Australia’s burgeoning quantum industry is booming, thanks to decades of investment in basic science, solid research excellence and global recognition of the technological innovation and deep talent within the country.

This was the upshot of Quantum Australia 2023, the country’s preeminent conference of the sector, which brought together more than 800 researchers, industry heavyweights and government leaders from around the world and was staged by the Sydney Quantum Academy from February 21-23.

Cathy Foley in glasses and blazer holding paper on stage
Dr Cathy Foley at Quantum Australia 2023.

“We’re in a sweet spot,” Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist, told delegates. “We have excellent foundations built on decades of patient, fundamental research funded by government. We have a lively research community … and an energetic set of start-ups and multinationals working on some really novel ideas and applications.

“And we have momentum – we’ve got cut through among decision-makers. So, we want to capitalise on that, and ensure Australia remains a world leader in quantum expertise and clever innovations.”

Dr Foley, who led the development of the National Quantum Strategy currently being considered by the Australian government, said the time was now ripe to expand the reach of quantum technologies across business and society, finding new applications and solving age-old challenges.

“We’re living the quantum revolution as we speak,” she added. “Quantum needs to be on the radar of industry sectors and researchers outside the immediate quantum disciplines. We need to widen that conversation so that educators, businesses, and researchers in other disciplines understand how these new technologies will impact what they do.”

Federal Science and Industry Minister Ed Husic told the conference that when released, the National Quantum Strategy will be “the beginning of a conversation, not a punctuation mark. We’re determined to set a vision to shape Australia’s leadership.

“At last count, we have in this country around 20 quantum-related companies. And the number is growing as Australian innovators make new discoveries and identify ways to commercialise them. Our firms are branching out overseas, and global heavyweights like Google are partnering with our research institutions to push the quantum envelope,” he added. “When it comes to quantum technology, we should have the ambition to be a big player, not a bit player.”

This was echoed by Prof Michael Biercuk, founder of the University of Sydney spin-off Q-CTRL, a $70.8 million quantum software start-up. “Stop having small ambitions. We [Australian companies] have an opportunity to be everywhere in the value chain.”

But Prof Biercuk – a member of the Federal Government’s 15-person National Quantum Advisory Committee – said it will take determined government support to ensure Australian companies become global leaders. “When world-changing technology is not supported by, say, private capital … government demand is the bridge. And the most important thing that we have seen around the world in the last few years is that government demand generates private sector investment.”

Kate Pounder, CEO of industry body Tech Council of Australia, agreed, telling the conference that funding remained a key constraint to building companies and the country’s quantum ecosystems. “Because we are producing that pipeline of companies – we’ve got great research here. But it’s getting from that stage of research and development through to commercialisation. That will be the challenge.”

One way to ameliorate this funding challenge is to ensure Australian researchers and quantum companies are highly visible overseas by being deeply enmeshed with international partners, said CSIRO chief scientist Prof Bronwyn Fox, as well as opening offices in countries where quantum technologies are attracting both attention and finance.

“One of the opportunities for us is to be a key player in quantum supply chains,” she told a panel on the state of quantum technologies in Australia. “And in order to do that, we need to know where the markets are heading. We need that market intelligence and the best way to find out is through collaboration.”

Industry-led initiatives will also be critical to growing Australia’s quantum ecosystem, panellists on the topic argued. They pointed to overseas examples – such as the U.S. Quantum Economic Development Consortium and UKQuantum – partnerships designed to support ecosystem development, drive investment and provide a voice for the quantum industry. The Australian Quantum Alliance, launched in 2022 by the Tech Council of Australia, is also a welcome step in that direction.

A number of speakers noted that the Australian quantum industry has already attracted 3.6 per cent of all global venture capital investment in quantum technologies, well above the country’s global GDP share of 1.6 per cent; and that Australian quantum research is cited 60% above the global average.

The procession of speakers at the conference certainly suggests Australia is seen as a global heavyweight, with senior representatives from IBM, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Keysight Technologies, and venture capital firms like IQT and Blackbird, as well as the head of the UK’s National Quantum Computing Centre.

The opportunity is not just in quantum computing, where Australia has a solid reputation and prominent start-ups backed by sizeable capital – including University of New South Wales spin-off companies Diraq and Silicon Quantum Computing in Sydney, and Australian National University spin-off Quantum Brilliance in Canberra – but also in the plethora of start-ups across the quantum technology landscape, including the supply chain.

QuantX Labs in Adelaide has developed a suite of applications in quantum sensing for precision timing, Earth observation and space exploration; Redback Systems in Sydney builds highly sensitive optical measuring instrumentation relying on quantum effects; while in Canberra, QuintessenceLabs has commercialised a slate of quantum‐enhanced cybersecurity solutions, while Nomad Atomics is developing quantum sensors for mining, underground resource discovery and navigation.

“The thing all of us need to understand about quantum is that it will be possible to do what was once considered impossible,” said Dr Foley. “The applications are coming to fruition now so quickly. And I’m optimistic that we’re reaching a tipping point where we will be able to maintain that momentum and attention.”

– Wilson da Silva

Want to learn more about the Australian quantum ecosystem?

If you missed Quantum Australia 2023 you can still access all 21 recorded panels and presentations on-demand on the Quantum Australia 2023 virtual platform, after securing a virtual ticket. Recordings will be available until 27 April 2023. Or sign up to Sydney Quantum Academy’s mailing list to be notified of Quantum Australia 2024, other events and quantum news and opportunities.