Quantum physics: a French Nobel Prize, and then what?

Let’s not sulk our pleasure. Since October 4, France has held its 15th Nobel Prize in Physics in the person of Alain Aspect, whose work in the quantum field now serves as a basis for the development of the computer or the cryptography of the future.

France can even be doubly happy because the succession of this emblematic figure already seems assured. “We have in our country other internationally recognized researchers and start-ups in four of the five quantum technologies that currently count: photons, superconductors, cold atoms and spin qubits”, warns Jean-François Bobier, director at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and expert in quantum subjects. In Europe, few countries can boast of having such a wide range of know-how. This is proof that we have set up a real sector of excellence.”

According to a recent study by the Paris Region Institute, the Ile-de-France quantum sector alone has 112 research teams and 22 ambitious start-ups such as C12, Quandela, Pasqal and Alice & Bob. Our country also has research centers in Grenoble and Montpellier, which allows it to rise to 4th place in the world after the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

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A severe lack of resources

But France has not yet won the race for quantum technologies. It could even, in the long term, be overtaken. Because if human capital remains a key element in terms of innovation, financing can also make the difference. But on this point, we are sorely lacking in resources, as indicated by a recent report by the BCG. “It’s simple: the United States and Canada have concentrated 75% of the funds raised in quantum since 2010, while the European continent (United Kingdom and Switzerland included) has received only 17%. From this point view, North America starts with an advantage”, underlines Jean François Bobier.

Worse, these figures do not include the sums reinvested by the tech giants. “We have not succeeded in creating champions like Google, Amazon, Microsoft or IBM. However, the latter are now putting part of their enormous resources into quantum”, explains the specialist. Additional handicap, America has other channels of financing that we do not have: its retirement funds place 20% of financing in risk capital each year (compared to 2% for Europe). The Department of Energy, like that of Defense, also offers outlets for start-ups by purchasing quantum technologies. On the Old Continent, only the United Kingdom is following the same path, but to a lesser extent.

“In France, players in the sector can count on the active support of the Bpifrance fund”, tempers François Bobier. However, the rules governing this structure do not allow it to be an investor at the origin of a funding round. It simply complements other investors. The long-term risk? That American or Chinese companies end up developing their technology and then come and buy up less capitalized companies on the European market. They would thus win the bet. We have been warned!


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