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Quantum sensing technology for the life sciences – Exploring the “What if” potential

1 Feb 2023

Quantum sensing technologies are starting to move away from lab-based demonstrations and towards robust products suitable for real-life industrial applications – detecting with a sensitivity and stability that has never been achieved before.  Find out more

Weaving the complex threads that form the fabric of breakthrough innovation is one of the joys of being at Cambridge Consultants (CC). I work alongside talented, multidisciplinary teams of experts who inspire me and motivate me at every turn. A recent project to help influence the future of quantum sensing in medicine is a case in point, where we brought together our in-house knowledge of quantum physics and practical real-world quantum application, with a deep understanding of the medical sector. That’s a potent mix.

To explain, let me rewind to early last year when CC was fortunate enough to begin a collaboration with the Swiss company Qnami, a renowned leader in quantum sensing technology. Their quantum microscopes incorporate nitrogen vacancy (NV) centers, in a diamond atomic force microscope tip, to offer extremely high sensitivity magnetic field measurements at an atomic scale.

The technology is currently most applicable to research activity, as well as some industrial R&D purposes. But Qnami were keen to identify other potential applications – particularly in the biomedical area – where NV magnetometry could provide clinical value and open new commercial avenues.

That’s a big ask, of course, but as a quantum physicist working in a commercial environment, I think it’s energizing that we’re increasingly able to put the big “what if?” questions out there. We can argue at length about the plausibility of individual scenarios, but the sheer potential of quantum technology enables us to hypothesize.

For example: “What if quantum computing could almost guarantee success for drugs in clinical trials, reducing cost and increasing the rate at which new diseases could be cured?” Or: “What if quantum encryption could ensure the absolute security of medical data?” And even: “What if quantum computers could tailor optimal personalized treatments, increasing the likelihood of a therapy being effective?”

Quantum effects increase sensor performance

What can’t be questioned is that using quantum effects to enhance sensing has the potential to increase sensor performance by orders of magnitude. This step-change in performance promises to enable new applications across many sectors, including in the life sciences. What exactly is quantum sensing? Essentially, it is making use of quantum effects to achieve something that an ordinary sensor simply can’t. Take a standard clock. It runs to an accuracy of around a second a day. But an atomic clock, based on a fundamental property of rubidium atoms, can be accurate to one second in millions of years. Other types of sensors, which are being unlocked by advances in the research underpinning them, can achieve similar feats – detecting with a sensitivity and stability that has never been achieved before. 

To unleash this potential, quantum sensing technologies are starting to move away from lab-based demonstrations and towards robust products suitable for real-life industrial applications. However, initial applications are often niche and typically serve research and development business functions. Finding market opportunities for new quantum sensing technologies, which are commercially attractive and can generate significant value, is critical for ensuring widespread uptake.

As indicated, we were able to respond to Qnami’s request with a with team made up of a unique set of skills – physicists who understand the fundamentals of quantum sensing, engineers accustomed to developing products to work in any environment, with tight cost and performance constraints, and domain experts with decades of experience working with the needs and challenges of medical device development. We also had something of a head start in terms of potential applications and challenges through a number of internal and client projects.

Our project with Qnami began with a market opportunity identification exercise that involved three tasks. First, we familiarized ourselves with Qnami’s core technology and captured key functional attributes. Second, CC experts identified a shortlist of potential opportunity hypotheses in a biomagnetic imaging application (in other words: where the technology could solve challenges in the life sciences). Finally, we assessed three of the most promising areas and analyzed the opportunity for Qnami to understand the risk/reward profile.

The project is one I’m proud to add to CC’s record of championing and pioneering emerging technologies, applying a wide range of specific skills and a comprehensive understanding of quantum physics to continue to push the boundaries of what is possible. Working in a team combining quantum sensing, deep medtech industry knowhow, technology insight, and strategic advisory services – that’s a great environment to be a part of.

First published on Cambridge Consultants Jan 2023

For more information on quantum sensing applications, go to Unpacking the potential of quantum sensing

Edmund Owen

Principal Quantum Physicist at Cambridge Consultants (Capgemini Invent)