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April 25, 2023updated 17 May 2023 8:36am

Investment in quantum technology hit a record $2.35bn last year

Billions of dollars have been invested in quantum technology since 2001 with the majority of that investment happening since 2020.

By Ryan Morrison

Quantum technology companies attracted more than $2.35bn in private investment last year, slightly breaking the record set in 2021. A new report by McKinsey suggests this investment could be well placed, as companies deploying quantum stand to gain $1.3trn in value by 2035. To unlock this potential companies have to focus on attracting top talent and scaling up the speed and accuracy of qubits. One expert says public and private sector organisations have a role to play in solving the talent problem.

Quantum Computing is at the "growth stage" of development requiring a broad set of skills (Photo: Boykov / Shutterstock)
Quantum Computing is at the ‘growth stage’ of development requiring a broad set of skills. (Photo: Boykov/Shutterstock)

The McKinsey report suggests four industries are likely to see the earliest impact – automotive, chemicals, financial services and life sciences. This is because these areas have high compute needs and complex problems where quantum advantage is likely to come earlier.

A significant amount of investment in quantum technology is going to start-ups that came into the industry in the past two years. According to McKinsey, 68% of the money put into quantum since 2001 has been invested in the last two years

As of last year, that investment is being spread over fewer new companies. In 2021, 41 quantum technology start-ups were founded, dropping to 19 in 2022 which, according to McKinsey suggests money is going to established start-ups rather than new companies, which could be tied to difficulties in attracting new talent.

The report suggests investors are looking for companies “ready to scale”, with four of the ten largest investment deals since 2001 closed in 2022. Some of these have been worth up to $500m and seven of the ten largest deals in 2022 were worth more than $100m.

Public sector investment is also growing rapidly with the US committing $1.8bn in 2022, the UK will spend £2.5bn over a decade and the EU has $1.2bn for quantum on the table. These are all dwarfed by the estimated $15.2bn public investment in quantum announced by the Chinese government.

Another reason for the redirection of investment towards more established companies could be tied to the slowdown in major scientific breakthroughs, the report authors speculated.

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Many of the early-stage quantum technology companies are formed out of university projects and in 2022 the number of published papers on quantum technology declined by 61% between 2020 and 2021. There was another decline, of about 5% between 2022 and 2021. This, they wrote, could be due to challenges becoming harder to solve.

Need for ‘fault -olerant’ quantum machines

The next stage in quantum computing requires both a ramp-up in qubit numbers and quality to create “fault-tolerant” processors capable of solving real-world problems more accurately and faster than classical computers. The problem is that while qubit numbers have been growing steadily, the quality hasn’t kept pace.

IBM has gone from a 20-qubit processor in 2019 to announcing a 1,000+ qubit machine due for release next year, but it also has a second track of processors with better quality qubits but far fewer actual qubits on each chip.

“In each of the five main approaches to quantum computers, difficult challenges remain,” the authors wrote. This is across all the main types of qubit being developed. For example, in photonics these devices still “leak” photons which results in computation failures and high error rates. In superconducting systems like those used by IBM and Google there are issues scaling up the control and cooling systems to handle potentially thousands of qubits.

These problems have to be solved to unlock the economic value the technology holds, the report authors declared. As economic value depends on speedup, which depends on algorithm complexity, execution time and problem size.

Achieving this scale-up will require top talent and while the talent gap is “significant”, McKinsey suggests it is narrowing in quantum technologies. “Our analysis shows that nearly two-thirds of open jobs in the industry could be filled with new masters’-level graduates in 2022.”

There are still shortages though, with OECD figures showing 717 active job postings last year and 450 master's-level graduates with degrees applicable to those vacancies. This was better than in 2021 when there were 851 job vacancies and just 290 graduates.

Talent isn't evenly spread. Based on density per million inhabitants the EU and UK are top destinations for graduates in quantum technology-relevant fields with 303 per million graduating in the EU in 2020 and 217 per million in the UK.

Ekaterina Almasque, general partner at VC fund OpenOcean, told Tech Monitor the quantum industry was “in its growth phase”, making it extremely challenging to find talent with the necessary skills across a range of technologies and services. “Most individuals working in the industry today were introduced to the concept of quantum computing at a relatively late stage," Almasque says. "While this will change naturally as the industry becomes more established, the private and public sector stakeholders of quantum computing must work together to improve this.”

She adds: “From a European perspective, many pioneering quantum computing businesses are pushing to become world leaders. For Europe to properly establish and maintain a lead in quantum computing, there must be a broad, strategic initiative for early education in quantum computing.”

  • Ryan Morrison writes a new weekly newsletter, Quantum Untangled, looking at the practical applications of quantum computing and interviewing leading figures from the industry. Sign up here.

Read more: Could quantum computing make our energy grid sustainable?

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