What can quantum computing do for pharma and the life sciences? There’s been plenty of talk in the industry lately about how companies can begin to act in this exciting and highly promising technology sphere. In this article, I’d like to develop the debate a little further by considering some of the opportunities that are beginning to appear on the horizon. The insights and observations are focused on how pharma industry leaders might start to go about implementing an action plan.
It was the BioTechX congress in Basel, Switzerland that inspired me to further explore how quantum computing and quantum technology could help us respond to some of the challenges that pharma is looking to solve with innovative techniques. With CC taking a collaborative approach to such challenges, I was able to dig even more deeply into the subject with my colleagues Edmund Owen and James Cruise.
As quantum experts, they are both adept at turning quantum theory into commercial potential for clients. And as a company, we’ve already been very active working with pharma and life sciences clients to explore quantum initiatives. Edmund and James were both instrumental in helping to shape the thoughts I’m sharing here.
More of those in a moment, but first let me rewind to Basel. BioTechX is a huge annual event spanning diagnostics, precision medicine and digital transformation in pharmaceutical development and healthcare. When I visited, a range of inspiring speakers were offering their take on the common pharma theme of getting the right treatments to the right patients faster.
Quantum computing and pharma
A highlight for me was Boehringer Ingelheim’s presentation entitled: ‘Quantum computing and pharma – a perfect match?’ It prompted a lively discussion about the potential of quantum to answer some of the tough challenges faced by the industry. At the same time, there was an acknowledgement that we need to take time to fully understand what the right use cases are. It’s certainly not a panacea to be thrown at everything.
The talk resonated on many levels – not least on the common themes we’ve been discussing here at CC, and also during our quantum-related work with colleagues at our parent, Capgemini. Experts there include Sam Genway, who is part of the Capgemini Quantum Lab. His article on five best practices highlights the importance of generating a quantum roadmap for life sciences.
Crucially, he reveals ways to make sure life sciences organisations derive meaningful value from proof of concept (POC) programmes. Building on that theme, a Capgemini report on the future of quantum in life sciences offers four steps that organisations can take to begin to lay the foundation for an innovative quantum computing programme in the future.
Let me turn now to CC’s vision of quantum technology. Our view is that it will drive extraordinary applications that are, for now at least, entirely unimaginable. A number of ‘what if’ scenarios came leaping to mind. What if, for example, quantum technologies could hold the potential to revolutionise the environments in which pharma companies design drugs?
If quantum could help us identify new interactions between materials, perhaps we could uncover new properties that could be effective within medical technology design. Products would then deliver unparalleled effectiveness to patients, while being more considerate to the planet.
Another thought is centred on shortening the time to getting to a place where we better understand material interactions. What if we could reduce the time of effective drug discovery before we get to the discovery process? If we have a clear understanding of diseases and their components sooner, we could perhaps make early moves towards tackling them. And that really would be a golden ticket for the pharma industry.
The difference between quantum technology and quantum computing
You’ll notice that in this article I’ve predominantly talked about quantum technologies and quantum computing. The two are often used interchangeably but actually mean different things. The former is an all-embracing term that refers to any technology which uses measurement and control of quantum systems.
The latter, quantum computing, is an example of quantum technology which applies these principles to create a new computing paradigm which processes a new type of information – quantum information. This paradigm promises the ability to investigate the behaviour and nature of energy and matter on the quantum (atomic and sub-atomic) scale to an accuracy beyond anything dreamed of with current technologies.
There are challenges within the industry that can’t be answered or even fully understood by the conventional approach of classical computing. Some can be of course – and as I said earlier quantum isn’t a viable approach for every problem. Many of the intractable issues concern our understanding of the properties of components – for example the molecules within drugs and interactions between therapeutic agents and delivery systems. Although not a direct replacement for classical computing, a quantum computing approach could be used to answer the questions that are currently elusive.
If you caught my recent article on connected healthcare, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of collaboration. It’s crucial to breaking down siloes and liberating teams to drive transformational impact. For me, it’s also a key ingredient for the near future as we rise to Sam Genway’s vision of developing truly meaningful proof of concepts in the quantum sphere.
If we are to initiate realistic POCs for pharma and also make them more feasible, then we will almost always require a combination of several areas of expertise. At CC, for instance, we have a thorough understanding of pharma, as well as the wider industry, to complement our quantum expertise. The ability to also add the necessary tools to make it happen – in automation, engineering, software, hardware and so on – is where we can really deliver value.
Quantum computing for R&D challenges
It's also important to sharpen our focus on where best to utilise quantum computing. We don’t yet have a full picture of all the potential uses in an organisation. But it’s safe to say that one of the most exciting areas is in R&D challenges. I’d also say that quantum computing is going to be hugely impactful in the way that people think about problem solving, which points to qualitative value. However, by taking an existing road map – and then looking at how to start putting quantum related actions and activities in place – pharma companies can begin to demonstrate quantitative value.
As for the medium to long term trajectory of quantum innovation, we still obviously face plenty of challenges. Understanding the tipping point at which quantum becomes valuable will be key for pharma and life sciences. The point at which it becomes mainstream will be pivotal in every sense of the word. We don’t anticipate a ‘big bang’ moment, but we do think that as quantum is applied to more and more processes, drug discovery will be revolutionised. The value will not come all at once, but each incremental advance will have huge value.
Nevertheless, pharma companies can take practical steps by beginning to set up the right infrastructure to adopt quantum technology. Such future scoping and planning will be crucial if leaders are to keep pace. It will also enable actions within a roadmap to be set in place so they can start to deliver value as soon as possible.
Developing the right skillset will be just as important. If a pharma company doesn’t evolve at the same pace as quantum technology, they will have to be playing catch up. A point to remember here is that quantum innovation will require a careful balance of upskilling conventional expertise – and embracing a whole different logic that demands specialist knowledge and aptitude. Achieving this balance is something that a company like CC can help with.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my viewpoint on how pharma and life sciences organisations can start to take positive steps towards implementing an action plan for quantum innovation. To get set for success, it’s time to begin thinking about addressing the feasibility of proof of concepts. Another avenue of progress is to work towards a greater understand of quantum computing and wider quantum technology, by adopting a collaborative approach that embraces such aspects as engineering, hardware, software and the specific needs of the industry.
As for me? I’m excited by the prospect of further work with clients to help define and action their quantum approach. Meanwhile, it there are any aspects of the topic, please drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.