Interview

Can France’s Quantum Plan deliver ?

By 11 March 2021 No Comments

This interview with Christophe Jurczak was featured in a series of papers by Maija Palmer at Sifted on the emergence of a quantum ecosystem in Europe.

France has pledged to spend €1.8bn on quantum technologies over the next five years to put the country at the top of the field. In an interview with Sifted Christophe Jurczak, founder and CEO of quantum VC Quantonation, said money should be enough (for now), and that French startups like Pasqal have a real chance of delivering a “quantum advantage” for Europe.

1. What are the main features of the new French quantum strategy — and will it be effective?

President Macron announced plans to spend €1.8bn on quantum tech by 2025 in order to make France one of the top countries in the field. More than €1bn will come from the country’s budget and the rest is expected to be provided through EU programmes, by corporates and by public and private investors.

What’s really spectacular is that the president himself took a half-day to go to the University of Saclay to visit a lab, meet with researchers and people from the ecosystem. His talk was dedicated to the quantum plan, which came across as a clear priority within France’s post-Covid-19 recovery strategy.

At the same time, the government released a document which gives some idea as to how money will be allocated between the principal areas (computing, sensing, communications, post quantum cryptography, training, basic research) — and through which mechanisms.

While the document could have emphasised funding ecosystems and fostering international collaboration, overall I found it was well balanced and a good blueprint for an effective strategy.

Before this announcement there was a lot of confusion surrounding quantum computing.

When I started evangelising about the topic back in 2015 while living in the US, I felt sometimes that people thought quantum computing was a scam and nothing could happen until we had a fully corrected qubit at scale. Now the strategy clearly makes the distinction between short-medium term platforms, acknowledging prospects for focused applications, and long term universal quantum computing. And that’s very welcome.

2. Is €1.8bn enough money to do what is needed?

It is hard to be precise, but this new plan triples the public budget for quantum computing. I think it’s enough for this stage of evolution of the industry.

There are clear use cases already for quantum sensing, but for quantum computing we haven’t yet reached the point when it has a clear advantage over classical computers. The demonstrations that have been made so far are very important of course, but their value is mostly scientific.

Once we reach quantum advantage, the industry will grow very fast and then we’ll need more financial resources to scale, for example to fund the growth of startups and build new quantum-safe communication infrastructures. When will that happen is a big question, but I’d say within two to three years we’ll have much more visibility and the strategy will need to be updated.

Money is not all that, of course. Talent will be key. Attracting and keeping the best will be critical and I think that’s something the governments are acutely aware of now. The French government feels very strongly that the country is suffering from a brain drain in the field of AI, and they don’t want that to happen with quantum while there is more time to prepare.

I had the chance to speak with President Macron to introduce the quantum computing startup Pasqal and its chief executive Georges-Olivier Reymond. I was very happy to see that the president knew about our fund — Quantonation — the first VC fund dedicated to quantum tech, with a global footprint, and we are prominently featured in the strategy. Very humbly, I think we helped trigger the emergence of fantastic startups in France, together with BPI France and the many remarkable measures in support of the deep tech ecosystem. What the quantum strategy brings is a thematic focus, and that’s of course very positive and a very strong signal in support of the emergence of a French quantum industry.

This will have to be complemented by other ‘ecosystem building’ activities. That’s something that I feel is missing right now in the strategy.

3. How does this plan fit with other European countries’ quantum strategies?

This ambitious commitment makes France a credible partner for other European countries that have strong ambitions, Germany in particular that has announced a €2bn plan, but also the Netherlands and other countries such as Spain and Italy could use their post-Covid strategy to adopt ambitious strategies too.

Brexit has been a big blow to the European quantum strategy. The UK has been one of the very first countries in the world to understand the magnitude of the second quantum revolution, with important financial support illustrated by their Quantum National Program, the creation of hubs and the emergence of a very strong ecosystem.

The EU Quantum Flagship has been obviously very important, but its focus has been largely on research and we need more. I’ve seen recently very positive signals that show that there is a real willingness at many levels of the European Commission to do all they can to keep Europe a player in the first league. Several quantum startups — IQM, Qblox, Pasqal — have been awarded the highly coveted EIC Accelerator grants, for example.

The European High-Performance Computing Joint Undertaking, which supports high-performance computing initiatives across the member states, is working to create a quantum simulation infrastructure in Germany and France’s supercomputing centres. The European quantum industry is creating the QuIC Quantum Industry Consortium as a counterpart to the US’s Quantum Economic Development Consortium. Now that the EU has a budget we are waiting for the Horizon Europe calls — I must say that the draft working plan was very exciting so I’m looking forward to seeing the consortia and the awards.

I get very positive vibes from Europe, now that many governments realise the urgency of backing the quantum computing industry.

4. How does Europe compare with the US and China in its development and funding of quantum right now?

Europe has finally realised that, although historically it was a heavyweight of quantum R&D, there was a risk that it could be left behind in the quantum race. The cumulated budgets of the EU and national plans are very substantial, and quantum is clearly identified as a priority now. It’s hard to compare for lack of publications, but I’d put the US, China and Europe more or less at the same level.

With IQM, Alpine QuantumTechnologies and Pasqal, Europe has first-class startups developing technologies that can help it build a sovereign quantum computing platform, in association with its High Performance Computing players such as Atos.

I’m a bit worried we are not going fast enough, for example in the field of quantum computing software.

My fund Quantonation has invested in nine startups in Europe so far, we are looking at three to four more investments this year and we see a good pipeline of opportunities but we’ll need collectively to work hard to build a steady flow of high-quality projects over the years and I’m a bit worried this is not going fast enough, for example in the field of quantum computing software.

Now speed of execution will matter, I hope we will have fast track procedures on these programs, else we might fall behind.

5. What are France’s particular strengths in quantum technologies?

There is a strong ecosystem for deeptech startups in France, with lots of government support (minister Cédric O is very vocal on this topic), an emerging VC community and support schemes that are effective. With the association Le Lab Quantique we have worked since 2018 to structure the quantum ecosystem within it and I think we’ve been quite successful at that. We have promoted quantum technologies through hackathons, meetups, conferences and we now also have — together with the Paris Region — more ambitious actions to improve collaboration between startups and end-users.

Regional hubs in particular in Paris Centre, Paris Saclay and Grenoble have been very active early. All these actors have fantastic ideas, there are strong local dynamics. I hope that the governance that will be put in place will respect this, and understand the benefits from such actions, instead of taking a ‘Colbertian’ approach (of state ownership and intervention).

Quantum Sensing is a priority of the French quantum strategy. Bordeaux-based Muquans has installed this neutral atoms-based Quantum Gravimeter on Mount Etna. Source: Muquans.

In terms of technology, France is very strong in atomic, molecular and optical physics, as you can see looking at the two pioneering startups, Pasqal (neutral atoms QC) and Quandela (quantum photonics). There is a strong tradition of outstanding work on Fault Tolerant Quantum Computing (INRIA and ENS laboratories, Alice&Bob and C12 startups). Of course, the country also has a chance to leverage the highly successful semiconductor ecosystem around Grenoble and CEA (the atomic and alternative energies research institute), and it’s why Silicon spin qubits are clearly identified as a priority.

Some large corporates have launched programmes already, Atos of course but also Airbus, Orange, Thales, Total and I’m seeing more and more interest by banks and utilities. This is key of course, we need to give evidence of tangible benefits of quantum technologies to fuel the sector’s growth.

6. Where are the most interesting quantum clusters emerging in Europe right now?

There are many places where outstanding research is done of course, from Aalto in Finland to Barcelona’s ICFO, Saclay, Heidelberg or Krakow. I will mention maybe only two clusters with very interesting ecosystem dynamics.

There’s Delft, with QuTech, the University, several startups covering the whole quantum computing stack (Qblox, Orange Quantum Systems, Qphox) and a Foundation called Quantum Delta NL.

In Munich I’ve been collaborating with a student-driven entrepreneurship initiative called ‘Push Quantum’, and the Bayern Region is clearly to be a hotspot for quantum technologies in Europe.

7. What companies are you most excited by at the moment?

I will mention all of Quantonation’s 12 portfolio companies here — I’m quite busy with helping some of them raise their 2nd round of financing, be it series A (Pasqal, KETS Quantum Security) or seed rounds (Qubit Pharmaceuticals) and I think they are really outstanding, and performing even better than we anticipated when we did our first investment.

The academic founders of Pasqal have achieved in their lab a record in the simulation of quantum systems with 196 qubits, demonstrating exquisite control of arrays of neutral atoms manipulated by light. Let’s wait until the paper is published then it will be hard not to call that “Quantum advantage” for Europe, after achievements of similar nature have been achieved by Google and J.-W. Pan’s group respectively with superconducting qubits and photonics.