Danish initiative aims to develop first quantum computer for life sciences

The Danish Novo Nordisk Foundation will spend $200 million to develop the first practical quantum computer for life science research, with applications ranging from developing new drugs to finding connections between genes, the environment and diseases.

The charitable foundation, which is the majority owner of the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, joins a dense field of universities and technology companies trying to convert the theoretical superpowers of quantum computers into useful devices.

But it says its seven-year Copenhagen-based program stands out because it will evaluate competing technologies before deciding which to proceed with.

“The other big initiatives around the world have already chosen their platforms and are trying to optimize them, but we expect that many will hit an impasse,” said Peter Krogstrup, who runs the program from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen will lead. “We’d rather 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 of today’s devices, whether electronic or photonic, “are noisy, fault-tolerant machines that cannot solve problems relevant to humankind,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

“It’s a very exciting initiative with its coordinated efforts on the hardware and software sides,” said Professor Garrett Morris, a computational chemist at the University of Oxford who is not affiliated 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 traditional counterparts.

“Quantum computing could revolutionize so many aspects of science — if they can do it,” Morris added.

Quantum theory was formulated in the early 20th century, with Niels Bohr playing a leading role in Copenhagen, but the technology did not allow researchers to start applying it to computing until nearly 100 years later.

Unlike the binary bits of classical computers, which are either zero or one, quantum bits or qubits take advantage of the counter-intuitive property of quantum physics to be both at the same time.

Quantum computers will exploit this “superposition” principle by performing a multitude of calculations simultaneously – a capability that promises to be particularly useful for modeling chemical reactions, designing new materials and searching through vast databases.

Thomsen offered the analogy that while conventional computing works in two dimensions, quantum computing works in three dimensions.

“Within the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate developments in personalized medicine by letting quantum computers process the enormous amount of data available on the human genome and diseases,” said Lene Oddershede, senior vice president of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

In addition to Danish universities, the quantum computing program will also involve researchers from institutions in other countries, including Delft University of Technology and the University of Toronto.

While the foundation does not wish to commit to any particular technology offered by large companies involved in quantum computing, such as IBM, Microsoft and Alphabet, or the many startups in this space, the program will be open to collaborating on specific ones be projects.

It will also create its own company, called Quantum Foundry, to manufacture materials and hardware for the program.

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