Quantum photonics: What keeps executives awake at night?
When asked what keeps them awake at night, quantum executives at this year’s Photonics West cited everything from staff shortages and production scaling to a need for new laser technologies, smaller optics, more industry investment and clearer commercial use cases.
Scott Faris, CEO of Infleqtion, said supply chain is the single biggest thing keeping him up at night and likened today’s quantum industry to that of telecoms and lidar in their early days.
In both industries, he said, a lot of the exciting breakthrough technologies important to the supply chain were held in small companies that at the time weren’t in an ideal position to scale.
“Getting such firms to even think about scaling was a challenge, and even if they did, they often wouldn’t have the required capital, or the knowledge of how to interface with a handful of large customers,” he said. “That’s certainly part of the supply chain challenge we’re seeing in today’s quantum industry.”
Referring back to Infleqtion’s previous role in supplying vacuum cells and other components to research centres doing cold atom work, Faris said: “We were part of the supply chain back then and so we had an obligation to scale, not just for our internal applications but also for the research centres, and so we ended up selling to a lot of our competitors.” He went on to remark that early quantum products will never achieve the scale they need until the supply chain issue is resolved. “If we can’t address it, then we’re going to have lots of really interesting, very expensive large quantum devices that are limited to scientific research. We have to figure out how to get to commercial scale, and building the supply chain is really the foundation for that.”
Echoing issues with supply chain, Photonics100 honoree Carmen Palacios-Berraquero, CEO and co-founder of Nu Quantum, said shortages currently exist across a number of crucial photonics components used in quantum devices.
“In the quantum industry, each qubit has a native wavelength,” she said. “We need to be able to work at different wavelengths, so we can’t just use silicon platforms. One big supply chain issue is that we need these new integrated photonics platforms that go beyond silicon to be manufacturable at wafer scale and to have really high performance – because we’re talking about interfering single photons, where the losses can cause major issues. "In addition, I think there’s a big opportunity for miniaturising and modularising a lot of the optics used across quantum systems. There’s definitely a demand there, but perhaps it is not big enough for it to be worth it for some of the optical packaging companies.”
Together with fellow panellists Denise Ruffner, president of Women in Quantum, and Celia Merzbacher, Executive Director of QED-C, Palacios-Berraquero said there is also currently a demand in the quantum industry for laser technologies that don’t yet exist: “The demand is not enough for photonics firms to make these new lasers, and so that’s potentially a concern, maybe even an opportunity.” Both Ruffner and Merzbacher said they have had conversations with researchers who agreed that the need for new lasers was a key supply chain challenge in quantum. Merzbacher raised hopes, however, by sharing that the QED-C is working on a project to help identify the laser needs of the quantum industry – looking at what the technology gaps are, how hard it will be to fill those gaps, and what the market potential is once they are filled.
Quantum industry faces shortages of staff, funding and early adopters
For Dan Dries, Head of Legal and Lead IP Counsel at PsiQuantum, the supply of staff is an issue. “There’s a real risk embedded in the ability for all of our companies to get people,” he said. “The market is international, but I’m not sure that enough is being done to ensure those with the right skills from across the globe have the opportunity to work with some of the excellent companies making up today’s quantum industry.” The other panellists concurred that worker shortages are another key challenge.
Palacios-Berraquero and Faris both also cited a lack of government and private investment into the quantum industry as challenges.
“Just to put some perspective on this, looking at lidar again as an example, the industry similarly had to take complex optical systems and make them small, inexpensive and scalable,” said Faris. “Over $20bn of private investment was put into the industry over an eight-year period to make that happen. What the quantum industry is trying to do, however, is infinitely more complex. The scale of investment to get quantum going on a similar scale will therefore be substantially larger, and it’s going to require different financing strategies and lots of government support.”
He said governments also needed to figure out how to become early adopters of some of these quantum technologies. “We’ve got to start getting them out of the labs, out of the research centres and into the field. We’ve got to figure out where these technologies fall short in the real world in order to optimise them further. I think the government could step in and play a major role here.”
What could help to attract the required investment, said Palacios-Berraquero, would be clarifying the commercial use cases of quantum technologies. A “killer” use case – as autonomous driving was for lidar, and as health monitoring was for smart watches – has the potential to push the industry forward, according to Palacios-Berraquero, and more emphasis from the industry needs to be put on the cutting-edge algorithms and technologies that are tailored towards such clear, commercial use cases.