To illustrate the importance of investing in quantum technology, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker began the Chamber’s recent Chicago at a Crossroads event with a cautionary anecdote.

He noted that several influential internet companies — including YouTube, PayPal, and Mosaic (the first internet browser) — got their start in Illinois.

“And those companies got up and left because there wasn’t enough of an ecosystem for them to thrive,” said Pritzker in a fireside chat with Pranav Gokhale, vice president of Quantum Software at Infleqtion, and Kate Waimey Timmerman, CEO of Chicago Quantum Exchange. “There wasn’t venture capital to support them. They didn’t have the talent that to feed their companies as they were growing.”

This was just one of the topics the group discussed at Chicago’s Quantum Advantage — Shaping Tomorrow’s Economy, at Microsoft’s Chicago office on Tuesday, Dec. 12. The expansive conversation, which was presented by Old National Bank, ranged from defining quantum technology to emphasizing the importance of federal investments to accentuating how Chicago must reprise its leading role as a tech incubator in the new quantum field.

Pritzker began on an optimistic note, saying Illinois already boasts world-class scientists, unparalleled facilities and research institutions, and other substantial benefits that will boost quantum innovation. Indeed, the Biden Administration designated the Chicago region as an official U.S. Research and Innovation Technology Hub for quantum work in October, opening the door to new federal funding. 

Timmerman, however, noted that Chicago is on the lower end of companies using AI, according to a recent Crain’s article that found 3.6% of Chicago-area companies are utilizing AI. The national average is 4.4%, with Denver at the top of the rankings at 10%. Similarly, another Crain’s article found that Chicago ranks 14th in the nation when it comes to companies hiring for generative AI positions, trailing such cities as Atlanta, Seattle, and San Francisco.

These statistics are notable, Timmerman said, because the first 10% of adopters of new technologies will reap 90% of the economic rewards, according to conventional wisdom. “So in five to 10 years when that Chat GPT moment happens for quantum technology, we want the companies in this region to be ready,” she said. “And when that same list comes out then, we want Chicago to be up at the top.”

The group pointed out other elements that are critical for Illinois’ quantum efforts, including physical spaces for actual quantum work, and the ability to attract and retain a diverse, inclusive talent pool.

“You have a different, more expensive set of needs for developing hardware in this case — cryo-refrigeration is needed for the development of quantum chips, but they’re usually only available on university campuses,” Pritzker said. “But we should find a public-private partnership in this area, or the public sector should be investing in this, because having a facility like that attracts new startups in the quantum field.”

Timmerman agreed, noting she visited many quantum ecosystems around the world and saw the importance of physical infrastructure. “That can be large-dilution refrigerators that have cryo-capabilities, like the governor was mentioning, but it can also include additional technical pieces of equipment that are an attractive force for companies,” she said.

Another critical step is finding and retaining diverse, inclusive talent, and Timmerman noted that federal investment is crucial in this area. “We need to develop training pathways for students that will meet the needs of the industry as it’s evolving — it’s hard and it’s rapidly changing, and we need that federal investment in order to be able to do it,” she said.

She noted that Chicago is co-leading a national effort called the Q-12 Education Partnership, which is working to help onboard students as early as elementary school so they can understand the principles of quantum technology.

The reason this work is so important, Pritzker said, is because quantum will play an essential role not just in the Chicago area’s economy, but also in the United States’ future.

“I can tell you that the investments that we make in quantum are going to make or break our economy for the next century,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that the state is stepping forward, and that we make sure that the nation recognizes Chicago as the future hub of quantum technology. Because if we’re successful, we will be truly boosting the national security and the national economy of the United States for the next century.”

12.12.2023 Chicago at a Crossroads: Chicago's Quantum Advantage