Quantum technology: paths to commercialization

From the SPIE Photonics West Show Daily: Quantum technology on exhibit at Moscone Center.

07 March 2018
Mike Hatcher

Quantum computing hogs most of the attention, but ommercial activity in the areas of encryption, sensing, and imaging is starting to become a reality - with plenty of examples on view at SPIE Photonics West.

With the likes of Intel, Google, IBM, and Microsoft publicizing their early forays into the field, it's hardly surprising that the potential for qubit-based computing dominates much of the hoopla surrounding quantum technology. The extraordinary potential of superposition-based programming makes for a seductive narrative - and for the first developers of such technology, a huge strategic advantage - but in reality the field of quantum computing remains nascent, likely at least a decade from anything resembling true commercial activity.

In the meantime, plenty of other quantum technologies are starting to make an industrial transition: applications in communications, sensing, and imaging may not stir the public's imagination in quite the same way, but their impact will be felt long before the first useful quantum computers are booted up.

That much was clear at the third UK National Quantum Technologies Showcase, held in London in November. Hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, directly opposite the UK government's Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, this tradeshow-like event presented the latest evidence that quantum technologies are making that commercial move.

Having coughed up £270 million to support the National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) over five years from 2014, UK funding agencies are particularly keen to see commercial spin-offs - and the recipients of the many grants made under the program are similarly keen to highlight them. But the five-year duration of the effort is a short time to establish any commercial quantum activity from a virtually standing start. An early observation by Sir Peter Knight, professor of quantum optics at Imperial College, London, and part of the NQTP's 12-strong strategic advisory board, that the effort represents a ten-year program with a five-year funding budget still rings true.

Intel's 49-qubit test chip

Intel showed off its 49-qubit test chip at the recent CES 2018 event in Las Vegas, but less exotic applications will emerge from quantum research before the first commercial quantum computers are booted up. Photo: Walden Kirsch/Intel.

But there certainly appears to be some commercial momentum in the UK effort: the showcase event has come a long way since the inaugural version in November 2015, at the nearby but more compact environs of the Royal Society. Quantum technology demonstrations have grown alongside exhibit stands, with jobs created and startup companies emerging.

At a packed industry session during the November showcase, Teledyne e2v's CTO Trevor Cross - another member of the NQTP's strategic advisory board - remarked on what he sees as a genuine commitment to developing real-world technologies under the NQTP. "[It's] re- markable that in three years we have gone from talking with universities, to having things that look astonishingly close to products," he said. Those products will inevitably be used in the scientific sector initially, with Cross anticipating particular opportunities for cold atoms - viewed as a new platform technology for Teledyne e2v.

The company is focused on three key areas: instrumentation for gravimetry; space applications in the form of gravity waves and precision timing; and network synchronization. At the London tradeshow delegates could see exactly what the company has in mind when it comes to space applications, in the form of the planned "CASPA" CubeSat cold-atom mission.

CASPA will become the world's first autonomous cold-atom payload. While not in itself capable of carrying out quantum experiments, if successful it will demonstrate that it is possible to pack all of the necessary equipment to do so inside the compact "6U" CubeSat format. Over on the Teledyne e2v exhibit stand, quantum systems engineer Steve Maddox told Show Daily that there should be a completed version around a year from now, and that launch discussions with the European Space Agency have begun.

The cold-atom hardware includes a frequency-doubled fiber laser for cooling, acousto-optic modulator component from project partner Gooch & Housego, and an image sensor. The system has been shrunk by an order of magnitude from a benchtop equivalent weighing around 60 kilograms, to fit the 6 kilogram CubeSat format.

Teledyne e2v is in a position to benefit from aggregating demand across a variety of quantum applications - including some secret ones - to make the technology more cost-effctive. Cross said in London that the company has already invested £12 million on its quantum-related efforts, with 23 employees now working on the topic and more set to be recruited. "We are seeing proper customer pull," he added. Recalling the 2015 version of the quantum showcase, Maddox noted that Teledyne e2v's presence at the event had grown from three people at the Royal Society to 12 at the QEII.

Photonics West exhibitor M-Squared

Photonics West exhibitor M-Squared has enjoyed great success providing lasers for quantum technology researchers, and is moving up the value chain with its development of a quantum gravimeter. Photo: M-Squared Lasers.

A significant beneficiary of the NQTP so far is M-Squared Lasers. The fast-growing Glasgow laser company specializes in ultra-stable ultrafast sources that are becoming the high-tech "shovels" of the quantum gold rush. And with one of the largest stands at the London showcase, M-Squared certainly stood out as a commercial enterprise. The company is also making an effort to rise up the emerging quantum technology value chain, its exhibit boasting the UK's "first commercial quantum gravimeter." In truth, it's not quite commercial yet: the sensitivity of the fridge-sized instrument first needs to improve by a few orders of magnitude to compete with classical equivalents.

But the cold-atom kit inside the large red box is said to have completed its first gravity measurements in July 2017, and there's a clear roadmap to improved sensitivity provided by better protection from external magnetic fields, isolation of the atom-cooling Raman laser source from mechanical vibrations, lower-temperature operation, and longer coherence time. The latter will demand a taller unit in which to house the rubidium vapor cell - a fundamental physical restriction when it comes to achieving quantum effects.

M-Squared indicated that a full-fledged commercial quantum gravimeter, competitive with classical equivalents on performance, size and cost, looks possible within three years, with the specific size customized according to user sensitivity requirements.

Another sign of impending commercialization comes in the form of startups and spin-outs emerging from the various university research groups working on quantum technologies.

At a dedicated industry session during the London showcase, co-founder Jake Kennard from the University of Bristol startup KETS Quantum Security described the company's aim of "democratizing quantum key distribution (QKD)". With the likes of ID Quantique (IDQ) commercializing QKD a decade ago, this is one quantum technology that has long crossed over into the commercial realm. But where IDQ's hardware closely resembles conventional rack-sized optical communication switches, and is similarly expensive, Kennard and colleagues are aiming to miniaturize that functionality and, eventually, replicate it at chip level, sufficiently small and cheap for hand-held devices.

University of Bristol spin-out KETS Quantum Security

University of Bristol spin-out KETS Quantum Security is aiming to shrink quantum key distribution to the chip level. This is the firm's quantum random number generator. Photo: KETS Quantum Security.

They see opportunities emerging in the financial and medical sectors first, with Kennard noting the recent proliferation of security lapses and email hacks. He says that conventional mathematical approaches to secure communications will simply stop working in the near future, with an additional long-term threat posed, ironically, by the eventual emergence of quantum computing.

With optical telecommunications switches and even optical fiber itself now susceptible to hackers, and news of major data breaches on an almost daily basis, the need for better encryption is stark. Kennard says that software-based random number generators (RNGs) will not withstand the threat; hardware-generated solutions are required.

The KETS team is working on both a quantum RNG and on-chip QKD. Neither product is available just yet; Kennard says proof of principle has been achieved, with the company showing off a table-top RNG demonstrator in London - but more significant seed funding is now required to develop a full prototype demonstrator.

Early adopters of that technology might be expected in the defense and space sectors, but ultimately Kennard wants to see QKD technology with the ubiquity and cost to be incorporated inside smart phones. He sees a massive opportunity emerging in the hyper-connected "smart cities" of the future, where communications technology will have to be rock-solid.

Last year, KETS was among three firms to win support via the BT, Facebook, and Telecom Infra Project startup accelerator, which identified the Bristol firm as one developing technology critical to future telecom hardware. Kennard told Show Daily that venture support for startups in this space is still hard to attract - an extended hangover from the telecom bust of the early 2000s. With the aim of developing a pocket-sized RNG by mid-2019, he added: "[It's] time to engage; the call to action is to connect with investors and customers."

Another startup, represented at both the London event and this week in the Moscone Center, is the University of Edinburgh spin-out Photon Force. More of the quantum "picks and shovels" variety, the company supplies time-resolved single-photon avalanche photodiode (SPAD) cameras that enable "parallelization", with particular utility in the life sciences for typically very slow techniques like fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM). CEO and co-founder Richard Walker says the company has made real progress in the past year, and in London showed remarkable videos of plasma formed by a focused femtosecond laser pulse, and light "in transit," both captured by the company's SPAD array detectors.

Established in 2015 by three members of the Edinburgh CMOS Sensors and Systems research group, Walker says PhotonForce now employs five PhD-qualified staff. "Our technology brings a disruptive shift to the field of time-correlated single-photon counting," he explained.

That disruption comes in the form of much cheaper, more efficient and compact SPADs that are much more suited to parallelization. "Our technology delivers several breakthroughs that have potential to both open new opportunities in research and translate them outside of the lab," added Walker. "We have managed to squeeze 1024 existing benchtop instruments into a device the size of a paperback book. This delivers unprecedented measurement speed through parallelization, enabling video-rate advanced microscopy or time-of-flight imaging."

Already finding applications in lidar, quantum technologies, and fluorescence spectroscopy, the plan is to further miniaturize and scale up production - something that Walker says would be impossible with incumbent approaches. "Decreasing the size, weight and power of the technology will enable the shift from the lab to the

field, vehicles, medical or personal devices and the consumer market in the future," he predicted. "Through collaborations, we aim to develop photonic integrated circuits and lab-on-chip solutions to demonstrate prototypes of point-of-care medical devices in the next 5-8 years."

This is also a startup with genuine revenues. The business is said to have generated around £170k to date from camera sales, with Walker expecting that figure to double year-on-year. "This crucial early customer revenue has allowed us to leverage grant funding, spurring our product and market development and allowing us to build value in the business prior to seeking equity funding," he says.

Edinburgh startup Photon Force

Edinburgh startup Photon Force exhibited its SPAD camera arrays on the QuantIC stand at the Moscone Center. Photo: Photon Force.

Add to that more than £300k of support through collaborative funding from Innovate UK via the NQTP, strong connections with its Glasgow-based QuantIC imaging hub, and the CEO is looking to further develop Photon Force's competitive advantage.

"We are incredibly fortunate to be in the quantum optics space at a time when this economic potential is being recognized with such significant government support for the field, in addition to the usual avenues in the start-up ecosystem," Walker told Show Daily. "The resources available can have a transformative impact on the research and development capabilities of a small business, and are certainly helping Photon Force to realize its ambitions."

Things could always be improved, he adds, saying that Innovate UK grants are not currently the easiest source of funding for startups to secure and manage. "It would pay dividends if we could see more support to help small businesses get new products closer to market readiness," Walker added.

Not all of the companies at the London showcase were SMEs. Among the largest to be represented was telecoms giant BT, which is involved in the deployment of QKD-encrypted local networks in Cambridge and Bristol, as well as a long-distance connection between the two UK cities.

BT is also planning QKD trials with its major customers, although this is a challenge. "It's a battle to convince customers about QKD," noted its representative Cathy White at the London event. "[They are] mystified and confused." Other activity under the UK's quantum program includes building a link to the company's historic research site Adastral Park, with QKD technology for the project provided by IDQ and Toshiba Research Europe.

More surprising, perhaps, was the presence in London of the Chinese company Tencent - variously described as China's answer to Facebook, Google, or Snapchat, and a household name in its domestic market.

But as Ling Ge, an Oxford University graduate with a PhD in quantum computing who is now the company's chief European representative, told delegates, Tencent is very excited about quantum technology. Part of the reason for that is its investment in companies like Tesla, and interest in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data, and autonomous vehicles - areas where quantum computing could play a critical future role.

AI is already critical to Tencent business now, and security is a massive issue, Ling said. "In China you have banking and payment platforms connected directly to messaging apps, [and you] need to stay at the forefront of security technology, for example to send quantum-safe photography."

Tencent is also interested in identifying new patterns for personalized services, as well as connecting computing power to autonomous driving - to deliver the kind of processing needed for real-time, image-based decision-making. She predicted that the speed of quantum technology would be "transformative" for computing, with a dramatic impact on the global IT industry.

Mike Hatcher is editor of optics.org. A version of this article appeared in the Photonics West Show Daily in February.

Related SPIE content:

Novel CMOS sensors for improved quantum imaging

Quantum simulation with advanced integrated photonics

Integrated photonic quantum circuits for polarization qubits

Chip-based quantum computing with photons

Quantum-key distribution using quantum frames

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