TechSprouts is a platform to engage with the deep science ecosystem in India

TechSprouts Monthly: June 2023

The rise of quantum technologies in India, India-US space cooperation and more

Deep science funding updates

  • Pixxel, which is developing a high-resolution hyperspectral satellite constellation for delivering actionable climate insights on a planetary scale, raised $36 million in its Series B funding round.
  • Digantara, a company providing space debris tracking and monitoring services raised $10 million in a round led by Peak XV Partners for commercialization of its space operations and satellite traffic management.
  • Zydus Animal Health and Investments Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Zydus Lifesciences, acquired a 6.5% stake in Mylab for $13M.

Deep science ecosystem updates

  • India has decided to join the Artemis Accords on international cooperation in space travel. The Artemis campaign aims to put humans on the moon by 2025. NASA and ISRO will launch a joint mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2024.
  • GEMCOVAC-OM, an Omicron-specific mRNA-based booster vaccine by Gennova Biopharmaceuticals, received approval from DGCI, making it the first mRNA vaccine approved in the country.
  • Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder and chairman of Infosys Ltd. has donated $38.5M to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay to stimulate research and development in various emerging technologies and develop a robust deeptech ecosystem in the institute.
  • Micron, Lam Research and Applied Materials announced projects in India on skilling, designing and manufacturing in the semiconductor industry.

News from the research community

  • The National Research Foundation (NRF) Bill, 2023 was approved by the Union Cabinet. This paves the way for the setting up of the NRF to foster research and innovation in centres across the country.
  • Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) Complex for North East Hill (NEH) Region, Umiam, Meghalaya have developed a biopesticide against the pest Shoot and Fruit Borer (SFB) which can cause crop loss of up to 40-100%.
  • Researchers from the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, have developed a new advanced Silicon-based platform for economised and more efficient microchips.
  • Researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have designed an energy-efficient solar-powered desalination system.

Deep Science Thoughts

The Rise of Quantum Technologies in India

Image source: DALL.E2

Earlier this year, India launched the National Quantum Mission, a seven-year program to develop the quantum technology ecosystem in India. Quantum computing and communication, in particular, promise to change the way we approach many processes core to our society. They address and solve some fundamental bottlenecks such as the end of Moore’s law scaling, the need for faster machine learning algorithms, or the need for improved secure communication protocols. The excitement for these technologies is palpable, in particular because some applications have been deployed in the real world.

What exactly do quantum technologies promise? Firstly, quantum computers promise marked improvements in a number of algorithms. Shor’s landmark algorithm for prime number factoring has huge repercussions for quantum cryptography. Quantum machine learning represents an entirely new paradigm of efficiently dealing with large models and datasets. Quantum computers provide superior methods to model quantum systems, removing fundamental bottlenecks in drugs and materials discovery. For example, quantum computers could be used to better understand the behaviour of the molecule nitrogenase which could then change the way we manufacture fertilizer (a process that uses up 3% of our global energy output). Communicating via protocols such as quantum key distribution (QKD) promise security that is guaranteed by the laws of physics itself. The list doesn’t end at just computing and information processing, as quantum technologies are also used to make better sensors, precise clocks, and so on.

Governments, defense agencies, large corporations and startups are conducting research and building applications across the board. China launched its QKD satellite Micius in 2016, enabling space-to-earth QKD across a ground distance of 1,100km. In 2019, Google built a 53 qubit quantum computer and used it to demonstrate “quantum advantage”, i.e. an experimental demonstration of the superiority of a quantum computer over a classical one. Quantum computers built by IBM are now available to be programmed and used via the cloud. Financial institutions such as JP Morgan, too, are keenly studying quantum computing and the effects it may have on their operations. There are a number of quantum computing startups across the globe, which raised a cumulative $1.85 billion in 2022.

The quantum computing effort in India lagged behind global efforts in the 2000s and 2010s. Of late, there has been a major push to develop the domestic quantum computing ecosystem in India. This push is spearheaded by the National Quantum Mission, which earmarks Rs. 6,000 crore to be spent on quantum technologies from 2023-24 to 2030-31, an amount similar to the $1.2 billion earmarked for quantum technologies in the USA’s 2018 Quantum Initiative Act. The mission calls for the setting up of four thematic research hubs and includes concrete goals such as a 50-100 qubit quantum computer and QKD over a range of 2,000 kilometres.

Large IT companies such as TCS and Wipro are identifying viable use cases for quantum computing, and NASSCOM predicts it will add $310 billion of enterprise value to the Indian economy. Apart from government agencies, universities and large industries, the startup sphere is another hotbed of activity. The availability of quantum computers on the cloud has been a major factor in the mushrooming of startups around the world, similar to the way cloud computing platforms enabled the profusion of digital tech startups.

Some of the highlights from Indian quantum startups have been QNu Labs, which works on satellite-based QKD, and BosonQ, which builds SaaS-based engineering software using quantum computing tech. Both of these companies raised venture funding in 2022. There are a number of earlier-stage companies too. The coming together of a favourable timeline, strong tailwinds, availability of the right talent as well as institutional support has made starting up in this space a very attractive proposition.

Despite lagging behind global developments for many years, the Indian ecosystem now has its priorities aligned along with buy-in from the various kinds of stakeholders, and should see an accretion of new players and technology deployments around the major research and development hubs.

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TechSprouts is a platform to engage with the deep science ecosystem in India