Quantum Computing is rapidly evolving and generating tremendous buzz. It’s still widely debated just how soon this next-generation computing architecture will make an impact, but French Tech leaders believe it offers another opportunity to establish leadership in a transformational technology.
To that end, this week industry association France Digitale and consulting firm Wavestone released a new report outlining a strategy for France and Europe to accelerate efforts around quantum computing.
“Quantum computing is not merely an additional application, but a real paradigm change,” the report says. “And yet, few leaders have considered the issues of sovereignty raised by quantum computing.”
For the uninitiated, quantum computing operates at a molecular level, allowing for greater computing complexity. The hope is that with current computer processors reaching their physical limits, quantum computing will allow new leaps forward in everything from artificial intelligence to personalized medicine. (Read more here on how corporations are already experimenting with quantum computing.)
In the past couple of years, venture capital has started pouring into this field. Meanwhile, U.S. tech giants such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have already been making rapid advances. China is also investing heavily. Once again, Europe faces competition from both sides of the globe.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic about Europe’s chances. Last year, I spoke with Dr. Jan Goetz, CEO and co-founder of IQM, a Finland-based quantum startup. Since then, IQM has raised $46 million in venture capital.
“This is a very big chance for Europe because the money typically goes to where the good people are,” Goetz said. “And as this field is now emerging from the academic sector into the commercial sector, the money goes to the best research teams in the world. And Europe really has the world’s leading research teams.”
From France Digitale’s perspective, there is both economic opportunity and risk. On the latter, it points to concerns that quantum computing will render current encryption standards useless, and thus poses a danger to national sovereignty.
More urgently, the report is critical of European efforts.
“Europe's response remains lacking,” the report says. “When China invested 10 billion dollars in Hefei in a 37-hectare research center, when the United States of America launched the National Quantum Initiative Act in 2018 providing for two billion dollars of investment in five years, what did the European Union do? Our 'quantum flagship', created in 2018 with an overall theoretical budget of a billion euros in ten years, is aimed at financing international research projects on quantum technologies... and no strategic European plan has yet been implemented.”
For the moment, it’s clear that the U.S., China, and the U.K. have the edge:
To close the gap, the study presents 6 recommendations to the EU:
#1 Create the European Organization for quantum research
# 2 Create lines of cooperation between the points of quantum's golden triangle: researchers, startups and industry
#3 Train quantum talents
#4 Finance European quantum innovation
#5 Boost innovation in Europe by buying European
#6 Anticipate quantum applications in society
To catalyze these efforts, France also must step up.
“France has a driving role to play and even more particularly now that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union,” the report says. “France has the highest number of specialized quantum computing startups in Europe, behind the United Kingdom. A leader in fundamental research, France can strengthen its hand. We are urging leaders to take heed of this issue and to plan in earnest for the upcoming technological changes because France cannot be left behind.”
Currently, the report tracks 47 quantum startups in Europe, including 13 in France, 8 in Germany, 7 in Spain, and 7 in the Netherlands. Of those 13 in France, 5 are building quantum computers (Alice&Bob, C12, NextGenQ, Pasqal, and Quandela), and 3 focus on quantum cryptography (Veriqloud, CryptoNext Security, and CryptoExperts).
France has other quantum assets. In addition to its research universities, Bpifrance and Hello Tomorrow are running quantum training programs. And France is home to Quantonation, an investment fund dedicated to quantum that was started in 2018 by Charles Beigbeder. According to the report, Quantonation is already working with 12 startups in areas such as deep physics, quantum computers, quantum cryptography, and quantum sensors.
And late last month, the Paris region announced it is giving €1.5 million over 3 years to The Pack Quantique, a quantum computing program that will provide funding “to projects tackling major industrial challenges,” according to a press release. That will include giving EDF access to Pasqals’ quantum computer to experiment with mobility and grid management, helping energy company Total develop logistics management, and allowing Qubit Pharmaceuticals to partner with Pasqal on drug discovery.
Still, France Digitale wants to see the French government do more on the homefront. That includes increasing salaries of university quantum researchers, create chairs for researchers to collaborate with industry, and co-finance more doctoral research positions to elevate France into the upper ranks of quantum research.
The France Digitale recommendations seem like reasonable steps forward. Of course, it’s a tall order to light a fire under the EU, which often moves painfully slow. If Europe can’t pick up the pace, it risks being a runner-up once again.
In other news…
France's CNIL data privacy agency this week slapped Google with €100 million in fines and hit Amazon with €35 million in penalties. The problem: Placing advertising cookies on computers without getting user consent.
The agency said both companies failed to sufficiently disclose the nature and types of cookies to users in advance. While both companies have updated their cookie practices, the CNIL said they were still falling short.
The bigger picture: France continues to stake out a position as aggressively protecting user privacy, a popular stance at home and in Europe. It’s also seen as willing to take on Big Tech, particularly U.S.-based companies. Sovereignty has increasingly become the rallying cry (even in quantum computing above). Still, promoting its technical independence while also trying to convince many of these same companies to expand in France remains a tricky balance.