Emerging Tech: Creating a Quantum Canada

Lindsay Borthwick
June 19, 2019

Last week in Toronto, at a graduation ceremony for Canada’s most ambitious science and technology startups, nine companies stood out: the class of 2019 from Creative Destruction Labs' Quantum Machine Learning Program, the only incubator of its kind in the world. They represent a particularly daring breed of tech entrepreneur that is striving to harness the power of quantum physics and engineering to solve real-world problems.

These graduates at the bleeding edge of technology are bolstering Canada’s position as a global leader in quantum science and technology. The question of how to maintain and grow that advantage—built through sustained investment in quantum research and development—has never been more urgent, and it is preoccupying academics, policymakers and innovators across the country.

China, the European Union and the United States have each launched multibillion-dollar quantum initiatives. The Chinese government, for example, has committed $10 billion to a national quantum research facility, paralleled by an additional $15 billion dedicated to quantum research and to artificial intelligence by Alibaba and other Chinese tech giants. The EU’s Quantum Flagship program is a 10-year initiative to develop a quantum industry, with funding of €1 ($1.5) billion.

“We're amongst the first, and we're amongst the best. And we need to stay a significant player in that race,” says Genèvieve Tanguay, VP of Emerging Technologies at National Research Council (NRC) Canada in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. “We have moved from understanding quantum reality to engineering it. Getting the science right and getting the socio-economic impact everyone wants is really the current challenge.”

To get that impact, the NRC, along with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), is playing a catalytic role in the development of a national quantum strategy—known as Quantum Canada. It began in 2017 with a symposium, and subsequent workshops, but has yet to coalesce into a national initiative with long-term, dedicated funding.

Still, Canada has a real opportunity to connect quantum research and technology with sectors in which it also leads, such as aerospace, health and medical devices, information security, natural resources, and northern studies, says David Cory, principal investigator of the Transformative Quantum Technologies program at the University of Waterloo, which aims to accelerate the development and deployment of quantum devices.

“Linking quantum to existing strengths and building on those, I think, is really where we're going to see Canada excel,” he said in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

Canada’s Quantum Ecosystem

Canada has invested more than $1 billion over the past decade in the field, according to a paper published in February and authored by a handful of Canada's quantum leaders, including Cory (see table below). With that funding, Canada has built a quantum ecosystem ranging from academic labs conducting fundamental research, to government labs and agencies driving quantum innovation in strategic areas, to businesses, including Burnaby-based D-Wave Systems, which offers quantum computing services in the cloud.

Building bridges between various parts of the ecosystem are three Canada First Research Excellence Fund-supported quantum research programs, at the University of British Columbia, University of Waterloo (namely Transformative Quantum Technologies) and Université de Sherbrooke, with combined funding of $168 million over seven years. Driving commercialization are organizations like CDL at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and venture funds, including Waterloo's Quantum Valley Investments.

There is also Quantum Valley Ideas Lab (QVIL), a not-for-profit public-private partnership, also in Waterloo, seeded with $20 million in 2017 by former Research in Motion founder Mike Lazaridis and his business partner Doug Fregin. QVIL is a bricks-and-mortar quantum technology laboratory designed to help researchers commercialize their breakthroughs. In April, it received a grant of $20 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund that will help QVIL-affiliated businesses scale up.

“Right from the start, Canada has approached quantum information science and technology as a multidisciplinary activity,” says Cory. “This multidisciplinary ‘Canadian model’ is enabling because it includes the interfaces that are so important to advancing a field, it funds broadly, and then it organizes a community, through CIFAR and other programs. It connects research and development, which allows you to get ideas out to the lab. It provides infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and shared infrastructure to support startups, and it funds large projects that connect to Canadian priorities.”

One of those priorities is cybersecurity. For example, the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) mission aims to demonstrate quantum key distribution, an advanced encryption technique, in space. Current systems are ground-based, relying on fibre optic cables to carry the photons that transmit each bit of the key, which limits their use.

Last week, the Government of Canada awarded a $30-million contract to Honeywell Aerospace for the design and implementation phases of the QEYSSat mission, slated to launch in 2022 and based on science developed by the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University Waterloo.

Future Needs

Still, in the face of rising global investments in quantum, the need to strengthen Canada's ecosystem is vital. A major gap is industry adoption. In the U.S., Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are all driving the development of quantum computers. At the same time, telecoms like AT&T and other industrial giants are embracing the idea that quantum technologies could solve critical business challenges and create new business opportunities.

“Here in Canada, we need to get those locomotives with us,” says Tanguay. “We need to get large industry to say how important quantum will be for their future. And it will be important. It is a totally disruptive technology.”

Speaking at the annual RE$EARCH MONEY conference in Ottawa in April, Warren Wall, executive VP of Corporate Affairs at D-Wave, highlighted the gap. D-Wave has more than $100 million in contracts with international companies to provide quantum-computing services, he said. Over the past decade, just $250,000 of those sales have been in Canada.

“Nobody in Canada is using this technology,” Wall noted, adding that D-wave is looking at the Digital Technology Supercluster program, of which D-Wave is a founding partner, as a way of penetrating the Canadian market.

Khalid Kurji, a senior venture manager at CDL, says large enterprises in Canada and elsewhere are reluctant to take the risk on quantum and fund a pilot project. “I’d say that’s the biggest challenge for our startups.” However, he says the Digital Technology Supercluster has created opportunities for some CDL-affiliated companies.  “If someone is willing to put up some money and they match it, that seems to help.”

Workforce development is another major need. As quantum rises, Canada’s small- and medium-sized quantum enterprises are struggling to hire. “Canada is educating quantum workers for the world,” says Cory, who views that as both a challenge and an opportunity.

The University of Waterloo and other post-secondary institutions could train the next-generation of quantum engineers as they have done for quantum information scientists. “That should be a challenge to the community, to put our resources and our creativity into realizing that,” adds Cory.

Peter Wittek, academic leader of CDL’s quantum program, says there are only about 1,000 people in the world who can program a quantum computer, including approximately 200 who have taken an online course he developed that provides hands-on training. He is currently working with the University of Toronto to find additional ways to train a quantum workforce. “The leadership of the University is sold on the idea that we have an opportunity here,” he told RE$EARCH MONEY.

He adds that the choice to launch CDL's Quantum Program at a time when quantum computing is still in its infancy was a deliberate attempt to get out in front of the competition. “It is definitely early, but we want people to come here. We want to be ready and to avoid the kind of brain drain that happened in artificial intelligence.”


Table: Snapshot of Canada's Investments in Quantum Research

Agency / Program Funding (million)
NSERC $267.2 (2006-2015)
Canada Foundation for Innovation (with provincial partners) More than $100
Canada First Research Excellence Fund
Institut quantique (Université de Sherbrooke) $33.5 (over 7 years, from 2015)
Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (University of British Columbia) $66.5 (7 years, from 2015)
Transformative Quantum Technologies (University of Waterloo) $76 (7 years, from 2015)
NRC Quantum Photonics Sensing and Security Program $50
CSA's Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite Mission $80.9
Waterloo's Quantum Valley (from government, industry and philanthropy, over 20 years)
Institute for Quantum Computing $568
Quantum Valley Investments $205
Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics $591
CIFAR Quantum Information Science and Quantum Materials programs (est. in 1987 and 2002, respectively) --

*Source: Ben Sussman et al 2019 Quantum Sci. Technol. 4 020503

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