What We Learned This Past Year From The Quantum Computing for COVID-19 Program

6 min readMar 22, 2021

Last March, D-Wave and an impressive list of partners and customers, including CINECA, DENSO, Forschungszentrum Jülich, Kyocera Corporation, KYOCERA Communication Systems, MDR/Cliffhanger, Menten AI, NEC Solution Innovators Ltd., OTI Lumionics, QAR Lab at LMU Munich, Sigma-i, Tohoku University, and Volkswagen announced that together we would provide both free access to the Leap™ quantum cloud service and a community of experts to help support COVID-19 research and initiatives.

In a matter of 9 days, we developed and launched the program. It included time on our quantum processing units (QPUs) and hybrid solvers. It also included access to a wealth of additional resources to get started using quantum, including our online integrated development environment (IDE), community discussion forums, learning materials, and more. Perhaps most importantly, it included the investment of human capital from our customers and partners. At the time, we had no idea what the response or the volume of interest would be. But we knew that in times of crisis, nimbleness, collaboration and creativity were what we had to offer.

Over the last year, more than 280 researchers, students, experts, and creative minds participated to passionately explore solutions around key problems related to the pandemic. Participants spanned the globe, coming from over 23 countries, with significant involvement from US, Canada, India, Italy, Japan, and the UK. As we wind down the program this month, we wanted to take some time to summarize and reflect on some key learnings.

Learning #1 — Solving pandemic sized problems with new technology takes an ecosystem.

After our first call to the community to collaborate and share their expertise, we had no idea of the types of problems that would come in, or if any of the use cases could even be translated to run on a quantum system. It started with an initial uptick in sign-ups, where we were sharing new ideas and connecting with our partners and customers to get their feedback and guidance on which use cases were most well suited to run on Leap. Over the course of the past year, we have seen partners and developers adopt innovative approaches to research and development and discover novel quantum use cases across the healthcare space and beyond. These new and innovative approaches didn’t all come from D-Wave. In fact, many came from the breadth of expertise that the ecosystem of quantum pioneers in large enterprises and nimble start-ups brought to bear. Inviting that team of experts to the table at the beginning allowed us to have a highly trained, highly skilled network of individuals across different industries that could bring both their functional expertise and their quantum knowledge to the cadre of those that signed up for the program. Outside of the Quantum Computing for COVID-19 program, we’re also seeing that enterprises require that same quantum expertise to get started and in fact, this learning informed the development of the D-Wave Launch program.

Learning #2 — The breadth of use cases uncovered during the program signals there is a strong future for quantum adoption in healthcare.

Many of the COVID-related use cases are adaptable and can be applied across multiple industries. We’ve also learned that robust developer support, guidance, and resources are mission-critical to help accelerate the time-to-market for many exciting applications that will drive real business value.

The healthcare industry is incredibly complex, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new class of challenges for private and public organizations to explore and overcome. The program participants mobilized quickly to first identify what problems to prioritize, and then to examine how they could leverage D-Wave’s quantum technology to find solutions effectively. To name just a few:

● Disease hotspot prediction — Where will the next spike of cases be concentrated?

● Vaccine distribution — What is the most optimal and efficient way to distribute vaccines?

● Lockdown to GDP ratio — How do you open and close an economy in a way that minimizes deaths but maximizes GDP?

● Nurse scheduling — What is the best way to schedule nurse care?

● Early detection and prevention of mental health issues — Can you minimize the prevalence of mental health issues during the pandemic?

● Delivery route optimization — With deliveries increasing, how can you streamline truck routing?

Many of the use cases above, while either triggered or accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have staying power that makes them applicable in the long-term. For example, long after the pandemic, healthcare organizations will still need to optimize their nursing staff, vaccines will still need to be distributed efficiently and effectively, and healthcare manufacturers will still benefit from optimized supply chains. Moreover, the problem formulations that undergird these use cases are extensible as well, and they can inform and accelerate the development of solutions to similar problems down the road. This brings us to our third key learning.

Learning #3 — Many of the use cases and potential solutions have an element of universality and can be extended to other industries and verticals.

While many of the aforementioned use cases are in early exploration and discovery, they demonstrate that developers are voraciously learning what types of problems are best solved with quantum computing, particularly D-Wave’s quantum annealing approach.

For example, most of the examples have to do with optimization or maximizing/minimizing a function within a given set of constraints — this structure is a prerequisite for formulating a QUBO (quadratic unconstrained binary optimization) equation, or the primary ‘language’ that the quantum computer understands and processes.

Moreover, because the use cases are, at their core, related to common business problems across multiple domains, they have the potential to extend beyond COVID-19 in important ways.

For example, take D-Wave partner Sigma-i Co., Ltd., a Tokyo company whose mission is to deliver brand new technologies after they have been developed within universities and/or research laboratories. Sigma-i has constructed many quantum proof-of-concepts that solve COVID-related business problems. They are creating real-world practical applications that address thorny challenges around hospital resource allocation, nurse and employee scheduling, and congestion in commercial facilities (such as movie theaters).

But not all of the examples and applications in our COVID-19 program are in the ideation or prototype stage. In fact, some are already in-production applications that solve real-world business problems.

For example, take Menten AI, the San Francisco-based protein design pioneer. Since quantum computing is especially well-suited to solve complex problems in drug discovery, Menten was able to apply existing quantum-based protein design techniques and accelerate innovation around COVID-19. In fact, their unique protein designs have already been computationally validated, chemically synthesized, and are being advanced to live-virus testing against the virus.

Learning #4 — Developers, whether solo or as part of an enterprise, are always hungry for more resources to help get them started and accelerate their time-to-innovation.

Whether developers are working on behalf of an enterprise or are simply exploring a new passion project, one thing is certain: there can never be enough resources to help get them started and accelerate their learning and application development. And, like any platform-based technology company focused on innovation, we know that developers are the lifeblood of our business and want to help unlock their full potential.

Supporting the developer journey starts with driving a keen awareness and education of what types of use cases can be solved with quantum computing, and what real world problems map to those use cases. Another critical part of the journey is enabling the challenging feat of formulating a problem so that it is consumable for a quantum computer (i.e. QUBO). For this, documentation and sample code are a developer’s best friend, and enterprises should make the effort to create robust documentation that is updated regularly.

As we wind down the COVID-19 Leap program this month, we want to thank the incredible partner and customer ecosystem that helped us bring the Quantum Computing for COVID-19 program to life. We have found the learnings to be actionable and key inputs into our how we think about the future of our business and the quantum technology space in general. We hope they provide our readers with the same.

If you are a developer interested in exploring D-Wave’s Leap service, you can sign up for free today! You’ll get free QPU (up to 1 minute) and hybrid solver service (up to 20 minutes) time renewed each month if you open-source your project.