Quantum computer concept art

Scientists to develop a quantum computer dedicated to life sciences

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Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation is to develop a practical quantum computer with applications ranging from creating new drugs to finding links between genes, environment and disease.

The foundation is expected to spend $200m (£176m) to develop what it says will be the first quantum computer dedicated to life sciences research and the green transition. 

The programme has been launched by the nonprofit foundation - the majority owner of pharmaceutical group Novo Nordisk - in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and includes world-leading researchers in quantum computing from Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and the USA. 

By applying next-generation quantum computing to life sciences, the Novo Nordisk Foundation is expecting to speed up the development of new medicines and provide new insights into climate change and the green transition, which is not possible with standard computers today. 

The ambition is that a quantum computer will also be a fundamental tool in designing new sustainable materials, delivering new energy-saving solutions or assisting with new approaches to decarbonisation.

“The other major initiatives around the world have already chosen their platforms and are trying to optimise them, but we anticipate that many will hit a dead end,” said Peter Krogstrup, who will lead the programme at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen. “We’d rather spend seven years finding the platform that offers the greatest opportunity to build a usable quantum computer.”

Some quantum computer prototypes manipulate electrons, others photons (light particles). But all of today’s devices, whether electronic or photonic, “are noisy, fault-tolerant machines that cannot solve any problem concerning humanity,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, chief executive of the Foundation. 

Simulations done in the laboratory of Professor Garrett Morris, a computational chemist at Oxford University, showed that in many cases, quantum computers can predict molecular structures much faster and more accurately than their conventional counterparts.

“It’s a very exciting initiative, with its coordinated effort on the hardware and software side,”  Morris said. “Quantum computing could revolutionise so many aspects of science – if they can pull it off.”

While most computers process data in bits, with a binary value of either zero or one, quantum computers use a two-state unit for data processing called a qubit, which represents several digits simultaneously through a process known as superposition. By being able to bridge binary digits, and cope with high levels of uncertainty, the devices can make highly complex calculations that cannot be done by regular computers.

This ability to perform large numbers of calculations simultaneously could be particularly useful for the modelling of chemical reactions, designing new materials and searching huge databases.

“In the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate the development of personalised medicine by letting quantum computers process the enormous amount of data available on the human genome and diseases,” said Lene Oddershede, vice president head of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Although the foundation does not want to commit to any specific technology offered by large companies active in quantum computing such as IBM, Microsoft and Alphabet or the many start-ups in the field, the programme is expected to be open to collaboration on specific projects.

"We want to create an international powerhouse in quantum research, a field with tremendous potential. We want to create, mature and develop technology that can solve major and current challenges within health, sustainability and other areas," said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, the Foundation's CEO. 

The programme will involve a large ecosystem of universities and industries including researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (United States), Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands), Technical University of Denmark, Aarhus University (Denmark), and the University of Toronto (Canada).

For the first seven years, the project is expected to focus on developing materials and hardware to build qubits. In parallel, various quantum platforms are said to be explored and the most suitable quantum platform determined. Eventually, the Foundation will look to scale up the technology to be used widely in life sciences research. 

The UK has shown ambitions to be the world’s first quantum-ready economy. As part of this, in 2020, the UK pledged £10m of funding to build the country’s first quantum computer. Earlier this summer, the Ministry of Defence acquired the government’s first quantum computer to explore ways in which the technology can be used to bolster the UK’s defence.

However, Professor Winfried Hensinger, head of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies at the University of Sussex, told the BBC that the true potential of quantum computers will take time to fully materialise, as these devices “can’t actually solve any practical problems yet”.

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