White House, NSF Invest $75 Million to Launch Three Quantum Innovation Institutes


Each center will focus on innovating a different area of quantum information science and all will aim to help develop a talent pipeline.

Three U.S. universities will form and steer new Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes aimed at confronting fundamental research hurdles in quantum information science and engineering over the next five years, through a strategic initiative backed by $75 million in federal funding. 

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation on Tuesday revealed the University of Colorado, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, and University of California, Berkeley will head and house the three institutes. The quantum-focused centers will link academic, national lab and industry partners and resources to streamline research and development, pursue grand challenges encompassing broad but specific quantum topics ripe for acceleration, and explore new curricula and approaches to prepare students across all grade levels for the burgeoning field.

“Quantum information science has the potential to change the world. But to realize that potential, we must first answer some fundamental research questions,” NSF’s newly installed Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in the announcement. “Through the Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes, NSF is making targeted investments.”

Conventional computers use inputs, instructions and outputs, called bits, that are all sequences of ones and zeroes. But quantum computers use “qubits,” which can take on other complex computing values—and ultimately provide a much more advanced set of calculation possibilities. The next-level machines incorporate principles of quantum physics to introduce power and speed that outmatch the world’s mightiest supercomputers, which could lead to rapid new advances across medicine, energy, finance—and beyond. Applications are not yet accessible to the average computer-user, but NSF has been working for four decades to develop quantum technologies and help pave the way for new breakthroughs. Nevertheless, as the agency’s director noted, there’s still a long way to go. 

Recognizing the potential, Congress has seen recent quantum-centered legislation and the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget included deliberate quantum pursuits and a commitment to double the U.S. investment in quantum research by 2022. The new institute-based effort also builds off of a range of previous federal initiatives to drive innovation across the landscape, including the National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018 and the first-ever national strategic plan for quantum information science. In its announcement, NSF added that the institutes also form the centerpiece of its Quantum Leap, “an ongoing, agency-wide effort to enable quantum systems research and development,” that’s been underway since 2017. 

The selection and announcement follow a solicitation NSF previously launched to “fund institutes comprised of multidisciplinary groups of scientists and engineers united by a common challenge theme for advancing the research frontiers in quantum communication, quantum computation, quantum simulation and/or quantum sensing.” The agency noted at the time that two types of awards would stem from the program: “12-month Conceptualization Grants to support teams envisioning subsequent Institute proposals” and “5-year Challenge Institute awards to establish and operate Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes.” The second round of preliminary proposals for the latter awards to establish such institutes are due in early August—so, there’ll likely be more to come. 

The three institutes selected Tuesday will each receive up to $25 million in federal investments over five years and each have been awarded $7.7 million to date. The start date for their efforts is Sept. 1 and the estimated end date of the programs is Aug. 31, 2025. The institutes themselves will encompass “an interconnected community of 16 core academic institutions, 8 national laboratories, and 22 industry partners,” according to the announcement. NSF spokesperson Rob Margetta confirmed Tuesday that initial partners include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, IBM and Google—the first tech-giant to claim it’s reached quantum supremacy. 

“In general these partner companies will look for opportunities to find innovation and technology produced by the institutes that can be matured into commercial applications, and roles for those partners are tailored to each project and the interests of individual companies,” Margetta told Nextgov. “Some of these companies have quantum computing facilities and/or internal research programs that can benefit early exploration and collaboration as the new institutes ramp up their activity.” 

The University of Colorado will house an institute focused specifically on improving quantum sensing technologies across a range of applications in precision measurement, and at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the new center will hone in on developing hybrid quantum architectures and networks. The third institute, housed at the University of California, Berkeley will underpin present and future quantum computing and produce relevant algorithms for near-term and future quantum applications and platforms. 

“The topics were not pre-selected by NSF. The proposals addressing these topics were chosen because they best met the criteria for NSF’s merit review process and the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute program as outlined in the solicitation,” Margetta said. “To be competitive, proposers had to provide their focus points and outline the intellectual merit and potential impact for those, outlining a long-term, cross-disciplinary vision.”

In their announcements, the administration and NSF also highlighted intentions for the institutes to catalyze a much-needed boost to the U.S. quantum workforce pipeline, by producing “in-person and online curricula for students and teachers at all educational levels, from primary school to professionals.” According to Margetta, the institutes will work to craft “undergraduate and graduate courses that take an interdisciplinary approach to quantum, new quantum masters degree programs, and certificate programs in quantum for engineers and scientists already in the workforce.” Quantum educational and museum content geared toward K-8 children and their families, a quantum immersion program for high school teachers and summer internships for high school and undergraduate students will also be pursued by the institutes to help address short- and long-term gaps in the field.

“The development of a larger, better-trained quantum workforce is a top priority for U.S. global leadership and a significant challenge,” Margetta said. “Quantum systems have proven challenging to teach and to learn, and fundamental work needs to be done to not only develop quantum curriculum, but also address best practices for instruction, including how to train students as young as K-12 in the flexible thinking required to learn about quantum systems. NSF sought to address this challenge through the QLCI program.”