Germany Inc. tests the powers of quantum computing to gain a business edge

June 11, 2021, 4:59 PM UTC

Ten of Germany’s largest corporations have teamed up to promote and accelerate the use of quantum computing in their combined businesses in the hope of gaining a technological edge over their competitors.

While Europe might be a leader in particle physics, thanks to research institutes like CERN, it’s been playing catch-up in the race to harness the underlying science behind quantum computers to develop the most powerful computing machine on Earth.

Google, IBM and Microsoft, for example, have been locked in a race to prove which will first reach quantum supremacy, the point at which the technology eclipses the most powerful conventional super computers.

Despite that head-start, a new German business consortium—which includes members of the country’s Big Auto, Big Pharma and, yes, Big Tech sectors—believes the field is still enough in its infancy for all manner of newcomers to enter the market, and develop scalable business applications.

The alliance hopes to pool the collective quantum brainpower of the firms involved to accelerate applications that could be eventually commercialized or utilized to save firms money on their operations. The initiative was pulled together by the highest powers in Germany this year as it becomes apparent the economic power is falling behind in this vital field of computing. In addition to the American Big Tech dominance in the field of quantum, China too sees it as a priority, as does the United Kingdom. The latter began funding quantum development on university campuses almost a decade ago.

“The impetus initially came from Chancellor (Angela) Merkel during an innovation summit between leading members of the government, industry and scientists late last year,” Andreas Schumacher, executive vice president for Strategy at Infineon, told Fortune in an interview. 

Who is involved

The consortium comprises carmaker BMW, conglomerates Siemens and Bosch as well as drugmakers Merck KGaA and Boehringer Ingelheim. Software giant SAP and chemicals giant BASF also signed up to be founding members.

The consortium goes by the name Quantum Technology and Application Consortium (QUTAC) with a stated aim to build up a thriving network of expertise in this burgeoning quantum field deemed critical for Europe’s digital sovereignty.

The companies, which plan to fund the consortium through membership dues, will focus on software development that could run on hardware built by names like IBM and Google. In the long run, however, the preference is to support European manufacturers like Austria’s Alpine Quantum Technologies or IQM of Finland where possible.

The German chipmaker Infineon, for example, is interested in using the power of quantum to develop encryption algorithms for its security and smart card business that no super-computer cannot crack.

Germany’s heightened interest comes amid broader political interest in the technology. Back in 2013, the UK government committed £270 million in funding to launch the National Quantum Technologies Programme. More recently, Europe has earmarked funding to build the first freely programmable quantum computer on the continent at the Nobel Prize-winning research centre in Jülich as part of its overall €1 billion flagship program OpenSuperQ.

Munich Re, another member, for example believes quantum computing can help it manage the risks of insured companies more intelligently. For an exporter like Germany, calculating the most efficient transport routes for goods around the world in real time can be a critical advantage to businesses. 

The final founder, Volkswagen, has already begun experimenting with quantum computing four years ago. One achievement was to calculate the route-optimization for a fleet of 10,000 Beijing taxis in March 2017, and later that year partnering with Google

“Here you have ten large corporations moving at a very rapid pace between the end of January to yesterday putting all this together with all the necessary legal discussions involved. So this is a good example that shows Germany can act fast,” Schumacher told Fortune.

The mechanics of quantum

Fundamentally different to their digital cousins in almost every way, quantum machines are designed to increase their computing capabilities at an exponential rate while consuming just a fraction of the energy. This is only possible with the help of quantum mechanical effects, a field of physics that describes behavior exhibited only on a subatomic scale. 

These machines do not use conventional transistors, but employ circuits called qubits that can harness this unique behavior, but only under extreme conditions—at a temperature colder than outer space.

Its ability to adopt quantum mechanical traits make a quantum computer ideally suited for modelling systems where the complexity likewise grows exponentially with each addition variable. Even the most powerful conventional computer could take years, decades or even centuries when asked to solve some of these cosmic puzzlers. 

The drugmaker, Boehringer Ingelheim, for example, believes it is this inherent ability to handle numerous variables that makes a quantum machine ideally suited to simulate molecular reactions. This could help advance the development time for new drugs, an idea recently explored by Swiss rival Roche.  

“Even though it may still take some years until this technology is ready for industrial use, we need to define and explore a variety of specific use-cases across several industries now,” said the company’s finance chief Michael Schmelmer in a statement from the company. 

Open to expanding beyond Germany

According to Schumacher, the first steering committee meets in the next few weeks, where the first milestones of the consortium will be hashed out. Each company is expected to share their progress with the others in a form of scientific cross-pollination, but intellectual property rights belongs to those members that developed a useful application.

While all of QUTEC’s founding members are German, Schumacher said it would be open to European companies joining as long as they have expertise they can bring to the table that would benefit all. 

The German government is not funding the consortium itself, it said in a statement to Fortune. One source close to the matter said it would likely consider funding development of promising ideas to emerge from QUTEC, however.

“Germany and Europe must become leaders in quantum technology and then stay at the top, What we want is technological sovereignty,” said Anja Karliczek, research minister.

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.