On Monday, I discussed the healthy state of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and how the focus on bringing the technology to market has sped up the deployment of this technology into society. Today is the National Quantum Technology Showcase which is taking place at the QEII arena in London.
It has grown year on year and shows off some highly transformative innovation and companies. State of the art technologies can be extremely disruptive to existing business models and creative new ways of making money arise alongside the inevitable replacement of outdated trends and deprecated equipment.
Here at the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC) we are helping quantum entrepreneurs find the markets and applications for their technology. Much of quantum technology is so radically different from what has come before that it can be hard to spot a place for it in existing supply chains.
For some of this technology the supply chain itself may need to be completely overhauled. For example, existing metal cable based telecoms networks are not capable of supporting Quantum Key Distribution (QKD), a protocol for physically ensuring secure communications. To enable QKD the UK has invested in a national dark optical fibre network which can carry quantum information.
The advantages gained for large investments of this kind must be significant to justify the effort. In the case of quantum the social and economic benefits are worth it, especially since learning to work with implementing a new technology into existing infrastructures helps to control how it impacts that infrastructure and the people within it. The greatest change is seen where things don’t just get faster or cheaper but deliver better performance or convenience in an entirely new way. Being ready for the future and adapting in the face of progress is the sensible option for avoiding problems with a disruptive applied science.
The steady and increasing decline of high street retailers up against the rise of online shopping being a recent example of a technology enabled contender challenging the contemporary norm. Earlier than this was the impact of the snowmobile on the Finnish community in Lapland in the late 1960’s. Reindeer herding was the main focal point of community life until the adoption and rapid uptake of the snowmobile completely upended the value of reindeer and the corresponding social dynamic. Within 5 years almost all families in the Rovaniemi area had become owners and the former way of life, many reindeer and a number of jobs, disappeared.
The UK Quantum Technology Programme has been mindful of avoiding negative unintended consequences and the Networked Quantum Information Technology hub is running a programme for Responsible Research and Innovation. Something the UK needs to succeed with this technology is continuing to find the best fit for quantum enabled devices and products in both existing supply chains and new markets. This is already being accomplished through programmes like QTEC which enable individuals the freedom and time to develop new business models.
The Innovate UK competition calls also encourage collaborations of companies across a supply chain to invest in integrating quantum devices. Further beyond this is the need for a technically skilled workforce. Recruitment for quantum-based companies is difficult. The specialist theoretical, microwave, electronic, photonic, cryogenic and superconducting practical skills needed tend to develop during long lab hours during a PhD. Many companies compete for PhD level talent against high salaries elsewhere and even then there is often a need to train a new recruit “in-house”. For many start-ups in the field this combination can be prohibitively expensive and the 4-year wait for a potential candidate to graduate can be too long in the timeline of business development. To meet the demands of companies and support the implementation of this technology on a national and international scale there needs to be an increased technical quantum offering at the undergraduate and Masters levels.
It is an approach that has worked well for the engineering community who recruit directly from Universities and quantum technology is fast approaching the point where a similar dynamic will work well. Direct company involvement with these programmes also affords businesses the opportunity to upskill existing engineers and talent from within. QTEC is involved with the development for programmes of this type and I would love to hear from scientific businesses on what their own training needs are.
Dr Andy Collins is a lecturer and enterprise developer at the Quantum Technology Enterprise Centre (QTEC).
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