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Spotlight Interview: Qubit Pharmaceuticals' Robert Marino And Jean-Philip Piquemal

Piquemal on the future of drug discovery: "Quantum computing will be...capable of predicting quickly and with accuracy the chemical processes we are looking at. And if we can predict, we can go faster."

Qubit Pharmaceuticals CEO Robert Marino (left) and Chief Scientist Jean-Philip Piquemal.
Qubit Pharmaceuticals CEO Robert Marino (left) and Chief Scientist Jean-Philip Piquemal.

Qubit Pharmaceuticals is trying to unlock the potential of quantum computing to accelerate the drug discovery process. The startup is part of France’s larger bet on becoming a global leader in quantum computing.

The company’s Atlas platform uses a range of high-performance hybrid computing techniques to build models that identify promising new drug candidates. That work is then licensed to drug companies as the basis for further possible development. The goal is to cut drug discovery time in half while allowing biotech and pharmaceutical companies to optimize their product development investments.

Founded in 2020, the company uses technology based on the work of 5 scientists who co-founded the company: Louis Lagardère of Sorbonne University and CNRS; Matthieu Montes of CNAM); Jean-Philip Piquemal of Sorbonne University and CNRS; Jay Ponder of Washington University in St Louis; and Pengyu Ren of the University of Texas at Austin. With classic computing architecture reaching the possible physical limitations of processing power, researchers have been turning to new technologies like quantum computing in the hopes of enabling far more powerful and sophisticated types of computing that would in turn power breakthroughs in areas like medicine.

Why does this matter now? Drug discovery relies increasingly on quantum chemistry which explores at a sub-atomic level the physics of the different components of an atom and how they interact and form structures such as larger molecules. To truly understand and predict the behavior of atoms and molecules by analyzing their quantum mechanics demands far more sophisticated computers – the complexity researchers hope quantum computers will one day deliver.

However, the timeline for the development of full quantum computers that outperform classic architecture is still unknown as researchers work to overcome various physics challenges to make them stable enough at prices that are affordable. In the short term, companies have sought to increase computing power and complexity by developing hybrid approaches – some tasks are performed on classic computers and some on quantum computers – and emulators that run on classic computers but simulate quantum computers to run more powerful quantum algorithms.

Qubit recently announced a new quantum emulator in partnership with Sorbonne Université called “Hyperion-1” for advanced chemical simulations. Hyperion will be capable of processing the equivalent of 40 qubits (quantum bit) which is the information unit for quantum computing. That will allow the company to start gaining some computing advantages from developing quantum algorithms -- even if they would be more effective running on genuine quantum machines.

CEO Robert Marino now leads the company, which has 60 employees split between the Paris Santé Cochin incubator and Boston. Qubits has raised €7.5m in grants from the European Innovation Council and a €16m Seed Round in 2022 from Xange, Omnes Capital, Octave Klaba, and Quantonation. Last November, the company also announced it was investing €4.5m – including €2m from France’s 2030 program – to build a new platform using Atlas that will target the emerging field of RNA-protein interactions.

I spoke recently with CEO Robert Marino and Chief Science Officer Jean-Philip Piquemal about the startup’s history and the challenges ahead.

Q: What is Qubit Pharmaceuticals’ mission?

RM: Qubit Pharmaceuticals is discovering new drugs, targeting high unmet medical needs and pathologies, and leveraging our computational drug discovery platform. We are able to design small molecules, atom by atom, for very hard drugs to target. We leverage more than 30 years of research that was carried out mostly Jean-Philip. We have a much more detailed physics engine that we use as the basis of all calculations. We can see things at the molecular level that other software can’t.

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