Cambridge, with its long, unparalleled track record of disruptive innovations, has long been recognised as a city of disruptors.
We are living in the age of disruption – the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence, cloud computing to 3D printing, autonomous vehicles to advanced genomics… disruptive tech is all around us, fundamentally changing the way we live our lives and the way in which our ecosystems operate.
There is one particular disruption, however, that we are all still waiting to happen. The disruptor of all disruptors, quantum: a much-hyped ‘holy grail of sorts’, promising to supercharge machine learning and help us finally solve some of our greatest and most complex challenges.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, quantum computing will “speed up calculations related to finance, drug and materials discovery, artificial intelligence and others, and crack many of the defences used to secure the internet”. And, according to Business Insider, quantum technology is going to help us “cure cancer, and even take steps to reverse climate change”.
Indeed, we have been waiting patiently for what seems like decades now for the Quantum Age to dawn, relying on little more than a hypothesis to keep us going, while scientists toil over the highly complex quantum mechanics of just being able to maintain “superposition” and “entanglement” for long enough to perform a useful calculation.
One of the many fundamental problems lies in the technical complexities of generating single photons (a third kind of light generation, different to light bulbs or lasers), which can unleash quantum supremacy, as it is known, and ignite the true potential of quantum – whether by performing computations directly, or by enabling computers to be networked together. Most sources used in labs today are extremely inefficient or have to be extremely cold (at the temperature of liquid helium, about minus 270C), which requires large and expensive refrigerators.
However, a Cambridge-based quantum photonics company has developed a technology platform able to source, manipulate, and detect single-photons at room temperature – making the unique properties of the third kind of light not just easier to harness, but quantum photonics a very real, integrable and scalable solution for a range of markets.
In short, this is a game-changer, which is why Nu Quantum is being fêted left, right and centre for holding the key to unlock the full potential of all things quantum – and why the University of Cambridge spin-out is backed by a slew of leading investors (Amadeus Capital Partners, IQ Capital, Ahren Innovation Capital, Seraphim Capital, Martlet Capital); receives funding from the UK government, Innovate UK and Cambridge Enterprise; and has ongoing projects including with BT Group and Airbus.
Nu Quantum is the brainchild of award-winning quantum physicist, Carmen Palacios-Berraquero. In 2018, she was awarded the Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize (Institute of Physics) which recognises exceptional early career contributions to physics by a female physicist. This was awarded for Carmen’s work on 2D materials and quantum optics, and, most significantly, for discovering and patenting the unique single-photon source technology which has since been commercialised by Nu Quantum.
Unsurprisingly, Carmen has gone on to win an array of accolades, including being listed in Forbes magazine as a ‘Founders Forum Rising Star 2021’. Most recently, she was listed amongst the ‘Entrepreneurs to Watch’ in the latest edition of Optics & Photonics News magazine.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype surrounding quantum – never mind Nu Quantum’s growth – but, as Carmen stoically reminds us: “Quantum, itself, is not yet disruptive. That’s still a few years away – but there is absolutely no doubt that quantum will be hugely disruptive, and more so than we are even able to predict at this stage. When it is, Nu Quantum will provide the photonic backbone to help quantum computers scale and communicate beyond the horizons of current roadmaps.”
Nu Quantum’s unique technology was gestating during the years Carmen was working at the world-famous Cavendish Laboratory (Department of Physics, University of Cambridge). In 2019, she co-founded Nu Quantum Ltd, originally to commercialise the research she generated during this time working in the lab.
Although quantum is still classed as “niche”, the amount of funding continues to increase exponentially, and there has been more finance and investment into UK quantum companies in 2021 than in the combined growth years between 2018-2020.
Carmen says: “Every academic or university professor with a relevant technology and interest in spinning out a company has mostly already done so. We have defined, established and set the foundations of the UK industry, and the founding companies now just need time to develop their technologies and flourish. The field is extremely academic. Many of the technologies are literally experiments fresh out of the lab. It’s a hugely exciting, emerging sector to be working in – but it’s hardly what I’d call ‘an industry’ yet.”
Over the next few years, however, we can expect to see big changes.
Carmen says: “Almost inevitably, there will be a number of people and companies not from a traditional quantum background entering the space – mixing classical technology with quantum, linking supercomputers with quantum computers, as well as other communication infrastructure and electronics that don’t necessarily need to come from a quantum lab, but just require a more mature industry to appear in.
“Undoubtedly, there will be a wave of larger corporations entering the quantum space. Those who, for now, are happy leaving it to the start-ups to do the ‘dirty work’ of disrupting, developing and getting things started while quantum is still such a new field.
“But they will be poised to pick winners and make acquisitions as soon as the dust settles.”
Carmen recently joined forces with executives from Riverlane, KETS Quantum, ORCA Computing, Arqit, BAE Systems, Oxford Instruments, BT Group, Teledyne e2v and the Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult to form the UK Quantum Industry Group.
She says: “We need to ensure we have a strong and cohesive voice to keep moving the UK sector forwards at the very least in line with other quantum global leaders.
“Our first group meetings have been focused on inputting into the UK government’s spending review and ensuring that they keep investing in quantum technologies. There are about 40 quantum start-ups in the UK and a number of them, particularly the quantum computing ones, are ready and wanting to scale.
“However, scaling a quantum computing company requires tens of millions of pounds if we want to compete with the US – and so, to be able to scale in the UK and not be bought up by an overseas investment or acquisition, we do need the continued financial support of the UK government.
“Over the last 10 years, there has been around a billion pounds pumped into quantum technologies via the National Quantum Programme, as well as other initiatives such as the UK government’s British Business Bank Future Fund, which has enabled them to match-invest alongside investors for interesting raises above £20million. And it is important that they continue on this upwards trajectory. If it stalls now, it could mean a lot of companies that have formed and now need to scale facing a really tough time during the inevitable quantum ‘winter’ – when they are focused on making the technology work and scale.”
What would help further is a well-defined and pragmatic cohesive quantum roadmap.
Carmen explains: “Europe and the US have been strong in publishing cohesive roadmaps for quantum, or cohesive view on certain quantum technologies, and QuiC, the European Quantum group, is doing a great job. Larger companies, such as IBM for example, have also published roadmaps towards, for example. a thousand qubits.
“However, the global quantum industry is still at the stage where each and every start-up has its own roadmap – and these are still secret sauces kept close to their chests because there is a singularity point, which is: Who’s going to get a useful quantum computer out first? And, for many, that’s the only thing that matters really.
“If we do want to see several unicorns in the UK in three to five years’ time, we need to be putting together at least a ‘roadmap of impact’. And indeed BEIS is currently tackling this, with the involvement and support of UKQuantum members. Although the US currently has the big giants – Xanadu, IonQ, PsiQuantum, IBM, Google – the UK is still one of the world leaders in Quantum computing. We have a thriving ecosystem, the National Computing Centre, government funding and the kind of scientific excellence that has been behind the field for decades.
“There is also a lot going on around tech – such that the tech environment in the UK is now starting to resemble the US in terms of round sizes, salaries and talent. Employers are also hiring cross-continent and it no longer matters if you’ve got a full-time employee on your team who is based in another country.
“Things are getting a bit more mixed up, which I believe is good. It’s a global market at the end of the day. However, there’s still a lot of talk about sovereignty and sovereign supply chains with quantum specifically, because it’s such a hot topic for national security.
“Governments want their industries to thrive and compete globally, but they also want to retain control over the supply chains.
“That said, we also want as few barriers as possible to trade and collaborate across countries, and so there are specific industry groups that we recognise as global. Nu Quantum will, for example, be co-hosting an event soon with the US consortium, Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C).
“There’s also the European Quantum Industry Consortium (QuIC) and Quantum Strategic Industry Alliance for Revolution (Q-STAR) in Japan.
“With all sides reaching out to recognise that this is a truly global market for technology and people, such cooperation and collaboration will result in quantum disrupting and impacting sooner rather than later.”
And Cambridge will undoubtedly be leading the charge.