Hubert Keiber: "We are looking for firm projects in the... 'valley of death'”

Foundation President Werner Siemens explains reasons for grant of 15 million francs to EMPA's CarboQuant project

CarboQuant: Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung
Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung; EMPA's CarboQuant project will receive funding of 15 million francs over 10 years
(Photo: EMPA)

Finally, twelve years of intense work are paying off.

The researchers of Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology, based in Thun, St. Gallen and Dübendorf, have developed unique carbon and graphene materials with astonishing, hitherto unattainable electronic and magnetic properties, which could one day be used to build quantum computers with unprecedented architectures.

A million dollar grant from Werner Siemens Foundation, based in Zug, will give this visionary project an unusually long research horizon and significantly increase its prospects for success within ten years.

Hubert Keiber holds a doctorate in physics and from 1983 to 2015 held management positions at Siemens Switzerland as well as within the Russian and Chinese subsidiaries of the German multinational company specializing in building technology, energy technology, telephony, automation, financial services, transport, medical equipment, software and household appliances.

As Chairman of the Werner Siemens Foundation, named after the founder in Berlin on October 12, 1847 of the industrial conglomerate which today has a turnover of 88 billion euros and headquarters in Munich, he heads a three-member board of directors.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung, Hubert Keiber is therefore the right person to explain why the governing body has decided to award a grant of 15 million Swiss francs to a research team from EMPA, a body belonging to the Federal Polytechnics.

"Monstrel" support for research on quantum materials

CarboQuant: Pascal Ruffieux, CarboQuant team member of the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology, discusses Tunneling Microscope images with “postdoc” Nils Krane and PhD student Elia Turco
Pascal Ruffieux, CarboQuant team member of the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology, discusses Tunneling Microscope images with “postdoc” Nils Krane and PhD student Elia Turco
(Photo: Gian Vaitl/EMPA)

What was your first thought when you heard about the CarboQuant project?

“The project came to me through our Scientific Advisory Board, who recommended it to me – or rather, recommended it to the Foundation Board – as worthy of funding. When I got the question on my desk, I said to myself, even before reading it, 'Well, graphene, there's been a Nobel Prize for it; but what would you like to do again, since the topics are widely known and worked on. What is so special about this project?'. In reality, the exciting aspect of the project is that it concerns the geometry of these new graphene-based materials, whose electrical and magnetic properties can be 'tuned' through the geometry of graphene nano-strips, and this goes far beyond what has been known and understood so far. So it is the form that determines the function, and not the chemistry: a completely new way of thinking. All of this really impressed me. For this reason, we have invited Roman Fasel and Oliver and Pierangelo Gröning to take a closer look at the project”

From IBM a "monster" quantum processor with 433 Qubits

CarboQuant: Artist's impression of a graphene nanostrip absorbed by a gold surface and probed with the sharp tip of a Tunneling Microscope: These custom-made carbon structures exhibit quantum effects that are stable and can be manipulated even at room temperature: all this could be the… “silver bullet” useful for building completely new types of quantum computers
Artist's impression of a graphene nanostrip absorbed by a gold surface and probed with the sharp tip of a Tunneling Microscope: These custom-made carbon structures exhibit quantum effects that are stable and can be manipulated even at room temperature : all this could be the… “silver bullet” useful for building completely new types of computers
quantum
(Illustration: EMPA)

What are you primarily looking for when reviewing a project?

“First of all, we look at the protagonists, at the team, and we ask ourselves: 'Can they really carry out the project, should we really trust them? How do they behave during the presentation? Is there a 'one-man-show', one person who talks all the time while the others sit and listen, or interact with each other?' If they look like lone wolves, it's immediately a problem for us. We are looking for highly interdisciplinary projects, and this is quite difficult with only one person involved. In other words, teamwork is extremely important to us. How do they work as a team, is there the right chemistry between them? If this were not the case, in extreme cases we would reject even a scientifically excellent project, and we have already done so in the past".

Switzerland and the USA increasingly close allies in quantum research

CarboQuant: Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung
Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung; EMPA's CarboQuant project will receive funding of 15 million francs over 10 years
(Photo: EMPA)

In the case of the CarboQuant team, the 'chemistry' appears to have been correct…

“It was a real presentation, as we imagine it. It wasn't just one person taking the initiative and others reading the boss's words. They really passed the ball to each other. There were three individual minds and each had their own independent opinion, which is exactly what is needed in such an ambitious project. There has to be discussion and friction to progress. That's what convinced us."

The aim of the Werner Siemens Foundation is to support excellent and innovative research projects, with the aim of being able to use the resulting innovations on an industrial scale. For example, you are funding a robotically guided laser scalpel for minimally invasive surgery or antiviral drugs. Where does CarboQuant or quantum physics fit in?

“First, we have already rejected projects in the field of quantum computers in the past. Today a lot of purely basic research is still done in this field, and this, explicitly, is not an argument that is right for us. However, we also don't fund projects under the 'faster, better, higher' paradigm, ie when it is 'just' about optimizing something that already exists. We are looking for projects that are located in the so-called 'valley of death': the basic research has been done, in this case: graphene exists and is known. And now does anyone have an idea of ​​what could be done with it, such as building a prototype, an activity for which you usually don't get venture capital yet, but also no more funding for basic research, for example from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Many projects in this 'intermediate' area are unable to take off due to a lack of funding. This is exactly where we come into play and CarboQuant fits perfectly into this logic. These very special graphene structures, whose electronic and magnetic properties can be tuned through their geometry, their shape, could in the future enable the creation of computer chips on a completely different basis than today's quantum computers. However, quantum supercomputers are only 'one possible' application of these graphene structures; the quantum computer is the furthest goal, so to speak. I am convinced that the discoveries and developments that will be made along the way will also lead to technological innovations in completely different sectors…”.

Towards "quantum" data communication by entanglement

CarboQuant: Roman Fasel, head of EMPA's nanotech@surfaces sector, standing behind a tunneling microscope, in his laboratory
Roman Fasel, head of EMPA's nanotech@surfaces sector, standing behind a tunneling microscope in his laboratory
(Photo: Gian Vaitl/EMPA)

Which ones, if it is possible to know them?

“Microelectronic components and switching elements, for example. The fact that we could set different material properties via graphene geometry was decisive for us, because this completely new approach makes it possible to develop different, i.e. non-silicon-based, semiconductors for the microelectronics of tomorrow."

Fifteen million Swiss francs is an extraordinarily high figure for EMPA for a single project. Also for the Werner Siemens Foundation?

“No, this is exactly how we finance projects. For this reason we 'only' support three or four projects a year, but they are subsidized with amounts between 5 and 15 million francs, usually over ten years…”.

EPFL's "recipe" for more powerful quantum computers

CarboQuant: the molecular model of graphene with the classic cell structure
The molecular model of graphene with the classic cell structure

Since each franc can only be spent once, this financing approach involves some risks. Why do you follow this particular funding philosophy?

“This is because of the way our foundation is organised: we have a very small staff and therefore the ability to review projects is similarly limited. If we were to work and finance many small projects, we would need a completely different organization. Our philosophy is: 'small, but efficient', if you will, and by that I mean project overheads. We don't want to waste money on overheads: the money has to go to research projects."

Mini electricity generators formed by… quantum dots

CarboQuant: Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung
Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung; EMPA's CarboQuant project will receive funding of 15 million francs over 10 years
(Photo: EMPA)

What are the "constraints" associated with financing?

“We ask for a progress report once a year, and then report it ourselves in our annual report. Researchers don't have to do anything else. When we decide to finance a project, we also take on the risk that it could go wrong. On the one hand, the project could die because the basic idea is not feasible: fortunately it hasn't happened to us yet, but it is conceivable that it could happen. What would be worse, however, is that the team is unable to implement the project, despite the good ideas behind it. Because in this case we, i.e. the board of directors, would have made a mistake. In other words: 'high risk, high gain'…”.

Towards compact quantum computers thanks to… topology

CarboQuant: the graphical representation of the difference between a bit and a quantum bit or qubit
The graphical representation of the difference between a bit and a quantum bit or qubit

Quantum computers are regularly in the media, especially in relation to tech giants like IBM, Microsoft or Google. Why support a small player like EMPA in this "race"?

“Because the Swiss team wants to think and design quantum computers in a completely new way, also from the point of view of materials. Today, 4 degrees Kelvin, i.e. temperatures close to absolute zero, are needed to operate a quantum computer with, for example, 8 Qubits. And CarboQuant could allow such computers with chips that look normal to work at much hotter temperatures, perhaps even at room temperature. Another important point: in the field of quantum computing, as you rightly said, Europe is not really at the cutting edge. With CarboQuant, we too could make a contribution to this important research field”

Towards an artificial quantum neuron thanks to photons

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CarboQuant: Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung
Hubert Keiber is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Werner Siemens Stiftung; EMPA's CarboQuant project will receive funding of 15 million francs over 10 years (Photo: EMPA)