Neil Abroug, Head of the French Quantum Strategy

Neil Abroug, head of the French Quantum Strategy, is interviewed by Yuval Boger. Neil and Yuval discuss the focus on this national strategy, how it differs from other European programs, how US companies can participate in the ecosystem, his view of workforce development, and much more.

Full Transcript

Yuval Boger: Hello, and thank you for joining me today.

Neil Abroug: Hello, Yuval. Thank you for inviting me.

Yuval: So who are you and what do you do?

Neil: I am the head of the French Quantum Strategy. I am in the French Prime Minister’s office and I coordinate the French quantum strategy between the different departments, the different ministries, but also the national labs, education programs and the different programs we launch.

Yuval: What is the French natural strategy? What is the strategy in quantum?

Neil: So the French quantum strategy that has been unveiled two years ago by President Macron himself is focused mainly on quantum computing on currently available quantum computers and how we can use them within classical HPC computers, high-performance computers, how to build the next generation of quantum computers, but we have also investments on the side of quantum communications, on quantum cryptography, on quantum sensors, and on enabling technologies for quantum computing that are cryogenics, low noise electronics, lasers, and so on.

We invest in research, we invest in innovation and technology development, but also on workforce development, on standards development, and we work with all our European and international partners to help these ecosystems to collaborate because we are on a marathon, it’s not a sprint actually, and we need cooperation because there are still uncertainties, scientific uncertainties, and it’s not the matter only of economic competition.

Yuval: What does success look like? So five years from today, what would you like to see as a result of this national strategy?

Neil: So in next five years, for quantum technology, it’s still very close timing. But let’s say for the five next years having a strong French ecosystem working in a comfortable way with its partners. Leveraging the different having less uncertainties on the technologies, less answer more scientific questions having been answered, more and sufficient workforce for developing quantum technologies, and more engagement from the private sectors. We cannot, in my opinion, have still, just in the five next years, concrete applications for the large-scale fault-tolerant quantum computer. That’s a matter of way more long-term development.

Yuval: How much money is invested in the national program?

Neil: From the government side, one billion for five years. But in addition to the government side, we expect about 500 million from the private sector. And just in two years, we have already close to 300 million. And then also co-investments from the European programs. So we have more and more co-investments between national plans and European programs that is currently planned from 2021 for next five years.

Yuval: I actually wanted to ask about that. How does the French program relate to the European program? How does the French program work together or relate with, say, the German program or the Dutch program or other EU countries?

Neil: From the beginning, we had identified the necessity of working together with the European programs. Not paying for the same things or for things that are completely different, but hand in hand together. Typically, we have engaged within the EuroHPC joint undertaking. And for the last year, we have bought Germany, France, and the European Commission two quantum simulators from the startup Pasqal, for example. And there are 30 calls for proposals for other types of quantum computers. And these programs are co-founded between European Commission and the European Member States.

There are also initiatives on quantum communication that are EuroQCI. Also we are engaged with other European partners in this framework. And we encourage the French ecosystem to build European programs with their partners from Germany, from the Netherlands, from Italy, from Spain, from all the European parties participating to the European flagship, to the next FPAs and European facilities, all the different programs that are financing quantum technologies in Europe, we really encourage European and the French ecosystem to participate to these programs.

Yuval: But say that I work for a US-based company and I’m excited about the French ecosystem and I’m considering opening an office in France. Does the program help me? How does the government want to attract me to France?

Neil: So in the last years for deep techs and for modern tech companies, there has been a program announced by President Macron years ago that is True France program that will take place. the next meeting will take place in the middle of May.

And based on that, there are a lot of tools from the government, from business transfer, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from Ministry of Economy to help foreign companies to be installed in the US.

And regarding the quantum strategy itself, since the different programs, we had programs for R&D, but also we have programs for innovation with companies and we are open and we are very happy to host American companies, Canadian companies, British companies, Dutch companies, German companies to open offices in France to work with the French ecosystem, both academic ecosystem research organizations, but also SMEs and industrial providers from cryogenics, from electronics, cabling, and all the enabling technologies that can be useful for the tech companies.

Yuval: You spoke about workforce development. So I understand on the equipment side, on the industrial side, the French program might help co-invest or might purchase equipment. But what do you do for workforce development? How do you take care of having more quantum-knowledgeable scientists and engineers?

Neil: So I’d like to say there are three pillars we work on. The first is education. We have set up a new program, a very ambitious program last year with 21 French universities in order to double the number of students in the field of quantum technologies. It began in 2022 and it will last for about 6 years.

There is also a need to have more people from other disciplines working on quantum technologies. People from photonics, people from control science, control engineering, people from microelectronics. There are a lot of competencies in other domains that will be helpful to have been engaged within quantum technologies.

And the last one is to attract also talents from other countries, having shared programs, having exchange between students, with the researcher, between invited professors to have more collaboration between the ecosystem and people coming to France, other people coming to other ecosystems and exchanging experiences.

Yuval: What have you learned that you didn’t know a year ago when working in the national program? What’s new in quantum or quantum France that you were not aware of six or 12 months ago?

Neil: So for the last month, we have seen a shortage of private investment in deep tech in general. And this was a real threat in the middle of the summer of last year. Since quantum technologies are deep tech, with a high level of uncertainty, with a long-term return on investment, and with a high intensity in investment needs, we were saying it will be very, very difficult for the quantum tech.

And what I have seen actually is that the French ecosystem, the French tech ecosystem

is very resilient to this situation. We have seen one of the major fundraising in Europe in quantum tech from Pasqal, but other fundraising was also very interesting. So I didn’t believe how the ecosystem is resilient to this situation.

Yuval: I’d love to get a peek behind the scenes. The French national program was announced at some point. How long did it take for the French national program to be imagined? How did it start? Was it difficult to convince other ministers that this is an important thing or was it easy all the way?

Neil: So the design of the French quantum strategy began in 2018, in the half of 2018. And it was the industry who asked for a quantum strategy, a national quantum strategy. And from that, we asked some experts, three experts. parliamentary person, one scientific person and one former industrial CEO.

We asked them to advise the French government about how to do that. Is it important or not to engage within COTOP technologies? And if yes, what to do, what are the main things?

We received this advice and we worked within the different considered ministries, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Research, the Ministry of Defense on a common roadmap investment for R&D or workforce development and support to the ecosystem. This took about two years to have these advice to see what can be and what cannot be done for different reasons. And two years after the part of SOGI helped. been of it.

Yuval: What do you think, what do you see as the main focus of companies that are involved in the program? Is that chemistry or optimization or machine learning? Is there a particular application that you think stands out more than others in the work that you are seeing?

Neil: So the French strategy, when we look to the landscape of companies, is very focused on hardware development, technology development. We have some programs on application development. So we have support to identify some use cases for quantum simulators, for quantum computers. And we have companies from chemistry, from finance, from working on advanced materials that are trying to build some proof of concepts on smaller size of problems, because since now we don’t have useful-scale quantum computers.

And we have also some companies engaged with the application of quantum sensors for medical applications, for non-destructive control and non-destructive testing, and for earth observation for example.

Yuval: What would you like to see companies do more of? And obviously, there’s a lot of encouragement coming from the French program, but companies can do whatever they wish. What would you like to see them do more of?

Neil: I would like to see big companies supporting more startups and working more with startups. They have a lot of industrial and technological assets that are useful for the startups. And it will be helpful for all the ecosystem to see them working all together.

Yuval: And last as we get to the end of our conversation today, if you could have dinner with one of the quantum grace, dead or alive, who would that person be?

Neil: So I would like to say Richard Feynman because he was one of the fathers of the quantum information science. from the information science side, and for sure, Alain Aspect, the last Nobel Prize from physics, who is also the father of the new quantum technologies on the physics side. But deal with both of them.

Yuval: Excellent. Neil, thank you so much for joining me today.

Neil: Thank you all and happy to see you soon.