Freeke Heijman, co-founding director of Quantum Delta Netherlands, is uniquely positioned to ensure the country’s €615 million investment from its national growth fund in quantum computing won’t go to waste.
A nearly 20-year veteran of the Dutch technology industry, Heijman has made quantum computing — a long-time object of fascination for the trained systems engineer — a focus since 2013.
That experience, combined with a passion for policy and technology innovation — honed by Heijman’s time spent working for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs — will inform her work with scientists to solve what she calls the ‘innovation paradox’ that has existed in the European Union for a long time. “Europe is very good in science but it’s not good in technology commercialization,” she told CIO Netherlands.
By bridging this gap and working at the intersection of academia, government, and the technology sector, Heijman hopes to make the Netherlands and ultimately the EU an innovation leader in the quantum computing field.
The recently announced House of Quantum, a national headquarters for Dutch quantum research which Heijman also co-founded, is a milestone on the journey to that goal.
Heijman also hopes to bring other women along with her. Calling the gender gap in technology ‘one of the biggest challenges for the field’, Heijman said she is using her influence to ensure women’s voices are heard as loudly as men’s when it comes to quantum computing.
CIO Netherlands spoke with Heijman recently while she was on a trip to Seattle to meet with Microsoft and other technology companies to discuss collaboration on quantum computing. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
CIO Netherlands: Tell me about your role at Quantum Delta Netherlands.
Heijman: I founded the organization. I’ve been involved with quantum technology since 2013 in several roles. In 2018 we decided it was time to get a national strategy. Then we got funding for that to implement that strategy. So in September of last year we [with codirector Jesse Robbers] founded a new legal entity, a foundation, and that’s Quantum Delta Netherlands.
CIO Netherlands: What is Quantum Delta’s goal?
Heijman: The goal is to scale the ecosystem. It’s a holistic program going from education to research to startup development. On all these aspects, we want to scale the ecosystem. Of course, we also want to develop technology, so we are focusing on technology platforms to develop those that can be a magnet for investments of private parties. In essence, I would say we would like to grow the hub that we already are in quantum technology, which is still relatively modest in size. We want to become this hub for the next 10 to 20 to 30 years, grow the number of people and economic activities, become a Silicon Valley or Boston of quantum technologies.
CIO Netherlands: Why does the Netherlands believe it is well-positioned to be a leader in Europe for quantum computing?
Heijman: Well, it’s partly historically grown. We have had a strong position and strong scientific basis since the ’80s already. There were strong groups already then and already investments in research infrastructure and clean rooms that were good to enhance this kind of research. There was already this seed of science. Also, companies recognized that, so we have big investments from Microsoft and Intel.
We also are ahead in certain ways of doing things. For instance, [Netherlands-based] QuTech is a research institute that combines academic research with engineering. And that’s sort of new and it took some time to get used to it and for people to learn each other’s language, but then it worked because you go to the next level in technology development.
CIO Netherlands: What does the Netherlands see as the benefits of this leadership? How can that help you advance in other technologies in which the country is not so well positioned?
Heijman: Quantum computing is still a bit far out. It’s time to market is still big but it also has big potential and it’s a fairly small [community] at this point. Everybody knows each other, it’s a worldwide global ecosystem. I think by playing in this global ecosystem, playing a role, it also connects to other technologies, because for instance companies like Honeywell or Google or AirBus or Bosch are doing a lot of things. If you are at the table for quantum, you can make connections to other technologies.
CIO Netherlands: Can you talk about the significance of the House of Quantum at Delft University to this leadership and to the rise and adoption of quantum computing in Europe?
Heijman: Well, what we learned from this last year of course is that lot of work can go on virtually. But in the end, it also makes sense to have a physical place where people meet and interact and especially where hardware is concerned, you need to integrate stuff. We strongly believe in this proximity aspect of technology application. This House of Quantum is a new concept in which the ecosystem comes together in one facility. For instance, companies, startups—they can be in this building and have their own space but also be part of the ecosystem and share certain facilities, [such as] workplaces, microscopes, etc.
CIO Netherlands: There are various technical hurdles to overcome before quantum computing can be reliably used in different applications. Is Quantum Delta focusing on any particular set of technical issues? How will the ecosystem factor into overcoming these challenges that the technology faces at the moment?
Heijman: We explicitly have chosen a multi-technology, technology-agnostic approach. We are not choosing at this point winning technologies. For instance, if you look at quantum computing, there are several qubit types still in the race, and maybe one will win, maybe a few will win. But it’s not yet clear. And at this point we support various qubit types in the ecosystem.
CIO Netherlands: What sort of quantum applications do you think will be the first to be broadly deployed, and why?
Heijman: My expectation would be that machine learning, algorithms for machine learning, would be one of the logical first implementations, and/or materials and chemistry—so certain molecules with quantum properties that can be simulated by relatively small quantum computers.
CIO Netherlands: Do you think of the concept of “digital sovereignty” is something that Europeans really need to be thinking, or concerned, about, and trying to achieve, and if so, why?
Heijman: I think it’s a very important concept. If you look at the current situation—such as chips, for instance, and the scarcity for that and the supply chain for that—I think it’s important to take note of these kinds of strategic technologies and think about how do you relate to such a technology. You can say, we are dependent on partners and we buy it from the shelf. That has some risks, of course. You become dependent, and I don’t think that’s wise. I think it’s a very relevant concept and I think it’s important.
On the other hand, I also think we should be realistic in the way we can achieve this sovereignty, and I think it’s not realistic to say that we should fabricate or produce everything in Europe. It’s not feasible. I think it’s important to look at trusted communities and like-minded nations that we can work with and make codes of conduct with them and develop the value chain and see how you interact and work with practices like [intellectual property] arrangements and procurement in a way that’s workable.
CIO Netherlands: What is your background in quantum computing? Why the attraction to this technology in particular?
Heijman: I’m a system engineer by training and started my working career at KPN, which is our national telecom operator, in the research department in mobile data services. Then I transferred to the Ministry of Economic Affairs for space policy, innovation policy and entrepreneurship policy for several years. And always I had a passion for policy and innovation—that’s just where my heart lies—and at the crossroads of academia, industry, and government. This interplay between academia, industry, and government is very appealing to me.
Quantum technology—well, it was just something that came on my path and because we had been doing at the ministry so much work trying to get science out of the lab and into the market. We call it the innovation paradox—Europe is very good in science but it’s not good in commercialization. This was a technology that came up.
CIO Netherlands: Do you think the gender gap is waning in technology based on what you’ve seen in your time in this field? Or are there still challenges to bringing more women into tech and to just make it more diverse in general?
Heijman: I think this is one of the biggest challenges for the field, to be honest. It’s not just gender, it’s diversity and inclusiveness in the broad sense of the word. We just need more perspectives to get this technology to work. It’s a cultural challenge. I have worked in the ministry, which is also male-dominated, and I studied at the technical university so I’m used to working with men a lot. I like it in a way or else I would have left. But it is a challenge. The willingness is there because everybody sees it as a challenge. Everybody acknowledges it.
It’s a cultural thing. For instance, in a way that I find really striking, people who are established in this field, they have a way of communicating as if they know everything in a way. It’s hard to say, “Well, I just don’t know.” Or, “Can you help me with this?” You have to be [overly confident]. It’s a turnoff I think for women but also maybe for other talented people who also may not be so sure of themselves. Because why would one be so sure of oneself? I think there is a lot of work to be done. But I see that there is a big willingness to work with it.
CIO Netherlands: Are you involved with or have you participated in any initiatives to help bring women into the technology workforce? What is being done?
Heijman: There are a lot of initiatives for recruitment within universities. We have WIQD—Women in Quantum Development, a network for women in the field where they can share best practices and things like that. What we are doing more and more is, for instance, if there is a panel and the panel has only men on it, we say, “Sorry we can’t contribute to this.” We are being much stronger in not accepting it anymore. Sometimes you’re in a group email and you just see 12 men and no women. I’m like, “What’s this group? No, we don’t do this any more.”