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Massachusetts Looks to Grow Quantum Tech Sector

A new report has found that Massachusetts has some key strengths — especially related to research — but could benefit from a clear quantum strategy and efforts to bring stakeholders together in collaboration.

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Massachusetts is looking to build up its local quantum technology sector, in part to boost the state's economy.

While the space is very much fluid, regions across the country are looking to position themselves as a hub for quantum computing, hoping to reap the benefits of jobs, research funding and prestige. To get Massachusetts into this game, several groups in the region are laying groundwork.

For years, the practical uses of quantum computers have been limited, but now “some experts predict that practical applications of quantum technology could become more widespread within the next decade,” per a new report commissioned by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), a quasi-public economic development agency.

“Quantum is kind of an interesting space, because we are early in the game and we are trying to anticipate where the growth could be, and what the needs might be over the horizon,” said Pat Larkin, deputy director of MassTech and director of its Innovation Institute division.

MassTech and the Innovation Institute see themselves as supporting, rather than driving the agenda on how the quantum tech sector should grow, Larkin said. The agency looks to help stakeholders by providing events, advocacy, and in some cases, targeted funding or other programs.

Late last week, MassTech and market intelligence company The Quantum Insider co-hosted a two-day conference for investors, quantum tech companies, researchers and government officials. This event addressed promoting collaboration and developing the sector, while encouraging networking, deepening understanding of the local scene and raising Massachusetts’ profile in the quantum space.

The Quantum Insider also released a MassTech-commissioned report analyzing the state’ quantum tech ecosystem, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for growth. That report found Massachusetts has some key strengths — especially related to research — but could benefit from a clear quantum strategy as well as bringing stakeholders together.

A strong ecosystem needs researchers, companies, investors and end users, as well as academic institutions that train professionals. The Bay State has a concentration of research centers and higher education institutions with projects focused on quantum, the report said. Boston University, Harvard and MIT have been particularly active, with the latter two coordinating quantum initiatives.

In Massachusetts, research labs, early-stage startups and some larger companies are currently the main entities engaged in developing quantum technology. Just shy of 50 companies with notable presences in the state may be involved with quantum, per the report, including small to mid-sized companies, startups and multinationals with local quantum divisions. As for funding, 17 Massachusetts-based organizations have invested in at least one quantum computing company.

Cybersecurity, biotech and chemistry companies present a potential user base, and 11 local companies “expressed significant interest” in using quantum computing, per the report. Larkin said quantum tech has great potential for eventually helping in drug discovery, which could speak to Massachusetts’ established life sciences and biotech sector.

Several challenges surfaced in the report, too.

The state’s research community is “fragmented,” leaving groups potentially unaware of opportunities to collaborate, or even vying against each other for limited outside funding. Some cited difficulty getting access to facilities.

Another hurdle is that researchers also don’t often connect with each other or members of industry.

Speaking of disconnections, Larkin said there’s an inherent “healthy tension” between academia’s interest in exploring “longer-term inquiry” and industry’s desire for something they can monetize soon. MassTech aims to bring both sides together and encourage partnership in part by investing in academic research with a shorter timeline, expecting to deliver economic impact within three to five years.

To that point, MassTech’s Innovation Institute division gave two grants last year supporting university research and development in quantum-related hardware and quantum sensors.

At least half of the expert interviewees from the recent report recommended conferences, meetings, workshops and other avenues for bringing together researchers and private industry. While last week’s conference brought stakeholders together, it was a major undertaking. MassTech is currently deciding whether to hold more events of that size versus smaller but more frequent gatherings, Larkin said.

The report also said there’s untapped potential for academic spinouts. Larkin, too, spoke of the need to support entrepreneurs and researchers in launching quantum-related startups. The state has prior experience supporting accelerator and young executive mentorship programs, but there will always be demand for more support, he said.

Another challenge is competition from quantum hubs in California, Colorado and Maryland, which might draw away talent, the report found. Also, dependency on international suppliers for certain equipment and unique materials introduces the risk that socio- and geopolitical developments could jeopardize access.

Still, Larkin said “no one’s going to build all of the capabilities one can need inside of one ecosystem,” and that the state hopes to also facilitate networking outside the local region.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.