More than a quantum leap for UK technologies...
Consultant Richard Johnson reports from the Westminster eForum Policy Conference
Published on February 4, 2020
The Westminster eForum Policy Conference on the 30th January brought together government, industry and researchers to provide an update on the development of the UK quantum technologies sector. Topics discussed included ways of taking forward the work of the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP), tackling key barriers to the development and uptake of quantum technologies, and driving R&D in quantum technologies into practical applications. Here is a summary of my three key takeaways from the event.
There is more to quantum technology than quantum computing
The presenters at the Westminster eForum discussed advances in in three sectors: communications, sensing & imaging, and quantum computing. The UK has made significant developments in quantum sensing, an area where there are already strengths. The UK’s NQTP has been set up to cover six key applications.
- Quantum enhanced imaging
- Quantum secure communications
- Quantum acceleration and navigation devices
- Quantum gravity sensing devices
- Quantum timing devices
- Quantum computing devices
Research in these applications is carried out through four hubs, led by the Universities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Oxford and York respectively. Each hub focuses on one area of expertise but works with the other hubs to share innovation.
The key technologies are demonstrated – the industry is now moving on to commercial applications
Google and IBM have both already created quantum computers, and Amazon offers quantum computing through the cloud via Amazon Web Services. The quantum computing industry is now developing software algorithms, catalogued in repositories such as Quantum Algorithm Zoo. Startups and spinouts such as Nu Quantum, who presented at the forum, are now building quantum hardware. The key challenge currently facing the industry is identifying ‘killer’ applications for quantum technologies. There have already been multiple demonstrations of possible applications, but it may be that the key application of quantum technology hasn’t been discovered yet.
Patient capital is needed to develop and de-risk quantum hardware
The UK government has been supporting the development of quantum technologies through the NQTP and more recently through the Industrial Challenge Fund (ISCF). The new ISCF challenge in commercialising quantum technologies is an investment of £153 million government funding and an additional £205 million in industry support, and part of this is an investment accelerator for early stage spin-out and start-up companies. A significant financial challenge faced in the development of quantum technologies is the prohibitive cost of specialised equipment for hardware development. The ISCF investment accelerator and new innovation parks with co-located central facilities are being used to address the high upfront costs but there is limited appetite for patient investment in hard-tech companies, which are by their nature high-risk-high-reward.
As the quantum technology sector evolves, innovators must develop strategies to identify real-world problems where quantum technologies can add significant value. The innovation management sector will also have to diversify human capital, ensuring that experts in quantum technologies are willing to join the challenge of quantum technology commercialisation. At Oxentia we continue to work in collaboration with industry and researchers to ensure that innovators and innovation managers are equipped with all the necessary skills and support to face the challenges and maximise the opportunities of quantum technologies.
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1] UK NQTP Applications http://uknqt.epsrc.ac.uk/applications/
 UKNQTP Hubs http://uknqt.epsrc.ac.uk/about/uknqt-hubs/
 UKRI ISCF Commercialising Quantum Technologies https://www.ukri.org/innovation/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/quantum-technologies/
Image used under CC BY 2.0 license from Steve Jurvetson. Orignal image at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/39188583425