Danish initiative aims to develop the first quantum computer for the life sciences

Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation is spending $200 million developing what it says will be the first practical quantum computer for life science research, with applications ranging from creating new drugs to finding links between genes, environment and disease.

The nonprofit, the largest owner of the drug group Novo Nordisk, is joining a crowded field of universities and tech companies seeking to turn the theoretical superpowers of quantum computing into useful devices.

But she says her seven-year programme, based in Copenhagen, stands out because it will assess competing technologies before deciding which ones to start.

“Other major initiatives globally have already chosen their platforms and are trying to improve them, but we expect many of them to come to a standstill,” said Peter Krogstrup, who will lead the program from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. “We’d rather spend seven years finding the platform that offers the greatest chance of building a usable quantum computer.”

Some typical quantum computers deal with electrons, while others deal with photons (particles of light). All of today’s devices, whether electronic or photonic, “are noisy machines that cannot tolerate errors and cannot solve any problems of relevance to humanity,” said Mads Krogsgaard-Thomsen, CEO of Novo Nordisk.

“It’s a very exciting initiative, with its concerted efforts on the hardware and software side,” said Professor Garrett Morris, a computational chemist at Oxford University who is not with the foundation. Simulations in his lab show that, in many cases, quantum computers predict molecular structures much more quickly and accurately than their conventional counterparts.

“Quantum computing could revolutionize many aspects of science – if it could,” Morris added.

Quantum theory was formulated in the early 20th century, with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen playing a leading role, but the technology didn’t enable researchers to begin applying it to computing until nearly 100 years later.

Unlike the binary qubits of classical computing, which is either zero or one, qubits or qubits exploit the non-intuitive properties of quantum physics to be both at the same time.

Quantum computers will exploit this “superposition” principle by performing a large number of calculations simultaneously – an ability that promises to be particularly useful for modeling chemical reactions, designing new materials, and searching huge databases.

Thomsen made an analogy that classical computing is like working in two dimensions while quantum computing works in three dimensions.

“In the life sciences, for example, we can accelerate development in personalized medicine by allowing quantum computers to process the vast amount of data available about the human genome and diseases,” said Lynn Udrashid, senior vice president at Novo Nordisk.

Besides Danish universities, the quantum computing program will also include researchers at institutions in other countries including Delft Technical University and the University of Toronto.

Although the organization does not want to be committed to any specific technology offered by major companies active in the field of quantum computing such as IBM, Microsoft, and Alphabet, or the many startups in this field, the program will be open to collaboration on specific projects.

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

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