Geopolitics of Technology

Reflections on Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center’s Ecosystem Day

By Katherine Schmidt on November 30, 2023

On Monday, November 6, 2023, IST’s Vice President for Geostrategic Risk Ben Purser and I attended the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems Center’s (SQMS) Ecosystem Day to gain a better understanding of the state of innovation in the industry. This trip to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) shaped my perspective on my work in the Strategic Balancing Initiative (SBI), a project focused on incentivizing American innovation in critical technologies–including quantum–in light of increased U.S.-China techno-industrial competition. First, I conclude that there needs to be a focus on fundamental science. Second, my time at Fermilab highlighted the idea that applications drive the market, yet the industry experiences barriers and misalignments parallel to and sometimes interdependent with other critical technology sectors.

The start of SQMS’ Ecosystem Day was held at the new Quantum Garage, a 6,000-sq.-ft. facility showcasing newly commissioned, large dilution refrigerators, while the latter half of the program took place at Wilson Hall, the central building, impressive with its sloping, tower-like architecture. Throughout the day we shared coffee with electrical engineers and material scientists, and ate lunch with participating members of government and industry, and listened to experimental and theoretical experts, such as a keynote by particle physicist David Kaplan, on how to think through fundamental principles in quantum physics.

Cover photo by Fermilab.

Nascent Fundamental Science, Nascent Industry

David Kaplan’s Physics Keynote, The Case for Testing the Fundamental Laws of Nature. Photo by Katherine Schmidt.

Three days before the Ecosystem Day, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee introduced the National Quantum Initiative Reauthorization Act, an important step to continuing the federally-funded quantum research from the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act, including that of SQMS (as well as other Department of Energy and lab fundamental research efforts). The Ecosystem Day showcased the research being conducted within SQMS and its ecosystem. Some of that research is application-based, but much of it is fundamental experimental and theoretical science – science that, sitting here in Washington, D.C. and thinking about commercial markets for quantum, I initially overlooked. Even during the SBI team’s first quantum working group in September, which was composed primarily of members of the nascent quantum industry, the conversation focused on barriers to their innovation and misalignments in the market. This focus makes sense when examining private sector innovation through a policy lens. Even though industry includes scientists conducting fundamental research (albeit aligned to the specifics of the company’s architecture and applications), because the science underpinning the technology is still so nascent (e.g., integral algorithms at the scale of new laws), much of the scientific focus is architecture-agnostic. When thinking through how to incentivize innovation in this diverse industry, it will be critical to continue to fund and support the research underpinning this sector, even if the differentiators of many new startups is their architecture.

Applications Drive the Market

Superconducting Qubit-based Platforms: State-of-the-Art, Challenges, and Future Directions, a panel that brought members of industry, including IBM and Rigetti, together with academia. Photo by Katherine Schmidt.

Industry’s focus on architecture makes sense with the added lens that certain techniques and hardware implementations seem to lend themselves to certain types of applications (such as annealing for optimization problems). It also makes sense that, in striving for commercial viability of a product, that there is a coupling between the hardware design and its capabilities, again, as seen in industry. This brings me to my second main takeaway: that the market is and will be driven by the specific use-cases for quantum capabilities. This concept is well understood within the ecosystem already as seen through calls for focusing on near-term devices as well as the elevation of present-day quantum capabilities such as sensing. This focus on shorter-term capabilities and applications will in some ways help create a commercial market for quantum, thus creating a flow of capital to support the needed research. However, the need for sustained funding to support the large capex requirements for hardware and the need to support risk taking from the investor and venture capitalist community will continue to be defining industry features.

The Growth of an Industry; The Growth of a National Ecosystem

Slide from “SQMS Center – Recent Achievements & Looking Ahead.” Credit: Akshay Murthy, June 29, 2023.

My main takeaways are not groundbreaking; in fact, they point to dynamics between the public and private sectors and industry and academia that I am seeing across other industries. And not only are all these innovation program efforts parallel, but they also are interdependent and complementary. For example, scientific advances in studying the impact of ionizing radiation on qubits parallel advances in electromagnetic hardening concepts in microelectronics. Likewise, advances in materials for wide bandgap semiconductors at high temperature applications parallel advances in low temperature quantum materials.

As such, dynamics in the quantum arena like the “valley of death” that impedes commercialization and the need (and associated lag) to scale up hardware manufacturing echo dynamics we have seen within the semiconductor industry. And the innovation ecosystems look similar from a 30,000-foot perspective: the QIS Centers and research hubs are part of ecosystems already present across the nation like the DoD Microelectronics Commons, Commerce’s CHIPS ecosystem development efforts through the National Advanced Packaging Manufacturing Program and National Semiconductor Technology Center, Commerce EDA Regional Tech Hubs, and Manufacturing USA Institutes.

As the SBI team continues to convene working groups across the quantum, biotech, and energy industries to address barriers to innovation and misalignments between the public and private sector, it will be crucial to continue to enhance our understanding of how these sectors rest on similar foundations of fundamental science, face similar manufacturing and fabrication challenges, and rely on an ecosystem of key stakeholders–not only for science and device development, but also supply chains for critical minerals and component technologies.