The Ecosystem: Finland punches above its weight in quantum

03 May 2022 | News

Finland’s quantum ecosystem is attracting foreign start-ups and looking to build on a cooperation agreement with the US government

Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen inspect the inside of Helmi in October 2021. Photo: © Laura Kotila/Prime Minister’s Office

Finns joke that their advantage in quantum computing is that the cold you need to run the processors comes for free. But make no mistake, the quantum ecosystem in Finland is heating up.

Helmi, a five-qubit computer inaugurated last November in Espoo, will this month connect to the LUMI supercomputer in Kajaani, making blended computing projects possible. And in April, the country inked a cooperation statement with the US for quantum information science and technology, the first such agreement with a country in mainland Europe.

“That statement gives us credibility that we are a strong partner to work with,” says Himadri Majumdar, who leads the quantum programme at state-owned research centre VTT. “While we’ve had academic collaborations with the US for a long time, this opens up commercial opportunities for Finnish and US companies to collaborate and find solutions that are useful for both sides.”

One concrete effect is that Finland has been endorsed for cooperation with the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), a body dedicated to the growth of the US quantum industry. “The QED-C is only open to a few European member states and, thanks to the statement, Finland has been selected to be one of them,” says Jan Goetz, chief executive and co-founder of quantum computer start-up IQM. Other benefits are expected to follow, with public funding for collaboration high on the wish list.

Finland’s pitch in quantum is that it has a complete ecosystem. “We have all the components in place, in a concentrated area,” says Mikael Johansson, quantum strategist at CSC, Finland’s IT Centre for Science. Being small has helped, with collaboration the norm across disciplines, and between academia and industry. “Maybe that has been out of necessity, because we have limited resources to work with; but in the case of quantum technologies this is really an asset. We haven’t been siloed within the country, so we all work together and can see the broader picture.”

IQM is a cornerstone of the ecosystem. Set up in 2018 by researchers from Aalto University and VTT, it builds quantum processors for research labs and supercomputing data centres. It now employs over 160 people, at four locations across Europe. Another is Bluefors, set up in 2008 to commercialise a cryogen-free ultra-low temperature system developed at Aalto’s predecessor, Helsinki University of Technology. Achieving these low temperatures is essential for building quantum computers and other devices. The company now has over 250 employees, and an annual revenue of approximately €80 million.

Building on five qubits

IQM and VTT built Helmi, the five-qubit quantum computer inaugurated last November in Espoo. Five qubits is relatively modest compared to other projects: IBM last year turned on a machine boasting more than 100 qubits. But Majumdar says Helmi is just the beginning of Finland’s quantum journey. Upgrades are expected to 20 qubits in 2023, and to 50 qubits in 2024.

“You can run very simple algorithms, so it is for research and education rather than offering commercial benefits. But it is crucial for getting the feel of how a quantum computer works,” says Juha Vartiainen, chief operating officer at IQM, and another of its four co-founders. The aim is to use this infrastructure to energise the ecosystem. Goetz draws an analogy with Britain’s high-performance computing ecosystem around Cambridge, where powerful computing infrastructure stimulated the start-up scene. “And that’s what we seeing, with start-ups being born here or relocating to Finland.”

One example is QuantrolOx, a spin-off from the University of Oxford that has come to Espoo to build its qubit control software. Founded in 2021, the company raised £1.4 million in seed funding this February to further develop its business. “The company can improve its product with the help of this quantum computer,” says Vartiainen. On top of that, a deal announced in April between QuantrolOx and Indian quantum and artificial intelligence company QpiAI will result in the latter opening an office in Finland.

Meanwhile the Indian IT company Tech Mahindra is to set up a quantum centre of excellence in Helsinki, with the goal of creating 200 technology and business jobs over the next five years. “This can be a kind of incubation centre for quantum algorithm development,” says Majumdar, who was part of the trade delegation that sealed the deal. “You can argue that you can do the computing in the cloud, using systems that are already available, but having access to a machine and actual hardware, where you can do even low-level software development, is a unique opportunity.”

In addition to the hardware, Finland’s assets for start-ups include plenty of talented engineers, and a strong venture capital community. “You have events like Slush (a high-profile, annual tech exhibition in Helsinki), and a very good network of people who bring money to the table,” says Goetz. There are also plenty of good ideas waiting to be exploited. “There’s quite a build-up of intellectual property in the universities and VTT, so in terms of spinning out, there is a lot to build companies around,” says Vartiainen.

Quantum meets supercomputing

Having an operational quantum computer will also help bring quantum and traditional high-performance computing together. “Even though the quantum processor is small, it’s a real device, with real properties and real behaviour, that we can now integrate with the pan-European LUMI supercomputer, hosted in our data centre,” says Johansson. “Having it there means we can start doing things that were not possible before. We can start developing the software stack and algorithms, and we can get understanding of how it fits into the workflow for real end-user problems.”

These end-users are the one gap in Finland’s quantum ecosystem. “We want them to get engaged as soon as possible in quantum activities, but there is a threshold that needs to be crossed,” says Majumdar. “Some of them think this is too far off, that they can wait for it to evolve.” To this end VTT is setting up a foresight programme to help companies see beyond the threshold. “We can help them identify what they can do in their specific industry, at each qubit capacity progression.”

This search for end-users is one reason that IQM has expanded beyond Finland, opening offices in Munich, Bilbao and most recently Paris. “In places like Munich, for example, you have a very high density of big industry players who have their quantum teams there,” says Goetz. “It’s a different kind of ecosystem, not focused so much on the systems, but more on use cases.” But its roots in Finland remain strong, with the European Investment Bank announcing last week that it is putting €35 million into the company’s new processor fabrication facility in Espoo.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem...

  • Despite impressive patent activity, Europe’s small deep-tech businesses lag behind their US counterparts, according to a study from the European Patent Office and the European Investment Bank. Surveying activity between 2010 and 2018, the study finds that 6,517 small businesses in the USA were patenting tech for smart connected devices, while the EU had just 2,634. Germany, France and Italy led EU activity by volume, but Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Denmark outperformed other EU states, and even the US, relative to their size. The study recommends targeted grants and early deployment policies to get start-ups off the ground, combined with larger funding rounds for their later stages of development.
  • The European Investment Bank is putting up to $20 million (€19m) into Circulate Capital’s Ocean Fund I-B, which invests in companies with climate change and plastic pollution solutions for Asia. The fund supports both local enterprises and those with applicable technologies around the world, such as US start-ups Arzeda, Circ, and Phase Change Solutions. The fund is hoping to raise a total of $80m.
  • The Commission is reviewing its Platform-to-Business (P2B) regulation and wants to hear what impact, if any, has been felt in the two years since it came into force. So, if you are a start-up with a business that relies on an internet platform or search engine covered by the regulation, get in touch.

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