Quantum Horizons in Québec: linking business, talent and research

Original article by Chloé-Anne Touma in CScience, translated by Mitacs

Although still unfamiliar to the general public, quantum technology is already fuelling grand ideas in the world of science and innovation, promising to revolutionize several sectors of activity, and create highly skilled and valued jobs for years to come. While large companies are already facing challenges in recruiting professionals in the fields of quantum engineering and research, Québec’s positioning and leadership in this field are encouraging more and more organizations to set up operations in Sherbrooke’s Quantum Innovation Zone, and to turn to talent providers like Mitacs to enrich themselves with qualified new talent, supporting their growth. But how is this revolution shaping up, and what does it promise in terms of innovation and jobs from one sector to the next? CScience talks to Sylvain Giguère, Vice-President of Business Development at Mitacs, to find out more.

The quantum computer promises major advances for research and development in all sectors, thanks to its incomparable computing power and speed. In traditional computing, which is based on a binary system, we speak of bits, which correspond to the smallest unit of information that can be manipulated by a digital machine. In quantum physics, the first basic element of a computer is the qubit, capable of being simultaneously in the values 0 and 1, and in all the intermediate values of the spectrum between the two, as Mr. Giguère reminds us, which confers “infinite computational potential”. For example, the System Quantum One model, operated in Bromont by the Plateforme d’Innovation Numérique et Quantique du Québec (PINQ²), can support up to 127 qubits. IBM’s latest chip model, IBM Osprey, supports over 400.

According to Sylvain Giguère, “The quantum industry is still in its infancy. We can hope for concrete, revolutionary spin-offs, but not for five, ten or even 15 years,” specifies the VP of Business Development at Mitacs a not-for-profit organization that, in partnership with universities, the private sector and the governments of Canada and Québec, helps meet organizational challenges through paid internships, particularly in the field of quantum innovation.

The promise of a multi-sector revolution

Among the fields that quantum is already transforming, he mentions cryptography, “because it opens up a whole field of coding possibilities, making it possible to decrypt everything that has yet to be decrypted, as well as encrypt what hasn’t yet been encrypted. Communications will also be much faster, thanks to encryption that is much more impervious to attack”, optimizing risk management and strengthening system security in error-critical sectors such as finance, “which involves large volumes of sensitive data”, points out Mr. Giguère.

This computing power, which renders traditional encryption ineffective, also represents a threat to current cybersecurity systems. But for Mr. Giguère, it’s just as well, since “Identifying solutions to this problem starts with quantum, which makes it a subject of strategic value, hence the importance of giving ourselves the means to establish our own quantum development hub to meet the challenges that come with the opportunity. ”

Nor does it fail to mention healthcare, a field in which many experts are looking forward to the discovery of drugs and treatments thanks to molecular modelling. “We’ll be able to reduce the time and cost of developing treatments. And let’s not forget energy and transport, where several research projects are underway. ”

Creating jobs and attracting up-and-coming talent

Booming in many industries, the field of quantum physics is brimming with opportunities for the creation of jobs, sometimes unimagined, “for mathematicians and engineers of all specialties, because it’s a field with crossover impact, touching all branches of engineering, the very ones that will have a significant role to play in this movement. We’re also thinking about digital technologies and the involvement of IT specialists. In Canada, quantum technology is expected to create 200,000 jobs by 2045. In Québec, we’re expecting at least 50,000 jobs, given the concentrated growth of the sector in the province,” adds Sylvain Giguère.

More than in terms of the number of jobs, he believes that “it’s in terms of productivity that we’ll be able to measure the progress of the quantum sector and its contribution to the development of our economy and society, and to the quality of life of our citizens, because we’re in a context of labour shortage. The potential for quantum leaps in productivity is not negligible. ”

Investments to match Québec’s ambitions

The Québec government is demonstrating its ambition to exploit the full potential of the wealth of talent and research produced in quantum science in Québec, and to continue to develop its expertise and application, by training new talent and promoting the adoption of technologies in collaboration with industry in the province.

“Québec is fortunate to have one of the best quantum infrastructure in the world. By combining ÉTS’s applied research with the newly established infrastructure, we can create the synergy needed to derive maximum benefit from quantum science,” noted Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister of Economy, Innovation and Energy, in conjunction with the recent announcement of a $5 million grant to ÉTS to support initiatives valued at $19.1 million. With this in mind, his ministry also intends to strengthen its support for Mitacs, with an investment of $64.6 million extended to 2027.

Concrete examples

Notable Québec quantum projects include the test bed launched by Numana, a catalyst for technological innovation ecosystems, to test quantum communication, in which Mitacs collaborated by connecting researchers and companies and by funding talent as stakeholders.

A winning trio

According to Sylvain Giguère, these links between research institutes, companies and liaison and activist organizations are the ingredients of a winning recipe for quantum innovation to flourish for the benefit of the community.

If the lag in technology transfer, in sectors other than quantum, is widespread in Québec and Canada, Mr. Giguère explains it by a lack of research and development, patents, but also investment in machinery and equipment. “SMEs are faced with performance and productivity challenges. They have a smaller capacity to absorb technologies, and this is especially true in Canada, where the stakes are not the same as in the United States, for example. ” This observation echoes that of Québec’s Chief Innovator, Luc Sirois, who reminded us in an interview with CScience a few months ago that Québec produces 10,000 times fewer patents than the United States.

“We could also do more in aeronautics and health technologies. In the case of quantum computing, we’re talking about an emerging field, based on the highest level of knowledge and state-of-the-art infrastructure achieved in communications and digital technologies, which removes an obstacle specific to other sectors,” suggests Mr. Giguère.

When asked about the balance to be struck between international collaboration and protectionism, given that many of the local companies and talents in which Québec invests end up in the US market, he maintains that “the challenge in dealing with the purchase of intellectual property is to convince companies of the benefits of relying on Québec to strengthen the ecosystem and lead the quantum revolution”, which seems more accessible than the counterpart challenge in artificial intelligence, if only to judge by the number of companies setting up in the DistriQ Quantum Innovation Zone in Sherbrooke.

“There’s the Institut de quantique at the Université de Sherbrooke, the Université de Montréal and the ÉTS, which are carrying out various research projects, as well as companies with a presence on the Québec scene, such as IBM, whose quantum supercomputer is made available to local companies for testing, and finally, start-ups from other Canadian provinces and even Europe who come to set up shop. ” That’s where organizations like Québec Quantique and Mitacs come in, “by connecting industries and companies of all sizes with specific productivity needs to the right people in the research community. This includes funding the entire R&D process, as well as talent from universities in Québec and elsewhere in Canada,” concludes the VP of Business Development.

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to empower Canadian innovation. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

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