Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation will spend $200 million to develop what it says will be the first practical quantum computer for life science research, with applications ranging from creating new drugs to finding links between genes, the environment and disease.
The non-profit foundation, which is the majority owner of pharmaceutical group Novo Nordisk, joins a crowded field of universities and technology companies trying to turn theoretical superpowers of quantum computing into useful devices.
But he says his seven-year program, based in Copenhagen, stands out because it will evaluate competing technologies before deciding which to proceed with.
“The other major global initiatives have already chosen their platforms and are trying to optimize them, but we expect many to reach a dead end,” said Peter Krogstrup, who will lead the program at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen . “We prefer to spend seven years finding the platform that offers the greatest opportunity to build a usable quantum computer.”
Some prototype quantum computers manipulate electrons, others photons (particles of light). But all devices today, whether electronic or photonic, “are noisy, fault-tolerant machines that cannot solve problems relevant to humanity,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, executive director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
“It’s a very exciting initiative, with its coordinated effort on the hardware and software side,” said Professor Garrett Morris, a computational chemist at Oxford University who does not work with the foundation. Simulations in his lab show that in many cases, quantum computers would predict molecular structures much faster and more accurately than their conventional counterparts.
“Quantum computing could revolutionize so many aspects of science – if they can pull it off,” added Morris.
Quantum theory was formulated at the beginning of the 20th century, with Niels Bohr of Copenhagen playing a leading role, but technology did not allow researchers to begin applying it to computation until nearly 100 years later.
Unlike the binary bits of classical computing, which are either zero or one, quantum bits or qubits exploit the counterintuitive properties of quantum physics to be both at the same time.
Quantum computers will exploit this principle of “superposition” by performing large numbers of calculations simultaneously – an ability that promises to be particularly useful for modeling chemical reactions, designing new materials and searching huge databases.
Thomsen offered the analogy of conventional computing as operating in two dimensions, while quantum computing operates in three.
“In the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate the development of personalized medicine by enabling quantum computers to process the enormous amount of data available about the human genome and diseases,” said Lene Oddershede, senior vice president at the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
In addition to the Danish universities, the quantum computing program will also involve researchers from institutions in other countries, including the Technical University of Delft and the University of Toronto.
Although the foundation does not want to commit to any specific technology offered by the big companies active in quantum computing such as IBM, Microsoft and Alphabet or the many start-ups in the field, the program will be open to collaboration on specific projects.
He will also set up his own company, called Quantum Foundry, to produce materials and hardware for the program.