Certainty in the trajectory of quantum computing patents

About the author

Tom Gregory is a trainee patent attorney at Appleyard Lees IP LLP. Tom’s work is primarily focused on the mechanics and electronics sectors. He also has valuable experience in computer-implemented inventions and software. Tom’s recent work has been for clients in the aerospace and electronic consumer goods industries, and for university research departments across various fields of innovation.

Key findings

  • Patent filings for quantum computing technology have been accelerating in recent years.
  • 1787 new patent families published in 2020, compared with 667 new patent families published in 2015. 
  • Key players include both household names (IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Google) and new companies (Cambridge Quantum Computing, Oxford Quantum Circuits, and many others).
  • New companies are seeing the value of patent protection and are raising large amounts of capital to fund their innovation.

 

Who and why?

Quantum computing is an emerging technology. Patent filings for quantum computing technology have been accelerating in recent years. Our analysis has found that many companies have been active in protecting their IP position, including household names such as IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Google, as well as new (but by no means small) companies such as Cambridge Quantum Computing, Oxford Quantum Circuits, Quantum Motion Technologies, River Lane Research, Phasecraft and Universal Quantum.

Quantum computing utilises quantum mechanical phenomena such as superposition and entanglement to perform computation. Whereas “classical” bits can only be in a state corresponding to a 0 or 1, quantum bits (“qubits”) can be in a superposition of both states. The advantage of this “uncertainty” in knowing the state of the qubit is that multiple calculations can be performed simultaneously. With entanglement, operations performed on a first qubit influences the state of an entangled second qubit. In this case, by measuring the state of only the first qubit, you obtain two pieces of information – the state of the first qubit, and (by inference based on entanglement) the state of the second qubit. These quantum phenomena can be exploited for quicker computation.

 

Increase in patent filings

Recently, there has been a noticeable increase in patent filings in the field of quantum computing. Our analysis has found that 1787 new patent families were published in 2020, compared with 667 new patent families published in 2015. 

Figure 1 – The number of new patent families has accelerated over the past few years.

 

Key players include household names such as IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Google. D-Wave Systems, the first company to sell quantum computers, are also a major player with 418 published patent applications to their name.

 

Figure 2 – A number of key players have been highly active in patent filings.

 

Problems to overcome

Harsh environmental conditions are required to reliably produce and observe quantum mechanical phenomena. For example, temperature fluctuations and magnetic fields can destroy qubit entanglement. D-Wave Systems have worked extensively to sustain ultra-low temperature and magnetic field environments, making use of cryogenic cooling and shielding. D-Wave Systems are named on 54 published patent applications relating to “cooling” and 53 published patent applications relating to “shielding”.

In a recent BBC interview Sundar Richai, CEO of Alphabet and Google, discussed developments in Quantum Computing. Of particular interest is Google’s claim that in late 2019 they achieved “quantum supremacy” – the ability to perform a calculation that is beyond the capability of a “classical” computer [1] – using their Sycamore processor. At the time, IBM disputed that Google had indeed achieved quantum supremacy [2].

Google have been similarly active with their patent filings, and are named on 492 patent applications related to quantum computing. Microsoft have been prolific as ever, developing a specific quantum computing language ‘Q#’, and are named on 524 published patent applications.

In the BBC interview, Richai tells us that Google’s future aims include building an error-corrected quantum computer. And with good reason – whilst quantum computing has the potential to perform more complex calculations, it is unstable due to quantum effects such as decoherence and quantum noise. Reducing these detrimental effects has so far proved difficult. Richai estimates that we are around a decade away from stable quantum computers. Our analysis shows that Google are named on 89 published patent applications relating to quantum error correction.

 

Figure 3 – quantum error correction is thought to be essential in achieving reliable quantum computing. Google has been active in this area.

 

New companies getting in on the action

New companies innovating in quantum computing are also protecting their IP position with patent filings. Our analysis has revealed patent filings in the names of Cambridge Quantum Computing (7 published applications), Oxford Quantum Circuits (1 published application), Quantum Motion Technologies (4 published applications), River Lane Research (6 published applications), Phasecraft (3 published applications) and Universal Quantum (2 published applications). Our analysis shows that all bar one of these companies have received funding through grants, with most receiving innovation grant funding. Additional fundraisings for each company range from £4 million up to £55 million. It will be interesting to see if these new companies continue their patent filing activity, and how these new companies interact with larger multinationals in the future.

We look forward to seeing how the field of quantum computing develops in the coming years. To echo the words of IBM, we feel that “the best is yet to come”.

[1]: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1666-5

[2]: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2019/10/on-quantum-supremacy/

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