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How would you go about finding a grain of sand if you had to search for it on every beach in the universe? That’s the metaphorical challenge Finnish software start-up Algorithmiq hopes to resolve through a ground-breaking new partnership with IBM to be announced today. The Helsinki-based quantum computing company hopes its technology will revolutionise the way we develop new drugs to combat disease.

“We believe there are certain problems that can only be solved using quantum computing,” says Sabrina Maniscalco, CEO and co-founder of Algorithmiq. “The quantum advantage is going to help break the current logjam in drug development, where life sciences companies are spending more and more on research but not seeing any increase in the number of new drugs coming through.”

Algorithmiq’s software will help at the all-important drug discovery phase of drug development. Life science and pharmaceutical companies already use powerful computers to model how molecules will behave inside the human body – and therefore to predict which drugs will work well against which diseases. But while this represents a significant advance on traditional research methods, conventional computers can only run simulations to a certain point, Maniscalco warns. “We are now reaching the limits of what is possible with this approach,” she says.

Enter quantum computers, which harness quantum mechanics to perform certain types of computation more efficiently – more quickly in other words – than traditional machines. With software developed specifically to run on such machines – employing complex new types of algorithm – there is the potential to break through the current ceiling, Maniscalco explains.

“This approach is not just incrementally better, though it certainly will reduce the time and cost of drug discovery,” she says. “It is truly disruptive.”

This is where the grain of sand metaphor comes in. Maniscalco says there are something like 1063 molecules in existence in the universe, each one of which might have a role to play in a new drug. Algorithmiq’s software, when run on a sufficiently powerful computer, can search all of them, she says. For conventional computers, the maximum range is more like 1016.

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This is why today’s deal with IBM is so important. By joining IBM’s Quantum Network, Algorithmiq will be able to offer a commercially viable proposition to life sciences and pharmaceutical businesses. They will be able to access the hardware and software required to use quantum computing for drug discovery. Maniscalco thinks the first drugs to be developed in this way could be available for trials within the next three years.

For Algorithmiq itself, that potentially represents a huge growth opportunity. The company will initially seek to monetise its technology through partnerships with life science businesses – effectively making its platform available for use in their drug discovery programmes; it will earn licensing fees and potentially drug royalties through such arrangements.

In the longer term, however, Maniscalco has bigger ambitions for the business. “We want to become the first quantum-powered biotech and do everything in-house,” she explains.

The quantum advantage is not just a question of the increased processing power of quantum computers, she adds. The way in which these machines work is also a better match for the drug discovery process. Quantum computers operate at the level of quantum physics – in exactly the same way as the molecules that need to be researched during discovery. “The power here is the ability to simulate other quantum systems,” Maniscalco explains.

That’s an important point, says Ivano Tavernelli, global leader for advanced algorithms for quantum simulations, at IBM Research. “Professor Maniscalco is a leader in the field and an expert in increasing the performance of quantum hardware through her work to reduce the noise that plagues quantum systems,” he says. “We support Algorithmiq’s ambition and believe that the company’s work will be pivotal in carving a path towards demonstrating quantum advantage with near-term quantum algorithms.”

Most of all, that is an exciting proposition for society, as the world’s population looks for new treatments for complex diseases and conditions. Algorithmiq has already begun talking to leading life sciences and pharmaceutical businesses about potential applications of its technology.

The industry gets it, says Maniscalco. “Almost every pharmaceutical company is now developing an in-house team with quantum expertise so that they can talk to people like us,” she says.

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