18 Sep 2023
by Roger Mckinlay

Reaping the benefits of the UK’s early start in Quantum Technologies

Guest blog from Roger Mckinlay, Challenge Director at National Quantum Technologies Programme. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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Quantum Strategy

The UK’s National Quantum Strategy (published in March 2023) recognises a successful quantum industry depends on looking after existing customers as well as finding new ones.  Research Hubs and Centres for Doctoral Training will continue to serve a pipeline of new talent as they have since the conception of the National Quantum Technologies Programme.  New companies will benefit from Innovate UK grants just as those formed ten years ago did.  However, we also need companies born in the UK to stay in the UK.  The priority actions listed in the Quantum Strategy address both supporting the existing quantum industry and addressing new user-needs.

This to-do list is not only ambitious but also being executed rapidly, through initiatives such as the new Hubs and new Centres for Doctoral Training and over £70M worth of technology missions in computing and in position, navigation and timing announcedThe winning projects have already started. But this is just the beginning. Below are just some of the initiatives that are moving the Quantum Strategy key priorities from ideas into action:

Accelerators

A £15M catalyst programme has been created to boost government procurement of quantum technologies for public use – a key move beyond grant-funding and towards procurement that is crucial for commercialisation. Equally, the SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) contracts give companies the opportunity to work directly with public sector procurers and in doing so provides support to those on the brink of launching new quantum products and services.

These are examples of accelerators: tactical interventions to ensure that the UK is home to world-leading quantum science and engineering, growing UK knowledge and skills. This is the fundamental objective of the quantum strategy. It builds upon existing work from over five years ago when we launched our first quantum accelerator - the Commercialising Quantum Technologies Programme funded through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.  To date we have invested over £170M in industry-led projects.  The companies we have funded through grants have gone on to raise over £500M of private investment.  These initial challenge-led programmes have created a UK quantum supply chain and their success will continue to feature through the new stage of accelerators from the National Quantum Strategy.

Infrastructure

The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology – through its newly formed Office for Quantum -has recently awarded an Infrastructure Study to identify the needs of the quantum sector.  The lion’s share of investment to date has been in research, training and industry programmes.  The National Quantum Computing Centre – the new building is almost complete – is the notable exception.

Assets are expensive to maintain and need to be fully utilised.  The owner of an ocean racing yacht once lamented that standing in the shower tearing up five-pound notes was a cheaper way of experiencing the same thrill.  Infrastructure needs to earn its keep with a measurable impact, not just an identifiable cost.   A cautious approach to investment in infrastructure is justified, which is the approach taken through the National Quantum Technologies Programme. Infrastructure also has a key role to play in international collaboration.

The Challenge

None of this should come as a surprise to the members of techUK.  The quantum strategy addresses many of the needs identified in the techUK report “Quantum commercialisation: Positioning the UK for success”, published in 2022.

However, the ultimate success of the quantum strategy will depend on more than the technology.  There are social and economic dimensions.  The Industrial Revolution started in the UK - rather than continental Europe – out of an urgent need rather than extraordinary British cleverness. The Black Death had left the UK with a crippling labour shortage.

In the UK, Quantum technology is feeding a real need.  The number of quantum companies started in the UK shows the UK to be a land of quantum opportunities, not just of an academic head of steam.

We need to do more to feed this need, not in an artificial way, but recognising that what the technology does – be it sensing tiny magnetic fields or solving intractable problems – is just part of the story.  The UK needs a quantum computing industry, not just quantum computers.  The UK needs to be at the forefront of quantum research and innovation, not a tail-end adopter of someone else’s successes.  We need to employ more highly skilled people in the creation, development, manufacture and delivery of quantum-enabled products and services.  The pinnacle of our technical achievements must be higher than importing and utilising technology from overseas.

There is not much future in being the icing on someone else’s cake.  New and complex technologies only thrive where applications are developed in step with the technology itself.  Those waiting for a technology to become usable will miss the boat.  Of course, in time, there will be global supply chains.  For now, in these early days, we need the co-location of the science, the development, the manufacture and the application of the technology to create a virtuous cycle which attracts talent and creates value.


Supercharging Innovation Week 2023

techUK members explored the emerging and transformative technologies at the heart of UK research and innovation. This week was designed to investigate how to leverage the UK's strengths and push forward the application and commercialisation of these technologies, highlighting best practice from academia, industry and Government that is enabling success. You can catch up via the link below.

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Authors

Roger Mckinlay

Roger Mckinlay

Challenge Director, National Quantum Technologies Programme