How the Chicago Quantum Summit is helping engineer an ecosystem

Leaders from across the field of quantum science and engineering emphasized cooperation and partnership at annual event

Building a quantum future means thinking like a systems engineer — considering all potential parts of the field and the ecosystem and integrating them efficiently. That’s what the chief quantum officer of Photonic Inc. told academic, industry, and government leaders at the sixth annual Chicago Quantum Summit last month, hammering home a point that surfaced many times over the course of the two-day event.

“There's a lot of intuition that emerges once we start thinking on a systems level and we start talking to each other more,” said Stephanie Simmons, Photonic’s founder and the co-chair of Canada’s Quantum Advisory Council, during a presentation in which she argued that the areas of quantum networking and quantum computing are trying to solve the same problem ­— distributing quantum entanglement — and could benefit from more communication. More interconnectivity is needed throughout the entire field, she said.

“That's one of the reasons why I appreciate efforts like this [Summit],” she said. “Frankly, I think one of the reasons we weren’t having this conversation 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, is because we hadn’t been talking to each other. These instinctual lessons are a lot more obvious if we were to talk more and talk earlier.”

The Chicago Quantum Exchange (CQE) — an intellectual hub based at the University of Chicago and anchored by the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Northwestern University — convenes the Summit to help make these connections among leaders from all areas of quantum information science and engineering so they can share ideas and map out the field’s future. This year, more than 220 participants attended in person and more than 400 participants from 36 countries attended virtually, breaking in-person attendance records for another year.

The event featured keynote lectures by leaders ranging from the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to the CEO of IBM, as well as panel discussions about quantum networking and quantum startup companies and presentations by the 14 early-career researchers who won the 2023 Boeing Quantum Creators Prize. As part of the Summit, the CQE also co-hosted a panel event on the opening night of the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities that focused on the societal effects of AI and quantum technology. Speakers included Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and panelists included Simmons and Nick Farina, CEO of Chicago-based quantum computing startup EeroQ.

Innovation requires cooperation

Throughout the Summit, speakers emphasized the need for a collaborative, inclusive quantum ecosystem that includes cooperation at all levels.

“Groundbreaking innovations take a long time,” said Jay Lowell, Boeing’s Chief Engineer of Disruptive Computing, Networks, and Sensors, as he introduced the Boeing Quantum Creators Prize, which is awarded to early-career researchers who are taking the field in new directions. “And in order to do something that takes a long time, you need a long string of people that are able to shepherd things from very nascent understanding of what is going on to engineering that is fit for a particular purpose. This prize supports those people who are going to do that highly skilled work of taking research and, from it, building products and developing services.”

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, who engaged in a conversation on stage with Nadya Mason, dean of UChicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, told the audience that quantum science “is one of the few things that is probably harder than rocket science.”

“There's a lot of challenges here, but that makes it interesting,” he said. “That makes it exciting … I fundamentally believe that these problems at this scale can only be solved with collaboration.”

Speakers offered a variety of examples of how a strong ecosystem can nurture quantum startup companies, support the development of quantum networks, and advance research more broadly.

NIST Director Laurie Locascio highlighted the ways in which the agency, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, was focused on partnerships. In particular, NIST quantum research involves the Joint Quantum Institute and the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science, both at the University of Maryland, and JILA at the University of Colorado. It also has researchers at the National Science Foundation Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes and the Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research Centers.

“We don't just provide funding for them,” she said. “Our researchers really form about half the workforce in the joint centers. We come together and really leverage each other's strengths and knowledge. It's been really important, I think, for our success and for our future, to not only leverage these institutes, but think about where we're going in the future and how to build new partnerships around quantum, around AI, and around the CHIPS Act.”

Ecosystems support startups

Strong systems also are essential to supporting and developing startups. This was a point made by a panel of startup founders and by Christophe Jurczak, founder and managing partner at Quantonation, one of the first venture capital funds to focus solely on quantum technologies.

“Startups are not born out of nothing,” Jurczak said. “They're born in ecosystems, and Chicago is a great ecosystem ... It's not just funding that matters. It's also putting some glue, so to speak, into the ecosystem for people to talk, to connect, to work together.”

Jurczak is also a co-founder of QuantX, an association dedicated to quantum computing technologies that co-hosted the Big Q Hackathon with the CQE in the fall. He pointed to the event as a good example of bringing people together from different parts of the quantum value chain.

During the quantum startup panel, founders also highlighted how helpful it can be to be a part of a larger organism that offers opportunities to connect with others.

“There are infinite number of resources that I can list from the Chicago ecosystem,” said Mert Esencan, the founder of Icosa Computing, a part of the second cohort of Duality, the nation’s first accelerator focused exclusively on quantum startups. “Incubators are great. But the most important part of incubators is that you get shoulder-to-shoulder with other founders who are going through similar problems as you are. Instead of reading books from big company founders from 25 years ago, which is completely irrelevant to what you're building now, it's better to talk to Lisa, for example, right?”

He gestured to fellow panelist Lisa Rooth, COO and co-founder of SCALINQ, another former Duality startup.

“We were just talking today over lunch,” Esencan said. “It's very important to have that kind of opportunity.”

Quantum networks reach the public

In another panel, Tim Spiller, a professor at the University of York and director of the UK Quantum Communications Hub, and Virginia Lorenz, professor at UIUC and one of the lead developers of the world’s first publicly available quantum network, highlighted another sort of collaboration — with the public.

Both Spiller and Lorenz agreed that efforts to develop quantum networking could benefit from a greater number of applications for the technology, what Spiller called “market pull.” The public can be a good source of ideas for how to use emerging technologies, Lorenz said, which is why publicly available quantum networks are important.

“I think the technology is at the point where we're still figuring out what those use cases are,” said Lorenz. “And in that sense, I think just having quantum networks to play with, so to speak, is really important right now. I do feel that the best use case is still to come.”

Spiller mentioned that his group had been struggling to hire an optical engineer to work on their fiber network, in part because potential applicants believed they weren’t qualified, despite the job description stating that an understanding of quantum mechanics was unnecessary.

“A great example of why we should start teaching [quantum] young,” said Lorenz, who brought children’s coloring books, “The ABCs of Quantum Networks,” that the Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center developed for the public quantum network project. Not five minutes after the panel ended, the coloring books were all gone.

The theme of connectivity was succinctly described by panel moderator Corey McClelland, chief revenue officer of Qubitekk, Inc., which launched one of the first commercially available quantum networks in the United States.  

“The quantum industry is relatively small compared to other industries in the world,” he said. “And to that extent, we need to pull together in places like this, like the Chicago Quantum Summit … There's a lot of collaboration that needs to take place so we can grow as an industry.”

Watch the recorded Summit sessions on YouTube.

A version of this story is published on the Chicago Quantum Exchange website.