The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced close to $51 million in funding today for projects that will strengthen Canada’s quantum research and innovation capacity in alignment with the National Quantum Strategy.

Dr. Douglas Stebila, an associate professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization, leads a $4.1 million research consortium that includes researchers from the University of Waterloo and the University of Calgary, as well as several corporate partners: the Royal Bank of Canada, TELUS, Entrust, and the City of Calgary. Stebila’s team is one of several with members at Waterloo that are receiving funding from NSERC, due to the strength of the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). 

“We recognize the importance of staying ahead of emerging cybersecurity threats and are eager to support research that will help safeguard our communication infrastructure,” says Monique Nesset, Smart City Lead for the City of Calgary.

The consortium members are partnering on the project Accelerating the transition to quantum-resistant cryptography, which seeks to anticipate potential future attacks on Canadian information systems. Current computer networks use cryptographic technology to securely encode communications such as web browsers and instant messages. Though the technology to do so does not currently exist, experts predict that a large-scale quantum computer could break existing cryptographic protections. If an attacker developed the right quantum computing technology in the future, they could then apply it retroactively to communications gathered earlier, allowing them access to important confidential information.

Douglas Stabile

Dr. Douglas Stebila, associate professor of Combinatorics and Optimization, University of Waterloo

In order to prevent these potential future leads from taking place, then, Stebila’s team is helping make moves in a technological chess game: they are working to develop quantum-resistant cryptography, before quantum computing poses a real threat. “It takes a long time to deploy a new technology,” Stebila explains. “Core mathematics are starting to get nailed down, but it’s still a long path to actually getting that out there and deployed.”  

The NSERC, which exists to fund scientific and technical breakthroughs that will benefit Canada, put out a call in 2021 for proposals that would strengthen Canada’s quantum research and innovation capacity, as part of the National Quantum Strategy. To encourage collaboration across Canada and between multiple sectors, the funding call specifically mandated that researchers collaborate with universities from other provinces as well as bringing in industry partners.

Stebila, along with his fellow Combinatorics and Optimization professors Dr. Michele Mosca and Dr. David Jao, partnered with researchers at the University of Calgary due to the University of Calgary’s quantum key distribution testbed. “Calgary researchers are proud to be an integral part of developing and accelerating Canada’s transition to quantum-resistance confidentiality and authentication for secure communication,” says Dr. Barry Sanders, Director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology.  

Multiple industry and government partners are involved in order to help researchers create solutions that will seamlessly translate from the lab to everyday life. “The evolution of quantum computers brings the potential for a range of exciting and revolutionary use cases,” explains Samantha Mabey, Product Marketing Management Director of Certificate Solutions at Entrust, “but it also poses an existential threat to the security and privacy of our communication infrastructure. To address this challenge, we’re excited to be part of a project that will take us from theoretical algorithms to real-world adoption.”

“Quantum will be a critical part of all technologies in the future,” says Ibrahim Gedeon, Chief Technology Officer, TELUS. “TELUS is proud to support this research, which will help identify new and emerging technologies for the benefit of Canadians. As a partner of the NSERC Alliance Quantum Consortia, TELUS will play a critical role in identifying and supporting the technologies needed to realize a quantum-enabled Internet without compromising the security of our digital economy or communications infrastructure.”

"RBC is committed to the goal of being Quantum Safe," agrees Adam Evans, Senior Vice President & CISO for RBC. "The development of solutions which mitigate against the Quantum threat is a complex problem and an area that is continuing to grow and mature. RBC is very excited to partner with the NSERC Alliance Quantum Consortia and play a role in helping to progress Canada's Quantum innovation. We believe this partnership will help bring future information security for our partners, clients and communities." 

The $4.1 research grant will be administered over five years, and includes $250,000 in funding from the University of Waterloo: $40,000 from the Faculty of Mathematics and $10,000 from the Office of Research per year. In addition to directly helping advance research, the funding will help to train graduate students and post-doctoral researchers as experts in an emerging area of cybersecurity: a critical need for both industry and government partners going forward.