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Dutch and French Cooperation in Quantum Innovation

Three questions to Florian Carrière and Rogier Verberk

INTERVIEW - 27 September 2021

The French and Dutch governments have recently committed significant sums to the quantum field (€1.8 billion and €615 million respectively), and wish to mobilize additional resources through a new partnership. In the presence of Cédric O, French Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, and Mona Keijzer, Dutch Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed on August 31, 2021 with the aim of strengthening collaboration in quantum innovation between the two countries. Florian Carrière, Senior Manager at Wavestone, and Rogier Verberk, Director of the Quantum Technologies, Semiconductors, Industry 4.0 program at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), discuss the scope of this agreement, which aims to compete with the giants of the quantum field - the United States and China.

At the end of August, France and the Netherlands signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to strengthen their bilateral cooperation in quantum technologies. Both countries are already making significant efforts in quantum research. What do they each expect from this MoU? 

Rogier Verberk:

The MoU focuses primarily on the common expectations of France and the Netherlands. Both countries recognize that the required ecosystem and workforce are larger than any country could build on its own. That is why we are joining our forces. This will allow us to bring many disciplines together, to train more experts, and to build highly efficient teams. For this to be carried out successfully, the flow of people and ideas across borders is essential. Europe is certainly conducive to large scale development. However, certain topics could go faster if addressed at a smaller scale, within human dimensions. In light of that, the MoU mentions some strong points for France and the Netherlands, an indication of the areas in which our countries may expect to find support from each other. 

The Netherlands has a great track record in building complex equipment, like lithography equipment for the semiconductor industry. France, on the other hand, is particularly skilled at computing technology, making it complementary to the Dutch expertise on equipment development. Furthermore, both countries are doing research on spin based quantum bits. Besides the scientific aspects, the manufacturing infrastructure (nanofabrication laboratories) in France and the Netherlands are complementary. So, it certainly makes sense to further this relationship!

Florian Carrière:

By bringing together their quantum ecosystems, both of which are frontrunners in the field, the two countries hope to accelerate the emergence of a cutting-edge quantum industry, with major reverberations expected in terms of economic performance and sovereignty.

Concretely, the agreement first targets the silicon industry, which is crucial to the production of quantum chips. The two countries are already working hand in hand on the QLSI (Quantum Large Scale Integration in Silicon) project, as part of the European Quantum Flagship initiative. It was therefore only natural for this sector to be one of the main areas of cooperation in the MoU. The aim surely is to have a greater impact on the strategy behind the Quantum Flagship program, which is currently funded to the tune of €15 million. 

A second part of the agreement consists in establishing hubs or "quantum houses" to create links between industrial and academic worlds. In recent years, France has stepped up its efforts to develop startups and unicorns in general (under the banner of the "French Tech" label, for example) and more specifically in the field of deep tech (notably through initiatives by French public investment bank BPI). To further leverage the considerable economic potential that stems from Dutch academic excellence, reinforced collaboration with the Netherlands - which has a very strong business culture - can only be beneficial.

Facilitating collaboration between research and industry is one of the priorities of this MoU. What is the current situation in the two countries respectively? How could this objective be achieved jointly? 

Rogier Verberk:

Over the last two decades, both France and the Netherlands made impressive scientific breakthroughs in quantum physics. But the field of quantum technologies is still emerging and the connection with industry still needs to be established.

We must work harder to promote the potential of quantum technologies in many fields of application.

Although both countries host several advanced high-tech companies, potentially with capabilities to adopt and apply quantum technologies, we do not have the ‘Big Tech’ type of companies the United States has, with the resources to capitalize on developments. So we must work harder to promote the potential of quantum technologies in many fields of application, including the specific fields French and Dutch high-tech companies are active in.

The second route is to actively stimulate spin-off and start-up companies. We already have 5 quantum start-up companies in Delft alone. And many more will follow, in Amsterdam, Paris, and Grenoble. This shall lead to a new industrial sector, and hopefully a small portion of these companies will turn out to be the unicorns of the future. From this point of view, I see quite some similarities between our two countries, but also many other European Member States.

Florian Carrière:

Both countries are among the most advanced in the quantum field. The Netherlands has recently announced the allocation of €615 million to the advancement of quantum technology and plans to complement the sum with a public-private investment of €3.6 billion by 2027. This public-private funding, led by the Quantum Delta NL program, is at the heart of the collaboration between research and industry. The goal is to scale up to 100 quantum startups and 2,000 PhD students and engineers over the funding period. The collaboration between research and industry is also present in the national R&D hubs that unite actors working in numerous key areas, from computing and communications to enabling technologies and quantum chip development. 

Following a similar model, France is dividing its funding plan between the private (€800 million) and public (€1 billion) sectors. The industrial value chain is currently structured around major French corporations, whether in software or enabling technologies, but also around major American businesses. The value chain also includes an increasing number of startups, most of which come directly out of research laboratories. This conveyor belt from research to industrial applications has often been the weak point in French technology initiatives, but the landscape is now changing rapidly.

The aim of this MoU is to connect the academic and industrial worlds on a European scale and not to limit ourselves to national partnerships. 

Finally, as is the case in the Netherlands, three geographic clusters have developed in the French ecosystem: Paris-Saclay, Paris and Grenoble.

The aim of this MoU is to connect the academic and industrial worlds on a European scale and not to limit ourselves to national partnerships. The European quantum ecosystem is still nascent. The number of skills and players available on the market is too low compared to the required needs. Closer collaboration would therefore make it possible to better distribute skills according to the needs of each country, while more quickly building up the necessary critical mass. If a French startup specializing in hardware cannot find a French partner to move forward on the software front, for example, it must go and find this partnership in the Netherlands. It seems unlikely that a single nation will excel in every aspect: France has solid foundations in the silicon sector, enabling technologies and software, while the Netherlands already has strong skills in quantum networks and cryptography. 

Both countries consider investing in ecosystem development through "quantum houses" to increase the amount of venture capital available. Is this a step in the right direction?

Rogier Verberk:

As previously noted, this emerging field is not yet solely dominated by a few large industrial players that define the way forward and organize the supply chain (at least not in Europe). Instead, we have multiple small start-ups, and fortunately also various interested companies, as well as highly trained scientists. This means that we have to work harder than in more established markets to bring these people together. Every now and then, you will see that the right set of people spark a breakthrough or launch a start-up. The same applies for venture capital. The amount of venture capital in Europe is finite, which has its downfalls. But it is also positive, since it forces us to focus on how to fully use the capital that we do have available. That is why the House of Quantum and La Maison du Quantique have an important role in France and the Netherlands’ respective national strategies. We hope that venture capital and human capital from different places and backgrounds may come together and create new start-ups or inventions. Such communities shall be supported by shared facilities and organizations like CEA, TNO and universities. If start-ups could make use of such resources, they could develop and progress faster, without having to invest as many funds on their privately owned equipment. I believe that building such communities around the House of Quantum / La Maison du Quantique is the right strategy for now. 

Finally, I’d like to emphasize that building a quantum technology industry as such is not the only objective. I truly believe that the technologies developed here will have a positive impact on, or synergy with, existing strong industries in Europe. Quantum computing power, quantum sensors and secure communication will all be incorporated or adopted by other industries. And the (applied) engineers working on the most current challenging tasks will also partly find a job there. This will hopefully help other industries become more sustainable from an economic, geo-political and environmental point of view.

Florian Carrière:

The development of these hubs should enable the development of training programs by strengthening collaborations and opportunities for researchers and engineers from both nations. A common platform listing job offers from players across the quantum industry will also be set up. For both the Netherlands and France, the ambition is clear: reduce the risk of a skills shortage in a market that is already understaffed, to avoid jeopardizing the expected future growth.

For both the Netherlands and France, the ambition is clear: reduce the risk of a skills shortage in a market that is already understaffed, to avoid jeopardizing the expected future growth.

The MoU signed between the Netherlands and France is a good example of how to create clusters, a key factor for the success of innovation projects on a global scale (Silicon Valley is a reference point). Importantly, this bilateral dynamic should eventually be replicated on the European level. Research in the quantum field is very costly, especially because of certain fixed costs. It is estimated for instance that the minimum budget to start manufacturing qubits is €15 million. The most advanced nations, such as the United States or China, are also the largest economic powers, and have centralized budgetary envelopes that allow them to better absorb these fixed costs and to finance clusters.

On the scale of a country such as France or the Netherlands, the envelopes are smaller and do not always allow for the same leverage effects. However, when put together, European budgets have nothing to be ashamed of. They make the old continent one of the leading investors in the field of quantum research. 

Despite the level of investment at the global level, funds tend to be scattered, which slows down the growth of these new clusters. Numerous entities and projects receive investments that do not allow them to overcome the financial barriers required to enter the quantum market. Investors will therefore have a key role to play in priming and scaling up future gems in the ecosystem.

The French-Dutch MoU is a positive development, as it enables the countries to overcome a number of obstacles inherent in the current European model. In parallel with the European Quantum Flagship initiative, such bilateral agreements should become the driving force behind European quantum independence, with the aim of creating a model for strong and effective cooperation between the field’s main players.

 

 

Copyright: THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP

 

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