons have many siblings and cousins. Today, our maturing ability to control and engineer such systems is unlocking the second quantum revolution – a new generation of devices with unprecedented capabilities. Commercial activity is heating up in the current transitional phase.

The fifth annual Bristol Quantum Information Technologies workshop (BQIT) was an opportunity to review recent developments across all these sectors and to meet some of the new commercial players.

Devices

Bristol University is a world leading centre for photonics research, and an overview of the state of the art in this key enabling technology was a highlight of BQIT. While would-be photonic quantum computing champion PsiQuantum is still in stealth mode, this community clearly retains its optimism about the advantages of the photonic approach to quantum hardware. The scale at which silicon photonic circuits can be fabricated with conventional CMOS technology has reached a break-out point. We can expect further exciting announcements this year.

Growing commercial activity around the supply side of this sector was evident from the sponsors and exhibitors at BQIT:

  • Quantum Component startups: Quandela, Sparrow Quantum and Single Quantum. These businesses aim to make the ability to work with single photons more readily available. A key goal will be to own IP that eventually gets leveraged at scale.
  • Domain specialists: ICEoxford (ultra-low temperature cryogenics) and Zurich Instruments (high fidelity electronic measurement and control). These businesses are leveraging close connections with academia to build leading capabilities.

In such a rapidly developing field, a key requirement is responsiveness. ICEoxford offers <10mK dilution refrigerators, but its connection with Bristol has also allowed it to gain leading experience in the 0.3-1.5K regime that is set to grow in importance. Zurich Instruments has received great praise from its associates at QuTech working on superconducting qubits at TU Delft. Larger scientific specialists such at Oxford Instruments, Keysight Technologies and attocube face additional challenges in responding to this nimbleness.

High frontiers for QKD

A quantum computer large enough to break current cryptography standards may be many years off, but the need to respond to that threat starts now. One potential part of the response is quantum cryptography. China leads the world in the deployment of this technology with a 2000km fibre network for quantum key distribution (QKD). Last year it grabbed headlines by being the first to demonstrate satellite-to-ground QKD.

While China’s satellite success is impressive, it has been based on a traditional relatively high-cost satellite platform. Can western companies still mobilise an advantage in managing the cost of space-based technology? Over 10 additional satellite missions are seeking to prove or refine QKD technology. Two notable examples were discussed at BQIT:

  • CQuCoM is an academic consortium seeking to demonstrate QKD carried on the proven CubeSat platform. An advantage of this approach is an estimated £1m launch cost, compared to perhaps £10m for a conventional large satellite. Subject to confirmation of funding, it will launch in 3 years.
  •  InfiniQuant are a QKD focussed startup. They emphasise the advantages of continuous variable QKD, particularly for space missions: it is more robust to atmospheric interference and can employ detectors that don’t require additional cooling. They have already demonstrated the basic compatibility of their approach with the conventional optic technology already planned for the European Data Relay System (EDRS). A QKD mission is planned in 2 years.

Space is not the only way QKD is taking off.

  • KETS Quantum Security and ID Quantique (IDQ) are working with Airbus on a drone based quantum key distribution (QKD) system. KETS have leading chip-level QKD technology. ID Quantique is a long standing pioneer of quantum cryptography and have been selling first generation solutions since 2010. When proven this aerial QKD system will not just have security and defence applications. Delivering the low size, weight and power requirements will also likely make the technology package adaptable to a number of other uses.

Applications for Quantum Sensors

Quantum enhanced sensing is also a very active area. Excitingly, activity is now multiplying with startups targeting actual end-user applications. Two examples were highlighted at BQIT:

  • Neciah Dorh has started FluoretiQ to deliver ultrasensitive, handheld, low-cost bio-sensors. Many organic molecules can be identified by their UV spectra. FluoretiQ uses nano-fabrication and compact quantum-optics to deliver UV fluorescence detection on a revolutionarily small scale. Initial development is focussing on the large global market for water quality monitoring: detecting bacteria contaminants on-site in real-time. Other applications in sensitive environments such as healthcare and food production are easy to envisage.
  • Xiao Ai has started QLM to provide a drone based remote sensing solution able to detect natural gas (methane) leaks from well-heads and pipelines. Survey drones flying at 30mph use quantum laser radar (lidar) technology to detect leaks out to a 100m range. This radically reduces operational costs. Natural gas leakage is a $6b+ problem annually to the oil & gas industry. Accidental explosions put lives at risk and generate unwelcome PR and litigation costs. Methane leakage is also makes largest manmade greenhouse gas contribution after CO2.

These are not outliers. Many other academic demonstrator projects are close or ready to move on to the next commercial stage. How can such new businesses be helped to succeed?

Academic to startup entrepreneur

While academic groups remain at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, many countries are focussing on how they can encourage the successful commercial development of this technology in a way that benefits their own wider economies. Within the UK’s National Quantum Technology Programme, Bristol provides a highly developed example of this in action, and it’s not just about money.

In addition to the grants that have funded underlying research projects, FluoretiQ, QLM and KETS are all connected by the people-side support have they have received from Bristol’s Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC). This incubator provides generous year-one support, MBA style training and mentoring for individual researchers making the transition to founding their own business. Famously this is not easy, but the examples above indicate a strong start.

The facilities in Bristol are being further enhanced by an open access Quantum Technology Innovation Centre (QTIC) offering specialist lab facilities and office space on a pay-as-you-go basis. Designed to be SME friendly, this centre has already secured interest and backing from large players such as Airbus Defence and Space and Boeing Defence. QTIC claim start up operational costs in Bristol are just 1/10th of those typical in Silicon Valley.

How should your business be engaging with these emerging opportunities? Microsoft was also at BQIT. It didn’t have anything to sell, but it does see the long term advantage of teaching future influencers how to code in Q#, its new quantum programming language. That is forward thinking in the battle of the platforms for quantum software.

Investors and strategists from across business must wake-up to the growing activity and opportunity happening now in the wider quantum sector.

David Shaw

About the Author

David Shaw has worked extensively in consulting, market analysis & advisory businesses across a wide range of sectors including Technology, Healthcare, Energy and Financial Services. He has held a number of senior executive roles in public and private companies. He has a degree in Physics from Oxford University, a PhD in Particle Physics from UCL and is a member of the Institute of Physics.