When will quantum computers be ready for business? Will they be useful? How can we benefit from them? And how can we build a quantum economy?

That was the dominant line of questioning at the Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit session on quantum technology held in Sydney this week.

Professor Michael Biercuk, founder and CEO of Q-CTRL, gave a keynote address on quantum technology to the summit, followed by a panel discussion alongside Q-CTRL investor and partner at Main Sequence Ventures, Phil Morle, and lead scientist at the Sydney Microsoft Quantum Laboratories, Dr Maja Cassidy.

Riding the Quantum Tech Wave

The annual Financial Review Innovation Summit is an opportunity for Australian industry and government to consider how technical change is going to affect business.

With increased popular focus on quantum technology, Professor Biercuk’s introduction for industry leaders and government representatives kickstarted a conversation about the opportunities for business in quantum tech, and provided a reality check on the timelines for a fully developed quantum economy to be realized.

That decidedly will not be tomorrow. But there is plenty we can do along the way.

Phil Morle, one of Q-CTRL’s initial seed investors, said conversations between deep-tech pioneers like Professor Biercuk and venture capital are essential to work out the right part of the curve for VC to get involved.

“The big wave in quantum tech hasn’t happened yet,” Mr Morle said.

If you look at quantum computing in particular, that wave isn’t likely to be reaching shore for more than a decade. There are many fundamental problems to be overcome before quantum computers can be sold to the masses, making for a challenging investment proposition - one acknowledged early on in discussions with Professor Biercuk.

But opportunity abounds. “We asked Mike: ‘What part of the [quantum computing] stack is ready [for investment]?’ If you ask that you get a different answer,” Mr Morle said.

Q-CTRL fills an immediate need at the earliest stages of the quantum economy, and will also be essential when quantum technology matures.

Through conversations with venture capital partners, Professor Biercuk realised that his team’s quantum control research provided a serious opportunity to assist the entire global quantum community. Right now.

“Our community will succeed through diversity in hardware, software and firmware,” he said. “And we [Q-CTRL] can help companies and researchers achieve what they need now.”

Dr Maja Cassidy was on the panel from Microsoft, and discussed the role that big technology companies have to play in the emerging quantum economy.

“Microsoft Quantum at Sydney acts like a start-up within a big organisation,” Dr Cassidy said. “With the exception we have a lot of resources, we still need to pitch our ideas up the chain.”

Understanding Timescales for Research

Professor Biercuk and Dr Cassidy both work at the intersection of academia and industry and addressed questions about how to accelerate the pathway to a quantum economy.

They were adamant in their comments that shifting University research teams to address the short-term needs of industry partners will ultimately do more harm than good. Instead of trying to grant PhDs for short-term projects, both agreed that there’s a critical need for skilled technicians and coders to contribute to the emerging quantum industry, not more professional researchers.

“There are huge opportunities for better partnerships and better government incentives … but if we just take exciting, interesting people doing great work in universities on whatever timescale and shift all the incentives so they’re building mobile applications with a six-month time horizon, you destroy the whole community,” Professor Biercuk said.

He said the quantum ecosystem - and deep tech in general - relies on a separation of timescales. This means supporting those R&D teams building products on short timescales, but also preserving the unique role of University researchers to pursue fundamental research with timelines measured in decades.

As he explained in his introductory keynote, all of today’s excitement about the emerging quantum economy in Australia is built on decades of fundamental research.