Deeptech/Opinion/

This tech will help Europe revive the Concorde dream

Supercomputing has given us the chance to again build innovations just as captivating as the legendary turbojet.

Credit: An Air France Concorde jet on a runway. Credit: Philippe Collard on Unsplash
Sylvain Kalache

By Sylvain Kalache

I once was lucky enough to board a Concorde, the world’s first and only supersonic passenger jet. The British-French turbojet was so fast that you could enjoy a glass of red wine in Paris, and three hours and 32 minutes later, watch the latest NYC Broadway show. Unfortunately, the Concorde made its last flight in 2003, and the one I boarded wasn’t on the tarmac, but sitting motionless in a museum. 

But my dream to fly at the speed of sound may soon come true. European entrepreneurs are potentially poised to again build innovations just as captivating and imaginative as the Concorde. That’s because one key resource has become readily available: supercomputing. 

The rise of readily-available supercomputing 

Since the Concorde was decommissioned nearly two decades ago, major cloud computing companies such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure have started to sell access to HPC (high-performance computing) over the Internet. This has drastically changed the economics and development time for a complicated project such as building a supersonic jet.

While the wonders of Moore’s law have democratised access to computing power, and the cloud removed the need to own and manage the hardware to use it, supercomputers were still only accessible to large corporations or governments at the turn of the century when the Concorde was still flying. And it turns out that HPC is a must-have for solving complicated problems such as quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion, molecular modelling, or building a supersonic passenger jet.

In the same way that companies like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb and Uber were made possible by cloud and cheaper internet and mobile access, supercomputers are powering a new wave of deeptech innovation.

In the same way that companies like Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb and Uber were made possible by cloud and cheaper internet and mobile access, supercomputers are powering a new wave of deeptech innovation.

For companies, the cost to use these services through a third-party provider is minor compared to building their own infrastructure. MAPRE, Spain’s largest insurance company reported that using AWS supercomputing service was 90% cheaper than building their own HPC infrastructure. Boom, a US supersonic startup, only raised $240m —12 times less than the cost to develop the Concorde. The startup’s supersonic jets are expected to operate United Airlines flights starting in 2029. To make supercomputers even more financially accessible, startups like Rescale and UberCloud allow companies to easily switch between cloud providers on the go, optimising for price and configuration depending on the computing workload.

The potential for innovation in Europe 

The democratisation is not only led by US cloud providers. Cambridge University is building a cloud-native, multi-tenant, supercomputer that will have the same security and ease of use that regular computers offer. This month, the European Union established the EuroHPC (European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking) with the goal of making Europe a world-leading actor in supercomputing. EuroHPC’s press officer shared that the “joint undertaking does focus, partly, on small and medium-sized enterprises” — in other words, startups.

European transportation startups are actually already leveraging public Cloud HPC, to create technology that would have seemed like something out of a sci-fi novel only a few years ago. These include Bristol-based unicorn Vertical Aerospace, which is designing zero carbon, vertical take-off electrical aircraft. With a 100 miles range and 200mph speed, test flights for the vehicle will start by the end of the year. American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Dublin-based aircraft company Avolon have pre-ordered 1,000 of their air taxis. 

“Cloud is fundamental for our business. Access to the Cloud HPC technologies means that we have access to the world’s expertise for solving the toughest aerospace challenges,” says Madhu Bhabuta, chief information officer at Vertical Aerospace. 

The same is true for British startup Arrival. The company designs EVs that will be as affordable as their gas counterpart. They have four prototypes in the work: a bus, a van, a large van, and a small ‘vehicle platform’ that will be used to make different models. The company is working with Uber, and UPS already ordered 10,000 vans.

Many early adopters of public HPC, such as Arrival, Boom, or Vertical Aerospace, see their work coming to fruition — I believe this is the beginning of a trend. Richard Branson Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flight is just another great example — with commercial flights operation starting in 2022.

Too few entrepreneurs are aware that supercomputing can be part of their toolbelt; it is time to change that. The democratisation of supercomputers will open doors to exciting projects, making space travel, the creation of artificial organs, or understanding the origins of the universe possible.

HPC will give birth to innovation that will be beneficial to our society — like decoding the Covid-19 genome in a few days — a strong contrast to the mental health problems and misinformation that last decade of tech has caused. Rescale’s CPO, Edward Hsu argues that Cloud HPC can give birth to “more Elon Musks’s than Mark Zuckerberg’s” type of companies. 

My Paris–NYC evening might not be that exotic after all — any good Broadway show recommendations?

Sylvain Kalache is an entrepreneur and software engineer who has worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. Originally from France, he currently lives in San Francisco. He tweets at @SylvainKalache.

1
Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Timothy Lock
Timothy Lock

Concorde wasn’t the only supersonic passenger jet, Tu144 also was. Whatever happened to research?