Home » UK’s bet on PsiQuantum is one-fiftieth the size of Australia’s

UK’s bet on PsiQuantum is one-fiftieth the size of Australia’s

Mark Thompson, a British quantum engineer, returned from PsiQuantum’s Palo Alto headquarters to take charge of setting up shop in his homeland.

It is the first site PsiQuantum has set up outside the US, but Thompson said British taxpayer support was not the motivating factor.

“This is a strategic move. It was where we needed to go in our development,” he told The Australian Financial Review. “If it didn’t resonate with that, we wouldn’t have done it – no matter how much the government might have offered us.”

Daresbury has an infrastructure of cryogenic cooling systems, and PsiQuantum is piggybacking on these to test its helium-based method of storing its quantum chips at the almost unfathomably low temperatures required.

Huge scale

The chips need to be housed in cryogenic cabinets – essentially, large and very powerful refrigerators – chiefly to cut out the “thermal noise” that introduces errors into the computing process. Ultimately, this needs to be done on a huge scale.

Cryogenic modules based on the prototypes PsiQuantum is testing in Warrington will eventually form part of the plant the company intends to build in Queensland.

The British government was delighted at PsiQuantum’s move to Warrington. Michelle Donelan, the cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, paid a visit last October.

But it looks unlikely that the British government will increase its backing for the company to an Australian level of largesse.

Last year, Donelan launched a national quantum computing strategy that proposes spending £2.5 billion over 10 years. This will elaborate on a £1 billion national quantum technologies program that has built up an ecosystem of university hubs, skills development and start-up activity since 2014.

The UK approach tries to work with the grain of the quantum world, in which contrasting and competing technologies are in the fray. While the Albanese government has picked out PsiQuantum’s photonics as its favoured budding technology, the British idea is to keep nourishing and watering the wider flower bed.

“At this early stage it is important to continue to build the science, grow the vibrant ecosystem, explore a range of technology platforms and parts of the supply chain where the UK has world-leading strengths, in addition to focusing on software and use-case exploration,” the strategy says.

“But it’s also important to be more targeted where and when we can, working with industry to accelerate development within high-value applications as they emerge.”

Britain takes a ‘drip-feed’ approach

Winfried Hensinger, who heads Sussex University’s centre for quantum technologies, says Germany has a similar approach to Britain, but with more money and a greater degree of active support for particular companies. In Britain, the tiny dollops of dough are more of a “drip feed”.

Both he and Walmsley say that whichever approach a government takes, the public sector’s role is critical: the sector just isn’t ready to run off private capital alone. “A venture capital investor will usually fund something and hope that in three or four years’ time a product will emerge. In quantum computing, results – where the product is defined as doing useful calculations – will take a lot longer,” Hensinger says.

“It’s very hard for a private investor maybe from a user company to expect they’re going to fund this for 10 or 15 years. This is why, essentially, it’s very important to have government intervention, the government as a first customer, in order to bridge this valley of death for the quantum computing industry.”

Investible CEO Rod Bristow. Louise Kennerley

Rod Bristow, head of Sydney-based venture capital firm Investible – and an early backer of Canberra start-up Quantum Brilliance – is not against the Albanese government’s backing for PsiQuantum. But he’d like to see Australia spread the largesse around more widely, as Britain and Germany have done.

“If this is a technology that the country wants to back and play a key role in developing, we’ve got to look at the entire supply chain,” he says.

“If you speak to anyone in the quantum industry, they want to make sure that they’re playing a role in developing a national quantum computing testbed, so that we can test and evaluate a range of quantum technologies.”

Quantum Brilliance co-founder and chief scientific officer Marcus Doherty backed Bristow’s call, saying the diversity of Australia’s quantum computing sector was one of its strengths.

‘A bit like Schrodinger’s cat’

“The best outcome for Australia is to see each of the domestic technologies, that are competitive in distinct domains of application, to succeed,” he says. “This is what will fully convert Australia’s early potential into economic and security outcomes.”

PsiQuantum’s Thompson reckons, though, that other countries may end up taking similar bets to Australia.

“There will be a rapid down-select pretty soon. If you look at what’s required to scale the systems, it requires billions of dollars,” he says.

“In the UK, it’s hard to get that level of funding that we need. What Australia has done is very brave and very smart.”

Between Palo Alto, Warrington and Brisbane, PsiQuantum sits at an interesting nexus between competing ideas about how best to run industry policy. Maybe only time will tell which country is getting it right.

Or will it? “Every system has its flaws, every system has its opportunities,” says Walmsley. If so, maybe industrial policy on quantum computing technology is a bit like Schrodinger’s cat: both right and wrong, until we get it out of the box.

With Paul Smith