Spain aims to join the top countries conducting quantum research through a government-backed spin-off culture.
Among the nations vying for leadership in the global innovation race in quantum sciences, the leaders have often been the United States, China, the Netherlands, Australia and Germany, among others. Another European country, Spain, is aiming to join the frontrunners, marking a new chapter for technological advancement for southern Europe.
Spain already boasts a strong supercomputing network underpinned by ample national funding for public research. While spin-off businesses from national labs have historically proven to be the most successful route for commercializing technologies, a growing startup culture fueled by new government funding efforts and international companies could change the country’s direction in quantum technology innovation.
Paving the way through public labs
Spain’s path to quantum science leadership begins at the public research level. One branch is Quantum Spain, the nation’s domestic research and development investment program, which is run by the Ministerio de Economía. Armed with a budget of 22 million euros to be dispersed until 2025, its goal is to promote a strong QIST environment within the country that can translate to a stronger economy and scientific leadership. The first pillar: installing a government-run quantum computer.
“One of the ideas that rose on part of the government is: we have to install a quantum computer in Spain for the researchers, the scientists and the businesses [so they] can use it and can try it,” Víctor Canivell, cofounder of a quantum technology startup and spin-off Qilimanjaro, told Nextgov/FCW.
Qilimanjaro’s origins are a testament to the strong spin-off culture in Spain’s supercomputing network. It was first formed in 2021 as a brainchild of three researchers — including Canivell — associated with different government centers in Barcelona, such as the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, which acts as the head of Spain’s fourteen supercomputing centers.
At that time, the Spanish government was increasingly focused on creating a strong environment for quantum science exploration.
Canivell and his colleagues responded to the government’s desire for a strong quantum information and sciences ecosystem by entering —and winning —a national competition to build and install the first 30-qubit quantum computer in Spain located in the BSC.
The BSC plays a key role in Spain’s scientific computing environment. Among its operations are research projects in fields ranging from big data analytics, to cognitive computing, to climate change models and simulators.
Along with the University of Barcelona and the Institute for High Energy Physics of Barcelona, the BSC was one of the public research institutions that helped launch Qilimanjaro as a spinoff from research developed within these government facilities.
This continued government support is often crucial for start-ups and younger private companies in the EU.
“The difference between the U.S. and Spain in spinoffs is that Spain’s government has instruments to help spinoffs, but there is less venture capital than in the U.S.,” Canivell said. He added that while there is some venture capital presence in Spain and Europe, it is young and still growing, unlike in the U.S.
Venture capital — or capital arriesgado, as it’s known in Spanish — is less available for private sector founders in Spain and Europe than in the U.S. The difference is largely cultural: the U.S. emphasizes the venture, not the risk.
Jose Cánovas, the communications manager at the BSC, told Nextgov/FCW that Spain’s posture in prioritizing research and subsequent technology transfers is at the heart of the lab, as evidenced by Qilimanjaro’s success and assistance in furthering objectives set forth by the Quantum Spain program.
“One of the goals of the center is transferring technology to society,” Canovas said. “Then of course, always the creation of businesses born from scientific projects developed here in the BSC is one of our objectives. And it's a way that the Center has to return to society everything that we have received.”
The BSC has supported 10 other spinoffs that have seen similar opportunities to Qilimanjaro, but their work is primarily in diverse industries like breast cancer imaging and data analysis for new chemical design.
“It is very natural for a center like the BSC — where you have many researcher that work with businesses and it's something very normal in innovation projects — that in some moment they develop tools that can become a spinoff or startup,” Alba Cervera-Lierta, a senior researcher at the BSC, told Nextgov/FCW.
Startups have a viable avenue to launch from Spain’s public research institutions. Canovas said that the BSC, like other supercomputer centers, relies on public funding that is granted from the EU. He said that this publicly funded research is the most important component of the BSC, particularly with collaborating private sector companies.
“One of the principal objectives of the Center is to establish public-private collaborations,” he said. “Here in Europe, the science, the research, to develop it, the public funding is very important.”
One key way BSC facilitates this is through offering research contracts to businesses and other entities who want to conduct research using the supercomputing facilities at BSC. These collaborations begin with companies who submit winning proposals detailing their research plan. Some participating companies include IBM, Repsol, Aigües de Barcelona and Huawei.
Canovas explained that Repsol’s long-standing research partnership with the BSC in particular aims to develop a sensor that can scan and make predictions on where to find oil reserves without penetrating the Earth.
Along with the hardware and software supercomputing centers offer, private sector entities submit proposals to work with Spain’s supercomputing centers for their personnel’s expertise.
Cervera-Lierta said that external parties “come to centers like the BSC and propose collaboration projects, so that they contribute and also contract researchers.”
Once Qilimanjaro delivers its quantum computer to the BSC and successfully integrates it with the MareNostrum supercomputing system there, researchers and businesses will be able to utilize the system.
Private sector and capital arriesgado
Despite these partnerships, some of Spain’s private sector founders feel the current model lacks support.
Leadership at Multiverse, a leading quantum technology software company with several global offices — including in San Sebastián, Spain — was founded by four colleagues via WhatsApp.
Selling patented quantum and quantum-inspired algorithms designed for performing advanced operations tailored for financial entities, Multiverse received local funding through the Basque Country government, as well as over 12 million euros from the European Innovation Council Accelerator Program. The remainder of Multiverse’s funding has been sourced through venture capital, as well as a significant portion from the University of Toronto.
CEO Enrique Lizaso Olmos told Nextgov/FCW that Spain’s current financing model for startups prioritizes scientific research stemming from public institutions, which makes it challenging to build a nationwide environment where other types of companies can grow.
“We have public funding, but it is not adequate in order to grow,” Lisaso Olmos said. “If we want to have a future as industrial Europe, we have to make the companies big.”
He added that the lack of larger companies negatively affects the country’s ability to retain a strong scientific workforce, who end up looking for careers at U.S. conglomerates like Amazon, and forces business founders to look outside the country for private funding.
“The European Union does not want companies to leave Europe for the United States,” Lisaso Olmos said. “But then, if you want to be big, one must change what happens in Europe.”
One of Spain’s northern regions is taking steps to launch a stronger quantum industry ecosystem through public funding. In the Basque Country — home to San Sebastián — a government program is working to cultivate its own quantum information research and technology hub with public help.
Shifts in public funding
Ikerbasque Foundation, the Basque government’s public research center, funds researchers in several scientific fields, including quantum sciences. Within this foundation, the Basque government announced a collaboration with IBM to install a 127-qubit quantum computer in Bilbao, the Basque Country’s largest city, and culminate in the groundbreaking of the IBM-Euskadi Quantum Computational Center.
Mikel Diez Parra, IBM’s quantum global enablement lead, said that the Basque Country’s initiative and strong university and research presence makes it an ideal environment for tech firms to establish a base.
“The Basque government is one of the few regions inside of Spain that have specific fiscal treatment on taxes and budgetary money within the Spanish country, so they have autonomy in order to decide how to fund and what to fund, depending on their strategic lines,” Diez Parra told Nextgov/FCW.
“This strategy includes quantum computing technologies, to advance quantum research, to build a quantum workforce, to provide the necessary infrastructure to do this all and, ultimately, to promote economic development,” Diez Parra said.
One specific area of focus between IBM and Basque’s research institutions will be quantum utility, which could help researchers use quantum computing to focus on solving specific problems despite the noisiness — or external interference — of today’s quantum computers.
“The ultimate goal for the public agency, in this case, the Basque government. is not only to advance the research, but also trying to impact… the citizens,” Diez Parra said. “They need to host the most innovative industries using the most innovative technologies because the outcome from that will be more returns for all of the territories or ultimately for citizens.”
He added that IBM is collaborating with the Basque government through public funding, and that the company shares the larger goal to cultivate and participate in a strong local quantum research ecosystem.
“An ecosystem is a lattice of many players working [with] each other,” Diez Parra said. “Here we have the Basque government, we have the regional governments inside Basque country and also we have all of the large industries, some of the integrators, some of the startups, some of the academics, some of the research centers. So relationships between the ecosystem, it's multipoint to multipoint.”
Through this partnership and the larger Ikerbasque program, the Basque government aims to advance Southern Europe as a leading quantum technology and sciences innovation space.
“We need to start from some point,” Diez Parra said. “But the target point is very, very clear: to promote economic development based on emerging technologies.”
U.S. focus on fundamentals
Across the Atlantic, the public research landscape for quantum information sciences has similarities and differences to that of Spain’s. Rima Oueid, a senior commercialization executive at the U.S. Department of Energy, said that the funding her agency receives from Congress for quantum sciences is focused on basic scientific research.
“The fundamental science research is something that DOE has always embraced,” she told Nextgov/FCW.
In terms of sharing public facilities with industry partners, Oueid said that Energy uses several contracting mechanisms to arrange partnerships between labs and private entities.
“That space and that technology, in order to tinker and to develop a technology under the right conditions…that could be done through various types of contracting mechanisms or just through requests for access to a testing facility,” she explained.
Other federal initiatives in the U.S. include the Strategic Partnership Projects, run by Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
“That's where the outside company would come in and actually hire the lab,” Oueid said. “And so they're getting resources, they're getting people, as well as access to the facility.”
In this role, federal researchers would work more like contractors for the private entity.
Oueid describes these routes as a positive way to engage Energy lab researchers. However, cost can exclude smaller private businesses from utilizing federal resources.
“It's time for us to start showing that DOE is capable of doing more than fundamental science research here.” she said.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Jose Cánovas's title.
This article was reported and written with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship.