The global quantum computing race has begun. What will it take to win it?

Plenty of nations want to be the quantum computing leader, but with billions in investment flying around, coming out on top won't be easy.

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The UK is now facing a huge challenge: after having secured a top spot in the quantum race, retaining the country's status is going to require some serious stepping up.   

Image: Microsoft

National quantum programs and decade-long quantum strategies are increasingly being announced by governments around the world. And as countries unlock billions-worth of budgets, it is becoming clear that a furious competition is gradually unrolling. Nations want to make sure that they are the place-to-be when quantum technologies start showing some real-world value – and the UK, for one, is keen to prove that it is a quantum hotspot in the making. 

"We have a very successful program that is widely admired and emulated around the world," said Peter Knight, who sits on the strategic advisory for the UK's national quantum technology program (NQTP), as he provided a virtual update on the NQTP's performance so far.  

Speaking at an online conference last month, Knight seemed confident. The UK, said the expert, in line with the objectives laid out in the program, is on track to become "the go-to place" for new quantum companies to start, and for established businesses to base all manners of innovative quantum activities.  

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The UK is just over halfway through the NQTP, which saw its second five-year phase kick off at the end of 2019, and at the same time hit an impressive milestone of £1 billion ($1.37 billion) combined investment. This, the government claims, is letting the UK keep pace with competitors who are also taking interest in quantum – namely, the US and China. 

There is no doubt that the country has made strides in the field of quantum since the start of the NQTP. New ground-breaking research papers are popping up on a regular basis, and so are news reports of rounds of funding from promising quantum startups.  

But with still just under half of the national quantum program to carry out, and despite the huge sums already invested, the UK is now facing a bigger challenge yet: after having chased a top spot in the quantum race, retaining the country's status in the face of ferocious competition is going to require some serious stepping up. 

Clearly playing in favor of the UK is the country's early involvement in the field. The NQTP was announced as early as 2013, and started operating in 2014, with an initial £270 million ($370 million) budget. The vision laid out in the program includes creating a "quantum-enabled economy", in which the technology would significantly contribute to the UK's economy and attract both strong investment and global talent. 

"The national program was one of the first to kick off," Andrew Fearnside, senior associate specializing in quantum technologies at intellectual property firm Mewburn Ellis, tells ZDNet. "There are increasingly more national programs emerging in other countries, but they are a good few years behind us. The fact that there has been this sustained and productive long-term government initiative is definitely attractive." 

The EU's Quantum Technologies Flagship, in effect, only launched in 2018; some countries within the bloc, like France, started their own quantum roadmaps on top of the European initiative even later. Similarly, the National Quantum Initiative Act was signed into law by the Trump administration – but that was also in 2018, years into the UK's national quantum technology program. 

Since it launched in 2014, there has been abundant evidence of the academic successes of the initial phase of the NQTP. In Birmingham, the Quantum Sensing Hub is developing new types of quantum-based magnetic sensors that could help diagnose brain and heart conditions, while the Quantum Metrology Institute leads the development of quantum atomic clocks. There are up to 160 research groups and universities registered across the UK with programs that are linked to quantum technologies, working on projects ranging from the design of quantum algorithms to the creation of new standards and verification methods. 

A much harder challenge, however, is to transform this strong scientific foundation into business value and as soon as the UK government announced the second phase of the NQTP at the end of 2019, a clear message emerged: quantum technology needed to come out of the lab, thanks to increased private sector investment that would accelerate commercialization.   

Some key initiatives followed. A national quantum computing center was established for academics to work alongside commercial partners such as financial services company Standard Chartered, "possibly with an eye on financial optimization problems," notes Fearnside, given the business' established interest in leveraging quantum technologies. A £10 million ($13 million) "Discovery" program also launched a few months ago, bringing together five quantum computing companies, three universities and the UK's national physical laboratory – all for the purpose of making quantum work for businesses. 

The government's efforts have been, to an extent, rewarded. The quantum startup ecosystem is thriving in the UK, with companies like Riverlane or Cambridge Quantum Computing completing strong rounds of private financing. In total, up to 204 quantum-related businesses have been listed so far in the country. 

But despite these encouraging results, the UK is still faced with a big problem. Bringing university-born innovation to the real world has always been a national challenge, and quantum is no exception. A 2018 report from the Science and Technology committee, in fact, gave an early warning of the stumbling blocks that the NQTP might run into, and stressed the need for improved awareness across industry of the potential of quantum technologies.  

The committee urged the government to start conveying the near-term benefits that quantum could provide to businesses – something that according to the report, CEOs and company chairs in North America worryingly seem to realize a whole lot better. 

It's been three years since the report was published, and things haven't changed much. Speaking at the same forum as the NQTP's Peter Knight, Ian West, a partner at consultancy firm KPMG, said that there remained a huge barrier to the widespread take-up of quantum technologies in the UK. "Some of our clients feel they don't understand the technology, or feel it's one for the academics only," he argued. 

"We need that demand from businesses who will be the ultimate users of quantum technologies, to encourage more investment," West added. "We need to do much more to explain the near-term and medium-term use cases for business applications of quantum technologies." 

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Without sufficient understanding of the technology, funding problems inevitably come. The difficulty of securing private money for quantum stands in stark contrast to the situation across the Atlantic, where investors have historically done a better job of spotting and growing successful technology companies. Add the deep pockets of tech giants such as Google, IBM or Microsoft, which are all pouring money into quantum research, and it is easy to see why North America might have better prospects when it comes to winning the quantum game. 

In the worst of cases, this has led to US technology hubs hoovering up some of the best quantum brains in the UK. In 2019, for example, PsiQ, a promising startup that was founded at the University of Bristol with the objective of producing a commercial quantum computer, re-located to Silicon Valley. The move was reported to be partly motivated by a lack of access to capital in Europe. It was a smart decision: according to the company's latest update, PsiQ has now raised $215 million (£156 million) in VC funding.  

Pointing to the example of PsiQ, Simon King, partner and deep tech investor at VC firm Octopus Ventures, explains that to compete against the US, the UK needs to up its game when it comes to assessing the startups that show promise, and making sure that they are injected with adequate cash. 

"The US remains the biggest competitor, with a big concentration of universities and academics and the pedigree and culture of commercializing university research," King tells ZDNet. "Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but the UK and Europe still lag behind the US, where there is a deeper pool of capital and there are more investors willing to invest in game-changing, but long-term technology like quantum." 

US-based private investors are only likely to increase funding for the quantum ecosystem in the coming years, and significant amounts of public money will be backing the technology too. The National Quantum Initiative Act that was signed in 2018 came with $1.2 billion (£870 million) to be invested in quantum information science over the next five years; as more quantum companies flourish, the budget can be expected to expand even further. 

Competition will be coming from other parts of the world as well. In addition to the European Commission's €1 billion ($1.20 billion) quantum flagship, EU countries are also spending liberally on the technology. Germany, in particular, has launched a €2 billion ($2.4 billion) funding program for the promotion of quantum technologies in the country, surpassing by far many of its competitors; but France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are all increasingly trying to establish themselves as hubs for quantum startups and researchers. 

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Little data is available to measure the scope of the commercialization of quantum technology in China, but the country has made no secret of its desire to secure a spot in the quantum race, too. The Chinese government has ramped up its spending on research and development, and the impact of that investment has already shown in the country achieving some significant scientific breakthroughs in the field

In the midst of this ever-more competitive landscape, whether the UK can effectively distinguish itself as the "go-to place" for quantum technologies remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: the country has laid some very strong groundwork to compete. "The UK has some genuinely world-class universities with some really brilliant academics, so while the objective is certainly ambitious, it's not out of the question," argues King.  

But even top-notch researchers and some of the most exciting quantum startups might not cut it. The UK has positioned itself well from an early stage in the quantum race, but becoming a frontrunner was only one part of the job. Preserving the country's position for the coming years might prove to be the hardest challenge yet.