UK’s quantum computing industry needs investment in talent, says techUK CEO

Julian David, CEO of techUK, talks to BI Foresight about why addressing education and skills gaps is essential to developing a strong UK quantum computing industry.

Marc Ambasna-Jones

“How do you get a quantum literate workforce within the broader tech sector?” asks Julian David, CEO of UK technology trade association techUK for more than ten years. “How do you get people to understand and be empowered to utilise quantum technologies or applications?”

This echoes the sentiment of many a country tasked with navigating complex innovation and turning research ideas into business opportunities. While it’s still relatively early days for a quantum applications industry, David’s point is that we have to improve the country’s overall technology competency level to have any chance of grasping the opportunities that quantum will inevitably bring.

“The UK government needs to keep focusing on the skill gaps,” says David. “If you want a quantum strategy, it’s not just about putting money up and encouraging people to get the latest tech, it’s also about investing in all this stuff around it, particularly skills and talents.”

A national quantum strategy

Back in 2022, techUK published a report called Quantum commercialisation: Positioning the UK for success, a paper which helped shape the government’s national quantum strategy (released in March last year). Skills development is a key part of the plan and the government recently announced a £1.1bn funding package to “skill-up the UK” in AI and quantum. This includes 65 Centres for Doctoral Training with a focus on opportunities outside of the south-east. According to a government release, there will be “more than 350 places for students in Glasgow, over 300 in Edinburgh, over 250 in Bristol and over 150 in Sheffield and Manchester respectively.”

It’s a strategic move that David welcomes – techUK has also been involved with supporting the new Quantum Skills Taskforce, running workshops to help improve collaboration between industry, academia, learned societies, and government. But David is also a realist, recognising that while all this is a move in the right direction, on-going coordination, investment, and consistency are needed.

“We’re still not really joined up and serious about some of these things,” says David. “What tends to happen is that bits of it happen here and there but there doesn’t ever seem to be a guiding hand across the piece.”

International comparisons

And just how does the UK compare with other countries? David’s point that you don’t get anywhere without continued investment in people and skills, regardless of how much money a government pumps into the technology through grants and start-up prizes, is a valid one. It comes on the back of ONS data released in April. According to the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), the ONS figures show that the UK experienced a 3.4% increase in real terms in government R&D spending in 2022, from £14.98 billion to £15.49 billion – but that is still significantly less than other OECD nations.

Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the NCUB says the UK still lags behind the OECD average of a 6% investment growth. “This should ring alarm bells. The UK’s global R&D competitiveness will slip if we do not keep up with the growth seen around the world,” says Marshall.

“The UK government needs to keep focusing on the skill gaps”

This echoes David’s own beliefs around ongoing skills development and coordination. Everything is connected. There has to be a long term education plan, not just to continue competing on a research level but to start seeing fruition in start-ups and scale-ups. If things currently feel disjointed, it’s probably because they are.

Over the years, in the UK in particular, we have seen so many tech innovations sold off to the highest bidder, due largely to investment and skills challenges. It wouldn’t be too much of a generalisation to say the UK has lacked the ability to scale its tech start-ups to a level where it can compete globally.

“We tend to have good invention in the UK but not such good implementation and deployment,” says David. This is particularly true when it comes to leading, innovative technologies. Of course, the last few years have seen a number of businesses emerge in the UK tech sector and the UK’s reputation as a centre for tech has grown considerably – but is this enough to enable a new generation of quantum computing entrepreneurs? 

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While, according to recent Beauhurst data, the UK has 43 active unicorn businesses, 18 of these are in the fintech space. AI firms, such as Bristol’s Graphcore, account for nine of the unicorns, while others are split between healthtech, insurtech, SaaS and other industries. In truth, the UK is not doing too badly when compared with other European countries, but with every new technology comes a levelling of the playing field. And in quantum computing, a lot of regions understandably recognise the commercial, as well as strategic, potential. The race is on.

Planning ahead

“One of the biggest challenges in the UK is understanding the opportunity,” says David. “Do people think big enough? Do they have a plan for finance, for five years? If you’re in a deep tech space, like quantum or even EVs, you know, batteries, these things require big money and are long term. If the first conversation you have with investors is your exit, it sets the tone.”

David’s point is that the UK has to continue to re-frame its thinking around tech business development. Quantum is not a quick win but there has to be a balance between the costly realities of R&D and the need to entice skilled workers and investors. That comes with confidence and to a certain extent being ahead of the competition. The good news is that the UK has rejoined the Horizon programme, which recently announced new funding for quantum and AI research across Europe. Quantum computing is certainly gaining momentum, but given that the US launched its quantum strategy in 2018, it seems the UK still has much work to do.

Top five insights from the head of techUK

  • The UK needs to focus on developing a quantum-literate workforce across the tech sector through education programs that bridge engineering, science, business, and social sciences. There is currently a lack of awareness and talent is key. 
  • The UK government should identify and address skill gaps, particularly at the postgraduate level, to support the development of quantum technologies. This requires a strong base level of STEM education.
  • The UK must have flexibility in visas to allow short-term access and placements for international quantum talent to support academic and industry collaborations.
  • There needs to be better connectivity between fundamental research, significant development, and deployment of quantum technologies in the UK. We are currently good at invention but not implementation.
  • The UK must improve technical skills across the population and support SMEs with things like digital skills tax credits to boost productivity. There is a lack of digital skills and talent awareness.
Marc Ambasna-Jones
Marc Ambasna-Jones / Editor-in-chief

Working as a technology journalist and writer since 1989, Marc has written for a wide range of titles on technology, business, education, politics and sustainability, with work appearing in The Guardian, The Register, New Statesman, Computer Weekly and many more.