About four years ago, Alan Dalton, a professor at the University of Sussex in the UK, made some news in graphene circles when, in collaboration with colleagues at Trinity College Dublin, he demonstrated that rubber bands when combined with graphene could serve as effective health monitors. A couple of years later, Dalton continued to make news by using graphene to link together silver nanowires to create a material that could potentially replace indium tin oxide (ITO) as a transparent conductor in touch-screen displays. The following year in 2017, Dalton, serving as chief scientific officer, joined with an experienced group of individuals, led by CEO John Lee, who had a long career in energy and cleantech equity markets, to form Advanced Material Development (AMD).
While the work of Dalton along with a focus on graphene remains part of the company’s genetic makeup, it has established itself first and foremost as a company set up to support scientific research in materials science conducted at British Universities.
Using a unique process, AMD already has a commercially available product it has dubbed “nHance” that includes graphene, molybdenum disulfide and boron nitride in dispersions for use in a range of bespoke emulsions and applications. The patent-pending emulsions have been developed with the University of Sussex.
In addition to having a commercial product in hand, AMD also has secured £750,000 ($985,000) in funding in April to support its commercialization aims and has now commenced R&D funding.
As a corporate partner to the Graphene Council, we got an opportunity to conduct a Q&A with John Lee, the CEO of AMD and below is that interview.
Q: Could you give a little bit more background on the nature of AMD’s business? It seems to at least initially to be a company based on the research of Alan Dalton at the University of Sussex. But it seems that you are also open to any technologies in the area of graphene and 2D materials that might be licensable. Could you explain a bit more about how AMD has set itself up and what its business models and strategies are?
Advanced Material Development Ltd (AMD) is a UK-based, privately funded business recently formed to support scientific research in British universities. The first collaboration, with leading academic Professor Alan Dalton from the University of Sussex Material Physics Group will fund several distinct research streams within the field of 2D materials. AMD is already engaged in a number of key partnerships with other commercial enterprises to further work in areas such as composites, coatings, printed electronics and wearable sensors. In addition, AMD is also producing nano-dispersion inks and emulsions under the brand name “nHance” for its own internal R&D efforts and also for commercial sale.
Q: Some of the work of Alan Dalton that got the most publicity was the simple process he developed for infusing graphene into elastic bands so that they become extremely sensitive strain sensors. Is that a line of research your company is looking to commercialize? If so, what sort of landmarks have you reached in the development of this technology? If not, what went behind the decision not to follow that line of research into commercial applications?
Although AMD supplies materials into this and other ongoing projects, it is not a programme we are funding at this point. IP in this area is already well established, allocated, and outside of our core focus. Our website outlines the areas that we are keen to support.
Q: At the moment, you have likely narrowed down the technologies you are pursuing commercially. Could you say what those technologies currently are and why you chose to pursue those over some others?
One of the main areas of focus for AMD is producing nano-dispersion inks and emulsions. These support our own R&D work and also provide a foundation for bespoke materials formulations being developed for partners. This is a key reason why we choose to keep our R&D efforts within the University - to retain a critical high-end capability. Our other efforts in coatings, flexible electronics, composites and medtech sensors all sit nicely on this platform technology.
Q: In the broader market of graphene, what applications area do you see holding the most commercial potential and what is your company doing to be a part of those applications? If you are not, why have you chosen to not get involved, i.e. already too many competitors, etc.?
There are plenty of key verticals that have obvious areas of application for these materials. The graphene “fatigue” described by some early adopters comes from the frustration associated with a cure-all mentality. The hard to come-by knowledge and critical component that the team is focused on is the ability to disperse these materials into other matrices to provide a worthwhile benefit. We have chosen to support the areas of R&D where the University team can demonstrate a path to commercial interest, notably electronics in the consumer supply chain, material composites and medtech sensors where we consider there to be a realistic pathway to a commercial endgame within two years.
Q: Where do you see AMD in the value chain of graphene, i.e. a manufacturer of devices based on graphene or a company that enables other companies to make devices based on graphene?
The answer really is both. Although AMD cannot claim to be a manufacturer of devices and hence is not fully vertically integrated, it is already a materials manufacturer and is funding research with an end-game goal of prototype applications that we can then market to heavyweight commercial partners, a number of which, we are already doing early development work for or are in discussions to do so.
Q. As a company trying to bring emerging technologies to market, what do you see as the greatest challenges you face, i.e. customers resistant to change, lack of standards in graphene, etc.?
It’s been said that the greatest fear of many start-up companies is the threat of its ideas being stolen. The truth is that taking a product, however good and trying to convince someone already overwhelmed with new ideas and getting them to listen is a huge challenge. But the main problem I see at the moment is that many companies are a little burned by engaging with the graphene dream without having had the right degree of support to see the proper benefits – the lack of standards until now has been a major bugbear in this outcome and so these are vital. However, whatever the standard, no size fits all and the varying material requirements for different applications, like nature, are unlikely to conform to the categories we try to define.
Q. Over the next 5-10 years, how do you see the graphene market developing, i.e. fewer graphene producers and more downstream device producers?
I would agree with this outlook – ultimately graphene and other 2D materials will commoditize as production scales and applications become more accepted, but this will need the development of end-markets to facilitate such growth. I believe the real secret is the integration of the right formulation into devices that solve real world challenges.