By Catherine Lefebvre

Canada has taken a prominent position in the world for quantum technologies. Leveraging a strong background in basic science and putting in place mechanisms to support the growth of innovation, it is currently building a vibrant Canadian quantum ecosystem.

This analysis does not aim to rank Canada and compare it quantitatively to other countries in terms of the number of investments, companies, and experts. Instead, we analyze what makes Canada so unique and what are the key ingredients in its success in supporting quantum innovation.

Pioneers in quantum science

Before even reaching the level of technological maturity, the very first crucial step that sets the ground for innovation is knowledge and expertise in basic science. Over the past decades, Canada has attracted and trained a critical mass of experts in quantum science. These scientists have developed and continue to develop innovative theories and experiments in fundamental research. 

As we now enter the second quantum revolution in which we are moving beyond understanding quantum phenomena to now engineering quantum systems, it is good to look back in time. Recent advances in quantum science and technology sit on important breakthroughs emerging from the period of the first quantum revolution. The development of lasers and their use as a tool to probe and control quantum phenomena and to coherently manipulate quantum states is an excellent example that has brought in-depth understanding of the microscopic world. In particular, it is worth mentioning at least two of the major Canadian contributions to quantum science that pioneered today’s quantum science and technology. In 2018, the Canadian Professor Donna Strickland at the University of Waterloo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with the French Professor Gérard Mourou, for pioneering the technique of chirped pulse amplification which enabled the generation of ultrashort and intense laser pulses essential for probing quantum phenomena at its ultrafast natural time scale (e.g. in the order of femtoseconds for nuclei and attosecond for electrons). This technique is now routinely used in a large number of quantum photonic applications.

Another mention goes to the Canadian Professor Gilles Brassard at the Université de Montréal who contributes extensively to quantum information science. In the mid-80’s, together with the American researcher Charles Bennett, they invented the BB84 protocol, a quantum key distribution scheme still used today for quantum cryptography. This discipline is now one of the most active in quantum technologies with promises of being very disruptive in terms of encryption and security applications. 

Through multiple programs, at the regional, provincial and national level, Canada supports basic research with funding and infrastructure that are essential to maintain its leadership in quantum fundamental research. The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is one such initiative that pushes the frontiers of science and fosters scientific collaboration. Their activities have demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary collaboration to undertake long-term scientific challenges and impact our society, beyond Canadian borders. Among its 15 programs, two are dedicated to quantum science, one in quantum information sciences and the other one in quantum materials. In both programs, Canadian and international outstanding scholars work together to advance knowledge and accelerate discoveries, essential to the future of quantum technologies.

The Innovation, from East to West

Canada has put in place different mechanisms to bridge basic research to technological development and foster an innovation-friendly environment. These mechanisms financially support research and development (R&D), as well as large infrastructures, in partnership between academia and industry.

A major funding program that supports R&D is the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFRET). Its main goal is to turn research into world-leading capabilities. There are currently three CFRET-funded quantum institutes in Canada that have bolstered three main quantum R&D hotspots in the country: Sherbrooke in the province of Québec, Waterloo in the province of Ontario and Vancouver in the province of British Columbia. 

The Institut Quantique (IQ) at the Université de Sherbrooke was funded in 2015 (33.5M $CAN). It leverages decades of basic research expertise in the fields of quantum information and quantum materials and is now pushing the discipline of quantum engineering. The strength of the IQ is its open collaborative research approach and its vision of supporting entrepreneurship among the young generation of researchers. By placing students at the center of the institute, the IQ empowers them to directly contribute to accelerate the transition from science to quantum technologies. For instance, some student projects have even been selected by the Canadian Space Agency to develop a miniature magnetometer for their CubeSat nanosatellite. The rich research activities of the IQ have strong ties with the Interdisciplinary Institute for Technological Innovation and the MiQro Innovation Collaborative Center and these connections equip the IQ ecosystem to accelerate commercialization of technologies. In the past few years, a few young startups have emerged from IQ. This unique and innovative environment is also attracting big players. This is the case of IBM for instance. On June 1st, 2020, IBM announced a new IBM Quantum Hub at the IQ of the Université de Sherbrooke. This makes it the very first IBM Quantum Hub in Canada, and one of 14 in the world. The new hub will not only give access to IBM resources, but also has the mission of amplifying the local quantum technology network by attracting companies to join and to adopt new technologies, as well as accelerating the path to commercialization. This also demonstrates that the flourishing quantum ecosystem around IQ will continue to bring new opportunities. Not far from the Sherbrooke quantum hotspot are Montreal and Québec City, which also demonstrate a critical mass of experts, R&D and commercial activities in quantum photonics, materials and communication, and, more specifically in Montreal, in artificial intelligence. For instance, it is worth mentioning the young Montreal startup, Anyon Systems that builds superconducting quantum computing hardware. Both quantum technologies and artificial intelligence are disruptive technologies that the provincial government is currently particularly active at supporting the growth of its innovation ecosystem.

The Transformative Quantum Technologies (TQT) at the University of Waterloo was funded in 2016 (76.3M $CAN) and benefits from significant additional funding from private partners and the philanthropist Mike Lazaridis (68M $CAN). The institute is part of what is called the Quantum Valley in Canada which forms an exceptional cluster of research, business and investment partners. In particular it comprises the Institute for Quantum Computing of the University of Waterloo, a leader in quantum computing, the Perimeter Institute focusing on theoretical quantum physics, the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, at the intersection of nano science and quantum physics, the Lazaridis Institute, for management of technology entrepreneurs, the Quantum Valley Investment and Quantum Valley Ideas Lab. This exceptional critical mass of researchers and the significant related fundings attract a lot of talents and world-renowned experts to take part in a large effort, in particular in quantum computing and quantum sensing. Needless to mention that the strong support for knowledge transfer and technology transfer make the Quantum Valley a nest for young innovators from which numerous quantum startups emerge every year. 

A little further north, in Ottawa, the National Research Council and the University of Ottawa have made quantum technologies one of their priorities since many years with industrial R&D programs dedicated in particular to quantum sensing and metrology, as well as quantum communication and security. 

And back closer to the Quantum Valley, in Toronto, the University of Toronto is also very active with its Center for Quantum Information and Quantum Control. Most prominent figure at the international level is the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) that developed a Quantum stream with the mission of accelerating the transition between academia and entrepreneurship and contributing to de-risk novel quantum companies. Intensive boot camps are offered to young startups entrepreneurs, coming from all around the world, with an incomparable mentorship specifically designed to launch the commercialisation of quantum technologies. CDL provides opportunities to challenge the startups’ business and technology and de-risking their company, by interacting directly with leading entrepreneurs, investors, scientists and quantum hardware vendors (e.g. the Canadian D-Wave Systems and Xanadu, as well as the American IBM Q, Rigetti Computing). The list of successful quantum startups that were propelled by the CDL program is long. Amongst them are Canadian startups based in the Toronto area such as, Agnostiq, offering a software solution for data encryption; Protein Cure, which builds a platform for quantum simulations that accelerate drug discovery, Xanadu, which offers full-stack quantum computing using a photonic approach; as well as SB Quantum, the startup located in the eastern neighbouring quantum hotspot, in Sherbrooke, developing 3D NV centers quantum sensors. The list gets even longer when one looks at all the quantum startups in the Toronto and Waterloo area that emerge from incubator programs other than the CDL.

The Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) at the University of British Columbia was also funded in 2015 (66.5M $CAN), and secured additional private funding from the philanthropist Stewart Blusson and his wife Marilyn (11M $CAN). The institute focuses on quantum material research and innovation. It is also part of a prestigious international partnership with the University of Tokyo and the Max-Planck Institute. There is a strong provincial network, Quantum BC, which brings together three leading universities and research centers in quantum on the West Coast of Canada, including the brand new Quantum Algorithm Institute at Simon Fraser University. Together they contribute to a rich collaborative research and innovation ecosystem in the province. This ecosystem has been a pioneer in quantum computing in the world for more than two decades. In fact, D-Wave Systems, a Burnaby-based company that is part of the Vancouver metropolitan area, claimed the first commercial quantum computing hardware, using a quantum annealing architecture. The company is now at its 4th generation of hardware with 2000 qubits and is partnering with large corporations all around the world. D-Wave is recognized as a leader, along with the big players also headquartered on the West Coast of the continent, such as Google and Rigetti. The younger company 1QBit also emerged from the rich Vancouver quantum ecosystem. It is currently one of the leaders in quantum software development and partners with large corporations and banks around the globe. It’s worth mentioning that 1QBit recently opened offices in the other quantum hotspots of the country, in Waterloo and Sherbrooke, thus bridging quantum ecosystems from coast to coast. Many other startups are spinning out of the Vancouver area, which includes, to name a few, Photonic Inc., providing a photonic approach to quantum computing and ZY4, offering in quantum encryption solutions.

Not too far from the thriving ecosystem of Vancouver, its neighbour, the province of Alberta, is also building a provincial quantum network, Quantum Alberta, to rally universities and industry and accelerate the adoption and commercialisation of quantum technologies. The Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the University of Calgary is particularly at the forefront of quantum research and development.

Bridging the Innovation Ecosystems

In short, Canada is in a prime position to translate its decades of expertise in quantum science into new quantum technologies. This fertile ground is leveraged by numerous young entrepreneurs who are currently developing innovative quantum technologies. The number of startups offering innovative solutions keeps increasing. A more exhaustive list of startups and companies in Canada can be found on the Private/Startup Companies page of the Quantum Computing Report. This explosion of quantum startups and the many growing Canadian quantum ecosystems definitely contribute to attract talents and experts, who may find Canada exceptionally conducive to innovation as well as immigration-friendly. This also brings the attention of investors who see an excellent ground for planting seeds with fundings that will propel these disruptive technologies. There is no doubt about a clear need to support the growing ambition of innovators to scale up their companies. With the relatively small Canadian market, the young companies need to explore at the international where the giant players already dominate. Therefore, a next step for Canada is to ensure small businesses grow at their full potential inside the Canadian ecosystem.

In recent years, many leading countries in the world have announced their national strategy with respect to quantum technologies. On its side, Canada has yet to crystalize its own quantum strategy. Priorities are to support the adoption of quantum technologies by the industry and the commercialization as well as to train, attract and retain the quantum educated workforce. With such a wide country, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers have a great opportunity to rally their forces to shape a unique and extremely powerful national network that will ensure Canada maintains a leading position in the global quantum journey.

Finally, the development in quantum technologies is going at an ultrafast pace and expertise and business are spreading over multiple centers in the country. Canada remains a country to watch growing and to partner with.

By Catherine Lefebvre, PhD (catherine.lefebvre@gmail.com)
This analysis is inspired from a panel discussion on Quantum in Canada organized by the Canadian Consulate in Boston and the MIT-Enterprise Forum, May 27, 2020 (link). Catherine Lefebvre has a PhD in Molecular Physics and Theoretical Chemistry and was postdoctoral researcher and associate researcher in Quantum Physics. She then worked as a Scientific Liaison Officer at an Artificial Intelligence startup. She is now advising the Québec Government on Quantum Technologies.

August 21, 2020