A quantum leap – what the UK’s strategy needs to do to accelerate quantum commercialisation
The UK’s national quantum programme has arrived at its 10th year and this was marked with a new strategy and funding increase from £1bn to £2.5bn over the next 10 years. This shows true commitment from the UK Government as an area of economic growth, resilience, and defence and security capability.
A welcome key addition to the strategy is the mention of commercialisation of quantum technologies (QT), recognising that the technology is maturing; and an ambition for UK leadership.
Currently, the value of QT is mostly seen in military planning or medical imaging. Most applications, however, still need time to mature, and national and corporate approaches to quantum will need to shift over the course of the next 10 years to enable commercialisation.
A whole stack approach
With QT starting to hit the market, a view of wider systems needs to be considered both from an implemented technology perspective but also as a solution to business opportunities and challenges.
Implemented technology: Hybrid systems, supply chain, and sustainability
- Very few systems will be ‘quantum only’ – this means that great benefit is obtained by creating hybrid quantum/classical systems that leverage the best of both. It’s important this is understood and the interface to classical systems needs to be baked in from the start – hybridisation for the best of both worlds will be key.
- The supply chain for QT is built on specialist classical components – commercialisation will rely on a ready supply of these components in robust, small, and cheap forms that do not require PhD physicists to use. Stimulating this supply chain is discussed in the UK strategy and will be key to commercialisation.
- Sustainability should be designed in from the start and not considered at the point of obsolescence, particularly given the range of components that make up a quantum system. This builds alongside ethical considerations for using quantum systems – something that needs to be thought of to gain public acceptance of a new technology.
Business opportunities: A global race
- Commercialisation can and should be accelerated as highlighted in the new strategy. Government, as a customer, is a great way to provide demonstratable real-world benefit and funding, but it needs to ensure that its procurement approach is both educated and agile – evolving at pace. There is the opportunity for the government to help increase the pace – the UK is in a global race and needs to leverage what it does well, which is to innovate.
- There are standard, purely commercial (i.e. non technical) hurdles to overcome which also need attention, including how to assure a quantum system, measure its failure rates, warranty it, and ensure supply of systems and key components. These are questions quantum suppliers of the future will need to answer – supporting start-ups through coaching in these aspects will be critical to allowing them to sell to large organisations.
Developing a wide skill set
It’s welcome that the UK strategy has put training and retention of talent as a key objective and metric. The programme needs to be careful not to wholly measure success in terms of physics or science PhDs; these are an important part but neglect the higher layers of the technology stack such as software, systems engineering, data science, and product engineering (the skills needed to create a saleable quantum-enabled product). Quantum-enabling these higher layers will be key to exploitation and need not take the multiple years associated with a higher degree. A mature quantum workforce will be a diverse range of keen and quantum-literate technologists applying quantum, and they will considerably outnumber those who fully understand superposition, entanglement, and Bloch spheres. Similarly, progress in engineering a quantum system will be faster and more potent when classical engineering tools and techniques are applied by engineering experts than when physicists try and do everything.
Particularly in quantum computing, there is room for significant innovation with existing tools and the intersection of existing business insight (and awareness of need), current software development tools, and quantum capabilities already offering business value. The tools to start testing this already exist; there is room to explore, and forward-leaning organisations should look to do so in the immediate term.
Embracing the near-term opportunities
Growth in the UK quantum ecosystem would benefit from a portfolio approach, with some near-term technologies receiving funding to mature and commercialise, and other ‘big bets’ still considered for long term R&D in academia. This will balance risk and reward over the period of the portfolio.
This portfolio should be aligned to trackable industry milestones and/or use cases against which progress can be measured – yearly (a more discrete set of milestones for the QT strategy as a whole would also be welcome). These ‘lines in the sand’ present targets for the community to aim at to unlock wider funding and demonstrate business benefit.
If the UK can take a balanced and whole-stack approach to QT development, with an eye to clear business and/or national security need, start to establish a cadre of quantum-enabled engineers and scientists (including but not limited to physicists), it can remain a clear global force in the quantum ecosystem. The UK’s national strategy makes a good start in this direction, and we look forward to seeing how the challenges described above can be embraced to drive value across the next 10 years, rather than in 10 years' time – wouldn’t that be a super position to be in.