Novo Nordisk Foundation investing $200M for first quantum computer for life sciences research

September 21, 2022 - 5 minutes
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The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of $200 million to establish the first full-scale quantum computer for the development of new medicines. 

The computer will also provide new insights into climate change and the green transition, which is not possible with classical computers today. 

The computer could be located in a data center, where it can be accessed through the cloud to solve specific and very complex tasks.  Quantum computers do not work in the same way as the computers available today. They are instead based on the principles of quantum mechanics.

In a classical computer, the central processing unit is where the computing power is located. In a quantum computer, the corresponding unit is called a quantum processing unit (QPU), which consists of quantum bits (qubits).

A classical computer is digital, which means it computes using two states: 0 and 1. A quantum computer is different because it uses qubits. A qubit can be 0, 1 or a combination of the two states, and this provides significant new possibilities for the computing unit.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation Quantum Computing Programme launched in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen includes researchers in quantum computing from Denmark, Canada, The Netherlands and the U.S.  

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Personalized medicine

By applying next-generation quantum computing to the life sciences, the Novo Nordisk Foundation and its partners have the ambition to deliver revolutionary and applicable new insights that will transform the understanding of crucial scientific problems that pose a huge unmet medical and environmental need. 

Quantum technologies will be key in the advent of personalized medicine by allowing the analysis of immense genomic data sets, as well as adding clarity to the complex interactions of the human microbiome, or by accelerating drug discovery and development of new medicines. The ambition is that a quantum computer will also be a fundamental tool in designing new sustainable materials, delivering new energy-saving solutions or assisting with new approaches to decarbonisation. 

Quantum computing offers enormous potential but challenges persist in developing a fully scaled, fault-tolerant, generally applicable quantum computer. The program will focus on developing quantum hardware and quantum materials as well as algorithms to deliver a quantum computer that can solve tasks which today are insolvable by current computers.

“We want to create an international powerhouse in quantum research, a field with tremendous potential. We want to create, mature and develop technology that can solve major and current challenges within health, sustainability and other areas,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Henrik C. Wegener, Rector of the University of Copenhagen, added: “Everyone will eventually benefit from the new opportunities this Programme is creating. This includes areas such as the green transition, cybersecurity and the development of new medicines. The grant ensures that the University of Copenhagen will continue to be among the global leaders in quantum research. With its size, ambition and interdisciplinary collaboration in Denmark and internationally, the Quantum Computing Programme will provide researchers with the opportunity to boost the development of quantum technology. Many thanks to the Novo Nordisk Foundation for contributing wholeheartedly to this research field.”

Huge potential in life sciences

A fully functional quantum computer can very rapidly perform complicated calculations that classical computers either cannot or would optimally require several years to perform. A quantum computer therefore creates opportunities for developing new solutions in several areas.

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Quantum computers have particularly revolutionary potential in the life sciences. Quantum computers can especially make a difference here because nature has many quantum mechanical systems that cannot currently be classified and properly understood. A quantum computer has an inherent capability to solve such tasks.

“Within the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate development in personalised medicine by letting quantum computers process the enormous quantity of data available about the human genome and diseases. This will make it easier to tailor optimal treatment. In the Quantum Computing Programme, physicists and engineers will work closely with researchers from the life sciences on a daily basis. The development of the technology will be guided by concrete biological experiments and problems, and this close interdisciplinarity is a crucial parameter for success,” said Lene Oddershede, senior vice president, natural & technical sciences, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

One of the world’s most ambitious quantum initiatives

Part of the grant for the Novo Nordisk Foundation Quantum Computing Programme is earmarked for establishing Quantum Foundry P/S, a partner company. This company is a fabrication facility that will supply materials and hardware to the researchers in the program and work very closely with the rest of the program.

During the first seven years of the 12-year collaboration, the researchers and engineers will develop the materials and hardware for the quantum computer. The researchers will establish capabilities to co-engineer three of the most promising quantum computing platforms which will set a basis for determining which platform or parts thereof are most suitable to expand further.

The second half of the project will be spent scaling the selected platform up to a size so that it becomes usable for university and industry researchers in addition to using it to solve relevant problems within the life sciences.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation Programme differs significantly from other major, known quantum computing programs in the world, according to Peter Krogstrup Jeppesen, professor, Nils Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, who is leading the Quantum Computing Programme. 

He said the project is one of the most ambitious ever.

He said while other major initiatives globally have already chosen their platforms and are trying to optimize them, many will run into a dead end at a time when there will be fundamental limitations either in the quality of qubits or in terms of scaling up. 

Ecosystem

The program will involve a large ecosystem of universities and industries. Among the anticipated participants are researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.), Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands), Technical University of Denmark, Aarhus University (Denmark), and University of Toronto (Canada).

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