Holding the UK’s place in the quantum revolution – timing is everything!

By Mustafa Rampuri, Director of Enterprise Services and Director of the Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre.

The pace of the quantum revolution is certainly picking up, with more machines and devices beginning to show useful applications, opening a chink in the curtains to reveal a whole vista of opportunity that will enable society to tackle some of its hardest challenges and unlock new value for businesses. 

However, the throttle on this revolution remains, frustratingly, only partially open.  

This is not because there is unwillingness to invest; there have been numerous high value investments of late including our own QTIC members, KETS Quantum Security and QLM Technologies raising each £3.1m in investment, and University of Bristol start-up PsiQuantum raising over $230m with Microsoft as one of their investors.  

Despite this, raising funds is still really hard, and I don’t want to diminish these enormous successes in the face of very tough competition. Kudos belongs to those who have done this. 

The quantum funding question 

It’s noteworthy that the UK quantum academic community is braced for a lower than hoped budget settlement in the next Comprehensive Spending Review. I’m a keen supporter and advocate of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, but perhaps the jewel in the crown is not necessarily the creation of new IP, devices and technologies, it is the concentration of talent that has now built up in the UK academic institutions. And this needs some careful consideration. 

Supporting the flow of talent between academia and business 

So, herein lies one of the foundational challenges for an emerging new industry – a lack of appropriately skilled people. A lack of UK research grant funding will inevitably mean fewer research positions in universities resulting in highly skilled and talented individuals coming on the job market just as companies are crying out for them.  Great you may say, problem solved!  Timing is everything, however.  

In contrast, Europe is seeing colossal investments in quantum tech, with a European Commission 1 billion flagship programme in 2019, and France and Germany investing 1.8 billion and 2 billion respectively by 2025. And the well-funded US quantum giants aren’t resting either, with outposts popping up across the world pulling in talent and creating a value pipeline for US business.   

Can the UK compete? 

So, here we are, the eyes are upon us and it is our time! But how is the UK to compete in this increasingly competitive environment? How do we make sure that the phrase “invented here and exploited elsewhere” does not get etched into the history books for UK quantum?   

From my perspective a UK market failure in quantum technologies is easy to predict but can also be easily avoided with even comparatively modest sums of additional government stimulus to secure our place in the quantum revolution because the UK has already invested when the “stock price was low”.   

The UK government needs to remain steadfast in its commitments to continued investment, because we need to provide new channels and pathways that attract and retain talent in the UK, to enable people to continue to be entrepreneurs, founders and the “Fairchildren”, and to ensure that existing businesses have unparalleled access to university researchers and innovators.  It’s essential that important parts of the ecosystem such as the National Quantum Computing Centre, The National Physical Laboratory Quantum Metrology Institute and the Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre remain properly resourced so that we can support businesses, provide stickiness for talent in the ecosystem and give a wrapper for our efforts.             

Now we are beyond the point of no return, with everything to play for, it’s imperative we double our efforts to encourage the UK government to back quantum technologies, in what will be known as the crux moment for this new industry that I’m certain has all the attributes to help level up and build back better. 

The Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre (QTIC) is at the heart of the wave of quantum entrepreneurs, and we are here to incubate, support and help garner investment and people, supply chains and customers for these businesses.  We are open and looking forward to seeing you! 

Bristol’s pioneering role in quantum and deep tech research and commercialisation.

A Q&A with Mustafa Rampuri, Director of Enterprise Services, University of Bristol.

1. For those that don’t know much about you, what is your role and what is your background?

My role is to help the University of Bristol deliver on its vision to support our partners, students and staff to achieve their enterprise and entrepreneurial aspirations. This means ensuring our innovation and enterprise assets like Engine Shed, SETsquared Bristol and QTIC+ are fully enabled to help achieve extraordinary outcomes within our region.

2. What does QTIC+ do?

QTIC+ is an innovation centre which supports businesses to take deep and emergent technology to market. Our core specialisms are quantum enhanced businesses, but we also have a great track record in cybersecurity and future networks. We provide business and technical support, as well as office, meeting and breakout spaces, high quality laboratories, a hackspace for prototyping and building device technologies, and of course, great coffee.

3. Why is quantum technology so important?

Quantum technologies work in ways that are very different to classical technologies. By harnessing the properties of single particles of light or single atoms, engineers and scientists have developed a new class of technology that goes far beyond the limitations of classical physics. This allows us to measure with greater precision, sense with greater certainty, provide communication secured by the laws of physics, simulate ultra-complex interactions, and solve problems using quantum computers that would be forever out of the reach of classical machines.

4. How are quantum technologies already influencing our lives and which sectors in your view will see the biggest growth looking forwards?

The advent of quantum technology has set in motion a chain of events that are already changing technologies that we rely on. For instance, cryptography, used to secure our online lives, is moving towards being “quantum safe” to mitigate that quantum computers are becoming so powerful they will render our current encryption schemes vulnerable to attack.  Looking forwards, the applications will be incredibly broad and exciting, from pharmaceuticals to the energy sector. Specific examples could be faster drug discovery through simulation and analysis of more complex molecules or helping to reduce our carbon footprint through optimisations of complex interactions such as autonomous transportation.

5. Why is the UK one of the world’s major investors in quantum research?

The UK has invested in quantum for decades, however in 2014 the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme launched which has invested over £500m in research and technology development. The West of England Combined Authority had the foresight to coinvest and awarded the University of Bristol £35m to establish QTIC+.  The University of Bristol is today one of the world’s leading quantum centres, boasting three Nobel prize winners.

6. QTIC+ is due to move to the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus (TQEC) in 2023. What will this mean for QTIC+?

As we transition to the Temple Quarter Campus we will take the keys to new state of the art labs, a Design Factory for rapid prototyping and a suite of offices, breakout and meeting spaces. All under the same roof with University industrial partners, academics and students, creating a vibrant and creative atmosphere that will attract talented people and make a great venue for supply chain development, building new networks and drawing investors to the region.

7. How can we attract more diversity and inclusion into the quantum and deep tech sectors?

This starts by breaking out of conventional modes of working to encourage people from diverse backgrounds and from all walks of life to engage with these types of activities in a way and a format that works for them, and together with community organisations who know best how to do this for the groups they represent.  It also needs visible role models and leaders from diverse backgrounds who people can take inspiration from and who can use their influence to help level the playing field. This is not easy and establishment organisations need to do more to help address the imbalance. Importantly this isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a real business imperative. Organisations with a diverse workforce are more resilient and can attract a broader customer base. Bristol, as a city, is a great example, with over 90 languages spoken. This represents more than 90 potential export markets; it means employees who have different relationships with technology are included in the product definition allowing more versatile technologies to be created that have broader appeal.

8. How would you describe Engine Shed?

Engine Shed is one of the region’s leading organisations that support enterprise and entrepreneurship. It has a formidable track record and has consistently set the standard for support for a variety of organisations to drive inclusive economic growth in the region.

9. How is QTIC working with Engine Shed and SETsquared Bristol to support entrepreneurship and innovation in the region?

The new Enterprise Services remit brings together the University’s internationally recognised enterprise and innovation assets and programmes covering a broad range of support, networks and facilities for a wonderful mix of companies. Drawing this together enables the whole region to benefit from the investments made by regional and national government, our partners and the University over many years.  For me, I’m thrilled to be working with these extraordinary teams and I’m looking forward to creating even better services and support then before.

10. To what extent can Bristol do more for entrepreneurs?

Bristol as a region values entrepreneurship highly, however through focussed action to bring about a collective voice for the region then it will enable lines of investment to be opened. Through increased promotion of the region’s businesses and entrepreneurial talent, including better coordination of networks, increased capacity for training and skills and investment to address key market failures, the region will be well placed to thrive over the coming years.

11. How do you see the future role that universities need to have in a city economy?

Universities as anchor institutions play a vital role in regional economies; they act as attractors and producers of talent, investment and knowledge. During the pandemic, the University of Bristol has refocused on its civic mission proving that it has a role to play in supporting stimulus and economic renewal, particularly with communities in the region who would normally be overlooked, remaining in the productive margins.  The University will of course need to adapt and change continuously and its ability to do this will be the mark of success.

12. If someone is interested in exploring opportunities in quantum, who should they talk to?

If you are a high technology business looking for technical space and support we’d love to talk to you. Please visit the QTIC website and get in touch, or talk to our colleagues at Engine Shed or SETsquared who can help make an introduction.

This article was originally published by Engine Shed, as part of the Let’s Chat series.