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TQI Exclusive — UK Tech Envoy: UK Quantum Ecosystem’s Strengths Make it a Strategic Global Partner

UK Joe White

Insider Brief

  • The UK’s strength in quantum science and research, its thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs and the country’s unique partnership with the US positions the country as a leader in quantum.
  • Quantum is one of the nation’s five strategic technologies, along with AI, synthetic biology, semiconductors and future telecoms.
  • Trade restrictions must be navigated with “certainty and coordination,” to ensure the safe development of these technologies.

In an era where technological advances are critical to everything from national security to educational opportunities, policymakers in the United Kingdom recognize quantum as a strategically important technology, according to Joe White, MBE, the UK’s tech envoy to the US.

In an interview with The Quantum Insider, White said that the UK’s strength in quantum science and research, its thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs and the country’s unique partnership with the US, arguably the top hub of quantum research and development, positions the country as a leader in quantum, which also happens to be one of UK’s strategic technological priorities.

Because the UK was already a pioneer in quantum science, the nation quickly understood the disruptive potential of quantum, which helped it attain an early-mover advantage in the industry.

“The UK has chosen in the last couple of years to really focus on five strategic technologies – which, of course, include quantum, along with AI, synthetic biology, semiconductors and future telecoms,” said White. “The UK had a quantum strategy that started in 2014 with about a billion pounds committed to it at that stage. I think that was still pretty forward thinking at that time and that stimulated a lot of the early quantum research that was done in the UK.”

The country’s commitment to quantum was deepened when a further £2.5 billion was added to develop quantum technologies in the UK over the 10 years, said White, who served as General Partner of Entrepreneur First, a Greylock-backed early-stage deep tech fund.

This focus on AI, quantum and the other critical technologies is part of the UK’s broader strategy to navigate and lead in the global tech landscape. Interestingly, White sees quantum as becoming integrated into a deep tech convergence that could spread across the technological spectrum.

“The thing that’s interesting to me about the AI, synthetic biology and quantum pieces is that there’s almost a spectrum of interrelatedness among these three technologies that is going to happen over time,” said White “AI is obviously already affecting synthetic biology and I think quantum computing – when it really comes online – may  just supercharge that entire arc.”

The Role of the UK and US in Quantum Infrastructure

The relationship between the UK and the US in the realm of quantum technology is marked by strong cooperation, both at a commercial and national security level. As evidence, White spotlights the robust R&D relationship and the mutual investments in each other’s markets, and mentions UK companies that are expanding into the US and vice versa, reflecting a synergistic relationship.

The foundation of this cooperation is that both countries see that quantum technology offers considerable untapped potential.

“There is a great deal of optimism in the UK that this is going to be a technology that has meaningful economic and strategic implications,” said White, who received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 for services to technology businesses.

While there’s collaboration and healthy cooperation, export restrictions – put in place to ensure that quantum research ends up in friendly hands – remains a concern. White emphasizes the need for certainty and coordination on these restrictions from both countries to aid companies in their growth and expansion efforts.

Much Bigger Than Quantum Computing

One of the misunderstandings about quantum’s timeline is that many people see quantum computers as the main focus of the industry, said White, adding that the timeline for QCs may stretch into the future a bit.

However, when it comes to quantum sensing and photonics, much of the technology that will drive those quantum-based technologies is close, if not here already. These early technologies will also serve as key building blocks in the infrastructure that will be needed for quantum computers, when they arrive.

The UK, in fact, is already a leader in some of those technologies, such as photonics, which creates an opportunity to integrate into this emerging supply chain, as well as positions the country as an important global partner.

“The UK ecosystem may have fewer of the big bet quantum computing hardware pieces than the US, for example,” said White, who was co-chair of GBx, a curated network of British entrepreneurs. “But there are a lot of elements of the industry in the UK that feed into quantum computing development – whether that might be the photonics parts, or the other parts of that supply chain, as well as the research.”

UK-US Quantum Partnership

Winston Churchill labeled the US-UK alliance as a “special relationship” in 1944. That special relationship will continue – and perhaps must continue – into the quantum era, White predicts,  due to the massive commercial potential and national security implications.

“I think that the UK and the US are as close to international best friends as you can get, and I think we have very strong research and commercial links,” said White. “When you start to add in a layer of restrictive technology trading, getting that within a sphere that can continue that cooperation and trade, both on a research basis and an actual commercial basis, this is hugely important for the development of this kind of tech.”

Overall, White sees that the UK has taken – and continues to take – the steps necessary to strategically position itself as a leader in quantum technology, just as it has established itself as a center for technology in general.

“I think this really highlights that the UK is focused on science and tech and is becoming an important strategic piece for us,” said White. “The UK is broadly the third largest tech ecosystem outside the US and China. And that’s reflected in the fact that we have four of the top 10 research universities and the third largest VC ecosystem.”

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Matt Swayne

With a several-decades long background in journalism and communications, Matt Swayne has worked as a science communicator for an R1 university for more than 12 years, specializing in translating high tech and deep tech for the general audience. He has served as a writer, editor and analyst at The Quantum Insider since its inception. In addition to his service as a science communicator, Matt also develops courses to improve the media and communications skills of scientists and has taught courses. [email protected]

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