Of the thousands of research papers that have been published on graphene, and the similarly high number of graphene-related patents that have been filed, a small percentage will ever see the light of day from a commercialization or application perspective.
To address this “Valley of Death”—as some have termed the gap between the lab and the fab—there exists one of the few mechanisms established to help move research from the laboratory to commercial production: the University Technology Transfer Office (TTO). These institutions are charged with identifying commercially viable intellectual property (IP) held by their university and then connecting with qualified and interested commercial and financial partners.
While on the best of days developing lab projects into commercially viable IP is a challenge, for an emerging technology like graphene there is another layer of difficulty that needs to be addressed.
“Early on the mention of the material’s performance, attributes and excitement around it led to unrealistic expectations as to its state of development. Many expected to be able to invest in or adopt a technology which was close to market use, when in fact there is more science development and engineering required to address most opportunities, certainly the more sophisticated markets.Remember that it took aluminium and carbon fibre some 30 years to go from discovery to serious use.”explained Clive Rowland, CEO of the University of Manchester’s innovation company, UMI3.
One of the biggest challenges faced by university TTOs is to accurately forecast or identify commercially viable opportunities. When a material is completely new, as with graphene, it becomes exponentially harder to get that prediction model to be accurate.
“Initially, many thought that graphene would be used in electronic applications (the new silicon) but there was – at that time - little appreciation that there is no band gap in graphene, meaning that there are few breakthrough uses until that issue has been solved,” explained Rowland. “The hype around the electronic applications and hundreds if not thousands of patents filed for this area distorted the picture.Most likely it will be other 2D materials, or a combination of graphene with them, that will be better suited to electronic (and many other) applications.”
The issues faced by university TTOs are not just about getting a handle on predicting the real application potential for a technology, but also working with outside commercial and financial partners. When it comes to graphene, this problem is magnified due to a general lack of understanding about the quality issues surrounding graphene.
Rowland explains that this lack of understanding has led to some unrealistic expectations about graphene from those outside the research community. “It has been difficult to manage these expectations at the University TTO level since the external community (investors and industry) are really looking for and expecting us to have a set of products to license, or around which we can establish start-ups.”
Far from licensing or the establishment of start-ups, the reality is that the invention disclosures are very early-stage where risk capital and/or industrial collaborations are needed to develop these technologies to some stage higher up the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, according to Rowland.
Rowland believes that it is still too early to measure the tangible outcomes that the University of Manchester has achieved in the commercialization of graphene. However, he notes that Manchester had set up a graphene characterization and consulting company early in the process called 2D Tech, which was acquired by a British engineering company Versarien that has since developed it further into a product development company.
In addition, UMI3 has established a joint IP development program with a British engineering firm (Morgan Advanced Materials) to scale up its graphene production method, which involves the exfoliation of graphite. They have also set up a company (Atomic Mechanics) to make and sell graphene pressure sensor products. After having brought this work to the stage of one or two demonstrators, Atomic Mechanics is now attracting the interest of seed investors, according to Rowland.
A potential mistake that other university TTOs might be making is to apply the usual tech transfer techniques to it and expect it to work.
“Graphene cannot really go the normal route from lab to market without special attention given to it,” said Rowland. “We treat it more like a portfolio approach and aim to use our Background IP as a basis to attract industrial collaborators to work with us in developing applications in our specialist centers.” These centers are the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre.
Even with the huge strides Manchester has made in establishing an infrastructure to support the commercialization of graphene, Rowland concedes that they cannot nor should do it alone. It’s part of a bigger picture to create a Manchester cluster of graphene active companies located close to the campus. Also they need to engage entrepreneurs who have been successful in marketing engineered products and building companies to collaborate in developing those inventions that have breakthrough potential—so-called platform technologies that sustain a successful independent business.
“To achieve this we have set up a dedicated team of people who work alongside the TTO (essentially part of the TTO) to accelerate these more challenging areas of science and engineering,” said Rowland. “This accelerator is called Graphene Enabled. It’s another important aspect of a grander strategic approach. The Graphene Enabled approach needs to sit alongside our industrial collaboration activity, so that we bring the whole community that we need to commercialize graphene onto our campus (investors, entrepreneurs, business people, industrialists) and in an appropriate environment, so that it does not conflict with or divert from the first-class basic science research going on in our academic schools.”
Another organization that plays an important role in the commercialization ecosystem is The Graphene Council, a neutral platform that welcomes all dedicated stakeholders from academia and the commercial sector according to Terrance Barkan CAE, Executive Director of The Graphene Council.
“The mission of The Graphene Council is to act as a catalyst for the sustainable commercialization of graphene. We achieve this in part by augmenting and supporting the efforts of University Technology Transfer Offices, connecting them with potential partners while also providing market intelligence to help better understand where commercial opportunities exist,” said Barkan.
“We spend a good part of our time helping to educate the end-user markets that will be the future customers for graphene enabled products and solutions. Because we have the largest community in the world of professionals, researchers, application developers and end users that have an interest in graphene, we are an ideal partner and connector.”
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(If you are working in a TTO and have an interest in graphene, be sure to download the attached file)