By | November 17, 2023
French Quantum Ecosystem Graphic

In January 2021, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, announced the National Quantum Computing Plan to channel a whopping €1.8 billion into the technology.

“Quantum strategy is paramount,” Macron said at a ceremony announcing the plan at Paris-Saclay University, a center for quantum research. “Just like artificial intelligence, microelectronics, health, energy and space technology, quantum technologies are among the few keys to the future that France absolutely must have in its hand.”

He said quantum computing would enable breakthroughs in areas such as healthcare and climate change and create 16,000 new jobs by 2030.

Now, just three years later, there are signs that the country has established itself as a top hub for next-generation technology.

French quantum computing startups have raised $250 million since 2018, just behind Finland’s $268 million. Both countries trail Britain, which has raised $697 million, according to figures from Dealroom. But in 2023, France has climbed to second place on that list with $140 million raised so far this year, closing the gap on Britain, which has raised $145 million. .

Beyond the fundraising numbers, leaders in France’s quantum community say the national plan has served as a rallying cry that has led to uncharacteristic collaboration between academia, research institutes, industry, investors and entrepreneurs. For a county that can often be tough and territorial, observers say such cooperation catalyzes the nation’s quantum ambitions.

“What perhaps sets France apart is how dynamic the ecosystems are here,” said Sabine Mehr, director of quantum projects for GENCI, which manages France’s supercomputing center. “You have several research organizations putting all their efforts into these quantum technologies. And we have many meetings in different regions here in France where you can see the willingness to work together.”

It has also put France in the lead compared to other major European economies. Germany only announced a €3bn national quantum plan in May, and the UK a £2.5bn strategy in March.

Bpifrance’s role in accelerating the ecosystem

Christophe Jurczak, co-founder of the Paris-based Quantonation VC fund, had been based in Silicon Valley before returning to France several years ago because of the wealth of talent and research he saw developing across the country’s university system. He founded Quantonation in 2018 and announced in 2022 that a €91 million fund would close to finance quantum and other advanced microelectronics startups.

“It’s pretty amazing what’s happened,” he says.

Quantonation was one of the early backers of PASQAL, which is developing quantum processing technology that it claims has already matched the results of high-performance computers built on classical architectures. The quantum start-up arose from research being carried out at France’s Institut d’Optique led by co-founder Alain Aspect, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. It is now France’s best-funded quant, having raised $140 million.

PASQAL CEO Georges-Olivier Reymond says that even before the national plan was announced, his company benefited from a specialized set of programs and funding to target quantum startups established by state-owned bank Bpifrance. He says this signaled to researchers early on that France was serious about catalyzing research and commercialization of quantum computers.

“A bank like Bpifrance supports many companies, so their attention can be diluted,” says Reymond. “But by creating these special quantum tracks, quantum companies are proving to have support. I think that’s really smart.”

The significant contribution of government funding in France’s quantum ecosystem differs from Finland, for example, where most quantum efforts have been primarily led by its large business association and universities. Finland has Europe’s second best funding quant startup, IQM.

Last January, Bpifrance helped finance a €100 million Series B round for PASQAL through its Large Venture Fund. Bpifrance has also participated in funding rounds for five other French quantum companies, totaling €75 million in funding.

Bpifrance-backed Quobly CEO and co-founder Maud Vinet says her company initially received a €600,000 innovation grant from Bpifrance that helped start the transition from being a research project to being a startup. The company is developing a fault-tolerant quantum processor.

Vinet had been doing deeptech R&D for more than 25 years, including 10 years at CEA-Leti, France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. In 2019, she became its quantum hardware program manager, leading the development of a large-scale quantum computer spun out in Quobly.

While Quoly is now a private company, it continues to have joint laboratories with the CEA and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Vinet says the startup developed this structure to allow it to explore commercial applications while allowing basic research to move as quickly as possible, as the company pushes toward its goal of having a full-stack quantum computing prototype by 2025.

Vinet was an adviser on the development of France’s national quantum plan, and she says it is important for the government to facilitate such public-private partnerships to build a nascent industry around a technology that is still in its infancy.

“There is no strong rational market,” says Vinet. “This is a product that may not bring real value to the industry for 10 years. If we want to be able to afford this kind of disruptive innovation, it’s really useful for the government to act as a buffer and share the risk with the private sector. “

Quobly co-founders François Perruchot, Maud Vinet and Tristan Meunier.  Photo ©Franck Ardito, courtesy of Quobly.
Quobly co-founders (left to right): François Perruchot, Maud Vinet and Tristan Meunier. Photo ©Franck Ardito, courtesy of Quobly.

Corporate partnership

Quobly’s work with commercial partners represents another key element of the French quantum strategy – indeed, €500 million of the government’s €1.8 billion plan is to come from industry and the promotion of partnerships with companies such as Thales and Atos, which are already investing in quantum. and is high on the government’s agenda.

Last May, Bpifrance co-sponsored the Q2B conference in Paris with the aim of focusing attention on the commercial potential of quantum and promoting more public-private partnerships. Such collaborations are beginning to take root.

Atos, the French IT giant, has been developing its own quantum computing technology for years. Last year, Atos and France’s OVHcloud, the largest European cloud hosting company, expanded their existing partnership by announcing a plan to make Atos’ quantum emulator available to public and private users.

An “emulator” mimics the environment of a quantum computer, allowing users to begin exploring commercial and practical applications before a real quantum computer is available.

Earlier this year, OVHcloud also bought a quantum computer from Bpifrance-backed French company Quandela, powered by a photonic processor. Following that announcement, Quandela opened its first factory in a suburb of Paris to begin producing three photonic quantum computers every six months. These will be sold directly to businesses, as well as used to expand the availability of cloud-based quantum services.

OVHcloud recently said it bought yet another quantum emulator from French startup C12. The quantum startup has also struck deals with Artelys, a data science company, and Air Liquide, a British industrial giant, to develop potential quantum applications.

Testing a C12 Quantum Electronics processor.
Testing a C12 Quantum Electronics processor.

Pierre Desjardins, co-founder and CEO of C12, says such support has allowed the company to move toward completing its pilot production line to build quantum computer prototypes at its offices in central Paris.

The pilot line “will be a game changer for us because now we control all the production steps and we can move quickly if we want to repeat our design,” says Desjardins.

By acquiring and making available different quantum technologies, OVHcloud allows users to compare different approaches to see which can be most effective. France’s research community is enabling a similar quantum effect with the development of the Hybrid Quantum Initiative (HQI) just outside Paris.

HQI is connected to GENCI’s Joliot Curie supercomputer at one of CEA’s research facilities. The high-performance computer that already exists is gradually connected to quantum technologies in a separately dedicated room, where researchers and private business partners can test quantum applications in this public infrastructure.

PASQAL’s quantum processors are among the first to be purchased for the project, but others will be added. GENCI’s Mehr says it’s important to let different approaches to building quantum computers develop in these early stages.

“We haven’t taken sides at the moment,” says Mehr. “It’s super early to evaluate and assess these technologies, and to be able to say, ‘That’s the one that’s going to win the race.’ We want to let users access them and assess them for their specific use cases. And then they’ll tell which technology which is more suitable for running this type of workload.”

French Minister of Higher Education and Research Sylvie Retaileau
France’s Minister of Higher Education and Research Sylvie Retailleau (centre) poses with quantum researchers at the HQI booth at the Viva Technology conference.

Building quantum bridges

Although France’s high-tech cheerleading can sometimes strike a nationalistic tone, it does not take an isolationist approach to quantum computing.

French researchers formed a coalition with their quantum colleagues across Europe to apply for funding from the EU’s Quantum Flagship programme. It has already prompted one of Germany’s national supercomputing centers, JUWELS, to purchase PASQAL’s technology.

“Participating in European projects brings greater ambition,” says Mehr, “because then we get co-funding from Europe. But it’s also a good way for us to expose these French units to European research and industrial communities. It makes things a little more collaborative .”

Spain’s Multiverse Computing, which develops quantum computing software, and Finland’s IQM have also opened offices in Paris. This makes them eligible for aid under the French quantum plan.

IQM wanted to connect with French customers in the aerospace and cyber security sectors to further develop its technology, as well as tap into France’s quantum talent pool. The company also signed an agreement to provide its technology to Atos.

More recently, France signed an agreement with US officials to cooperate on quantum research and exchange scientific resources. Earlier this year, France’s CNRS established the Canada-France Quantum Alliance (CAFQA), which will coordinate research between eight French and eight Canadian universities. That partnership got a boost when PASQAL said it would open a factory in Canada to produce its quantum processing devices.

Vinet of Quobly says that such international collaboration will ultimately be key for France to realize its own quantum ambitions.

“I think no country can do it alone,” says Vinet. “There is an opportunity to analyze the strengths of each country and to build on these strengths and accept that you need help from other countries when the issues you are dealing with are so complex. This allows us to build on our highly demanding engineering mindset and benefit from our deep scientific roots. I think we have everything to be the position of technical leadership.”

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