UK Deepens Quantum Computing Plunge, Announces 7 Testbed Projects

By John Russell

February 7, 2024

This week the United Kingdom provided more evidence of its intent to develop a strong position in quantum computing with awards to seven companies to build testbed systems at the UK’s National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC) and six Catalyst Fund awards (made earlier) to companies to accelerate the use of quantum in government. The total investment is ~£45 million.

The move follows the announcement of the U.K.’s 10-year national quantum strategy in March 2023, which promises to spend £2.5 billion on quantum development with plans to attract another £1 billion from the private sector. Global spending on quantum computing steadily ramped up. In Europe, for example, the EuroHPC JU program has picked six sites to deploy quantum computers and is in the process of procuring systems (See HPCwire article). The U.S. Quantum Initiative Act, which has allocated more than $2 billion, is up for reauthorization this year with some expansion of its mission expected.

“This investment will help our researchers and innovators develop the blueprint for quantum computing hardware and software and secure the UK’s place in this developing field,” said Kedar Pandya, Executive director of the Cross-Council Programmes at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Missions Fund in the official announcement.

Quantum development is hardly new in the U.K. where academic and commercial start-ups have been very active. £30 million of the £45 million was awarded through a competition to develop and deliver world-leading quantum computing hardware prototypes. Another £15 million from the Quantum Catalyst Fund is set to accelerate use of quantum in government. According to UKRI, “both initiatives will enable quantum technologies to be used in real-life applications, both in the private and public sector.”

Bob Sorensen, Hyperion Research VP of research and chief quantum computing analyst offers this thoughtful take on the U.K. recent and longer-term quantum plans:

Bob Sorensen, Hyperion Research

“A few facts that jump out at me after looking at both the announcements and the strategy paper: 1) Of the seven selected companies, four are truly UK-based and three are US-based: I agree that Infleqtion, QuEra, and Rigetti all have a legitimate UK presence, but they are essentially US companies; 2) From the strategy paper, we see some interesting goals of the initiative for 2033 – a) by 2033, the UK will have a 15% share of the global quantum technologies market and b) by 2033, all businesses within key relevant sectors of the UK will be aware of the potential of quantum technologies and 75% of relevant businesses will have taken steps to prepare for the arrival of quantum computing.

“If we put these three points together, we can see that the imperative of the UK effort is not to directly build a world-beating domestic QC supplier base. Although that is certainly a major underlying theme, the 15% number is a fair, relatively realistic, and attainable number. But if you consider the direct participation of foreign QC firms in the effort (i.e. not a UK-only project) and combine that with the goal of all businesses in relevant sectors aware of QC and having three-quarters of UK business being QC savvy in 2033, it clearly signals that the real intent of this effort is to not simply build a domestic QC sector but to ensure that the UK has access to the best QC systems in order to accelerate overall UK scientific and commercials capabilities, a much loftier, more ambitious, and frankly more visionary strategic perspective. Plus, by doing that, it does offer the promise of giving the domestic UK QC supplier base the best opportunity to serve a sophisticated and robust domestic QC market base that can be leveraged for success in foreign markets as well.

“It’s interesting to reiterate that US participation here is welcome and may continue in the future.  At a minimum, this highlights the somewhat asymmetrical posturing of typical US vs UK technology policy perspectives, especially where the US government programs tends to hold foreign participation at arm’s length. It is a good question if this is the best course of action for helping to develop a strong domestic QC end user base: does such a domestic only policy help or hinder the overall economic impact that the QC sector can have across the wide range of high-tech, potentially QC end user, industries?  Clearly the UK government thinks it helps.”

The companies selected include for building testbed systems include: Aegiq; Infleqtion (formerly ColdQuanta); ORCA Computing; Oxford Ionics; Quantum Motion; QuEra Computing; and Rigetti.

“The seven projects reflect the range of qubit architectures that could offer a pathway to fault-tolerant quantum computing. Rigetti, for example, will build a testbed with 24 superconducting qubits, while Oxford Ionics will demonstrate a trapped-ion platform based on technology originally developed at the University of Oxford,” according to the announcement.

“Two of the projects, awarded to QuEra and Infleqtion (formerly ColdQuanta), will assemble hardware systems based on neutral atoms, while ORCA Computing and Aegiq will take different approaches to photonics-based quantum computing. The seventh project, meanwhile, will see Quantum Motion create a demonstration platform that exploits spin qubits within a silicon-chip architecture.”

Michael Cuthbert, director of the National Quantum Computing Centre, said in the announcement, “Over the coming 15 months these prototype quantum computing platforms will be deployed into the newly established NQCC facility providing us with a valuable insight into the maturity, characteristics and capabilities available across a range of hardware architectures. This next phase of the NQCC will be one of huge promise establishing a unique state of the art facility with on-premises access to a range of qubit modalities at scale.”

Catalyst Fund selections followed competition during which feasibility studies were conducted to explore the application of quantum technologies in addressing governmental challenges. The six most promising concepts were selected for phase 2 will now receive funding to develop prototypes and demonstrate their solutions.

“The £15 million Quantum Catalyst Fund aims to fast-track the integration of quantum solutions in the public sector, strategically positioning the UK Government to leverage the diverse advantages of quantum technologies across different policy areas – from healthcare where quantum sensors could be used to look for the signs of dementia, to energy where quantum computers could help manage the electricity grid,” according to the official announcement.

Kedar Pandya, Executive director of the Cross-Council Programmes at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Missions Fund, said in the official announcement, “We are on the brink of a quantum technology revolution that is poised to transform diverse industries from the financial sector to healthcare, and UKRI is committed to ensuring the UK’s place at the forefront of this. We are providing our world-leading businesses and institutions the resources and tools needed to build a strong foundation in quantum computing with the potential to scale their activities for long-term competitive advantage.”

On a related note, it is interesting watch the efforts by many quantum companies to extend their geographic footprints and take advantage of rising government spending around the world. As mentioned, U.S.-based companies Rigetti, QuEra, and Infleqttion are participating in the U.K. testbed program. Quantinuum, a Catalyst Fund selection, recently announced plans to collaborate with Japan’s RIKEN research. French start-up Pasqal announced plans last week to work with Korea’s Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).

Stay tuned.

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