French quantum start-ups move to the commercial phase

The technology is being driven by a growing number of start-ups that are beginning to sell their product and attract the attention of investors.

Still in its infancy a few years ago, the French ecosystem of quantum computing today displays a powerful dynamism. In March 2022, the start-up Alice & Bob caused a stir by claiming the most stable superconducting quantum bit (or qubit) in the world, and at the same time announcing a fundraising of 27 million euros. At the start of the year, Pasqal acquired the Dutch company Qu&Co, and more recently, Quandela commissioned a connector for manipulating qubits on photonic processors, a world first. Not to mention the very first products put on the market. So many announcements that demonstrate the vitality of the sector.

A quantum computer having the ability to simultaneously process multiple states at once, its performance increases exponentially as new qubits are added. Maintaining qubits in a stable quantum state is, however, a real technical challenge. There are several techniques for this: some actors choose to cool them to a cryogenic temperature, others trap them with a laser. In any case, it is a laborious process, which requires to rely on extensive research work, but also to be able to invest in expensive equipment.

“When we created whenela, in 2017, we were one of the first quantum start-ups in France. Since then, absolutely everything has changed. There are more and more companies getting started, and since the Covid, the idea of ​​making hardware, of setting up your own assembly workshops in France, has found a much more favorable reception from investors. The other novelty is that large groups are ready to invest in training in this technology and developing uses”, notes Valérian Giesz, co-founder and managing director of Quandela. An actor who raised 15 million euros in 2021, and wants to build its quantum server in France by 2023.

ENS, INRIA and CNRS on the move

If today we are witnessing the sudden emergence of a quantum ecosystem, it is the result of a slow process of maturation, resulting from many years of laboratory research. “The single photon source technology, on which we rely to build our machine, has been developed for twenty years at the CNRS”, specifies Valérian Giesz.

“Quantum is a deep tech ecosystem, with high capital intensity and extremely long cycles, which relies on the world of fundamental research”

When we discuss with these young shoots, it is the same story that comes back: the founders met in a research laboratory, and then decided to create their activity. Before co-founding C12 with his twin brother Pierre, Matthieu Desjardins was part of the research group of Takis Kontos within the physics laboratory of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. A laboratory which worked, among other things, on the use of carbon nanotubes in the service of quantum electronics. “After promising results, Matthieu Desjardins decided to create his start-up. Three members of the research group also became scientific advisors to the company,” says Juliette Ginies, personnel director of C12. After raising $10 million in June 2021, the company, which uses carbon nanotubes to reduce qubit errors, plans to make a Series A to fuel its growth.

With the aim of developing post-quantum cryptography software, Cryptonext Security is a spin-off of INRIA, CNRS and Sorbonne University, also the result of twenty years of scientific research. His ambition? Preparing for the day when quantum computers will render current encryption techniques obsolete.

A dedicated investment fund

If they have scientific excellence on their side, these companies also need funds to develop the hardware that will support their ideas. However, here again, the landscape has changed over the past five years, with the establishment of an ecosystem of investors. The investment fund quantization, backed by Audacia, was launched in 2018, with the aim of supporting quantum start-ups. Since its creation, the fund has invested in about twenty companies spread all over the world, including the French Pasqal and Quandela, with tickets ranging between a few tens of thousands and several million euros. A second fund, dedicated to high-growth structures, will be launched in September, with the aim of investing between 10 and 50 million euros in each targeted company.

“We already have direct applications in finance to assess financial models or improve solvency scores”

Another financial player in the loop: the BPI. “Quantum is a deep tech ecosystem, with high capital intensity and extremely long cycles, which relies on the world of fundamental research to initiate its transition towards commercial applications. The role of BPI France is to make possible and to accelerate this transition”, explains Adrien Muller, Investment Director at BPI France. With the ambition of creating a quantum simulator for industrialists, C12 is one of the start-ups in which Bpifrance has invested. “The BPI entered our capital from the start-up phase, and we have since been able to benefit from their support, particularly in terms of communication and marketing”, summarizes Juliette Ginies.

Government support is also expressed in the form of the quantum plan, a €1.8 billion investment program launched by Emmanuel Macron in January 2021. “It’s a huge signal for the whole sector”, says Jean-Gabriel Boinot, principal at Quantonation. “However, this money must go to the laboratories to finance risky projects, and not replace the funds which would have been invested by large companies anyway.”

Apps that are already making money

Investing in quantum is both a risky and long-term bet, as the technology requires large investments and is not yet mature. However, monetizable applications designed in France are already beginning to appear. “Pasqal already manages to use matrices of neutral atoms to solve complex graph problems. This makes it possible to find local optima, with direct applications in finance to evaluate financial models or improve solvency scores”, argues Jean-Gabriel Boinot. The company is also collaborating with BASF, a German chemical company, to improve the accuracy of their climate simulations.

At Quandela, quantum computing finds its first uses in engineering and industry. “We support EDF in the modeling of physical systems, particularly in terms of mechanical, electromagnetic or thermal structure”, explains Valérian Gies. “We are also collaborating with Onera, which devotes a lot of computing time to modeling the interior of combustion fields for rocket boosters. The objective is to study how the quantum computer can help improve the precision of these calculations.”

As for post-quantum cryptography, it is already of interest to many large groups. “The objective is to propose a solution before a sufficiently powerful quantum computer emerges and jeopardizes traditional encryption systems”, underlines Florent Grosmaitre, CEO of Cryptonext. “We have a ready-made solution that is based on a set of post-quantum cryptography software tools. It allows organizations to migrate their infrastructures to quantum-resistant hybrid solutions. Our solutions are already deployed in projects pilots in the defense and banking sectors, both in Europe and the United States.” It is easy to understand that the subject is strategic for these actors.

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