There has been a lot of talk, for a long time, about the revolutionary potential of quantum technology. Quantum computing, in particular, has long promised to solve problems in seconds that would take today’s computers many millenniums to solve, a feat that would allow for huge advances in data encryption, drug discovery, artificial intelligence, personalized medicine and more.
We are closer than ever to seeing the talk become action. Major tech companies have shown that it is possible to achieve quantum supremacy — meaning quantum computers, harnessing the strange mechanics of subatomic particles called qubits, can solve certain problems exponentially faster than even the most powerful traditional computers operating with bits. Investors in 2021 poured more than $1 billion in venture capital into quantum tech companies, double the previous year’s total, on the bet that real-life applications are just three to five years away. The U.S. saw its first pure-play quantum computing startup go public at a $2 billion valuation, and others are announcing plans to go public.
Yet too many businesses that could benefit from quantum tech solutions are watching the progress from the sidelines. And they are likely to regret it when the revolution comes.
In 2021, I was tapped to lead Duality, the first startup accelerator in the nation devoted to supporting quantum innovators. Based in Chicago, Duality is run by a network of partners leveraging the region’s powerhouse academic, research and industry base to establish Illinois as an epicenter of quantum business. The initiative is of enormous economic consequence given the labor demand expected to bloom around the budding industry.
The six startups in Duality’s first cohort, helmed by scientist founders, are offering quantum technology-based software and hardware to address a variety of unmet needs in an affordable and accessible manner. One is creating quantum random number generators for data encryption, another a commercial manufacturing process for semiconductor-grade synthetic diamonds that can be used in quantum applications. Two startups are developing simulation software for quantum devices, another makes optimization software for quantum computers and another offers a cloud-based integrated development environment for quantum computing.
During the yearlong program, the startups refine their business models and work with early adopters in industries likely to be disrupted by advances in quantum tech. They also identify their investment needs and seek funding from investors vested in their success.
What I have discovered, however, is that many potential end users of quantum solutions have a wait-and-see attitude, reluctant to explore quantum’s possibilities in case their promise doesn’t pan out. That creates a chicken-and-egg problem in which everyone is looking for some early adopter to take the risk and come up with reference stories.
At the other extreme, corporations that expect quantum technology to be a miracle cure for their problems set themselves up for disappointment if the tech isn’t yet there.
Both the crawl and run approaches hinder the success of the startups as well as the end users. If they don’t properly prepare for a quantum future, they will be left behind.
A better approach for the industry is to walk alongside quantum startups to discover what business challenges could be helped by their solutions. Have a conversation. Take a small chunk of a problem and see if the proposed solution works. It is a low-dollar commitment with potentially long-term consequences.
In a new report, McKinsey estimates, conservatively, that the value at stake for quantum-computing use cases by 2030 will be between $300 billion and $700 billion in just the four industries that its research suggests could reap the greatest short-term benefits. In pharmaceuticals, quantum computing could improve the precision and speed of drug development; in automotive, it could cut the time and cost of manufacturing; in chemicals, it could realize significant energy savings; and in finance, it could optimize risk management and free up capital.
The benefit isn’t just financial, but environmental. For example, simulations powered by quantum computers could help discover new materials for electric car batteries or develop new farm fertilizers using much less energy.
We recently started accepting applications for Duality’s second cohort, recruiting from across the globe to draw more talent to the powerful quantum ecosystem in Chicago with the hope they will set down roots here. Their diverse ideas and applications could be tremendously valuable to businesses learning where quantum fits in their strategy, especially if end users communicate what they need.
It is understandable companies are hesitant to jump on a largely experimental bandwagon. But the risk of not doing so, and ending up at a competitive disadvantage, may be greater still.
Chuck Vallurupalli is senior director of Duality, a quantum startup accelerator run by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Quantum Exchange, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and P33.