We've been witnessing over the last year a clamoring among the investment community for a need to know the commercialization avenues of graphene--a material that for the past ten years has been primarily hidden away in research labs or occasionally pasted up on some website as the "Wonder Material."
In the second half of the past decade of graphene research, we’ve witnessed much more work on its potential applications. But still, every day, work continues on characterizing its properties (This was never more evident than the work out of Georgia Tech this year in which graphene nanoribbons
that made electrons behave more like photons, promising a new electronics paradigm).
What this work and others like it make apparent is that we still do not know graphene’s full properties and how it interacts with other materials. However, this is not always an obstacle to commercialization.
Perhaps even greater than the science obstacles are the market and financial hurdles that need to be overcome. Not every technology that currently enables a product wants to roll over and play dead so some nanomaterial can come and take its place. Established suppliers in a market will lower prices and improve their performance to maintain their market share. It has often not even been clear that nanomaterials are offering much benefit at all over established materials. They have almost always lost out on price.
As far as finance goes--getting capital at the right time and to the right place for the development of an emerging technology--this has been an almost complete breakdown. Governments around the world have poured billions into new research labs (enriching the local construction industry) and even paid for some fundamental research, but left the companies that spin out from the laboratory research to languish somewhere in the innovation gap.
For a capital intensive emerging technology, where factories have to be built, raw materials bought, processes perfected a small start up can burn through capital quickly (this is not three guys in a room developing a social networking app). And there are no financial instruments long relied upon for new companies for nanotechnology start ups to turn to. Venture capital (VC) has largely stayed out: with an investment horizon of at least seven years and more likely ten, the exit point is too far off for VCs. And, of course, much of the world’s capital is involved in derivatives that can show huge profits in a short time. In that environment, why would you invest in something that could take a decade to see a profit and not as big a profit as you could find in some other financial instrument.
Feeding the frustration when facing these market obstacles is the sense of disappointment with nanotechnology thus far. Any casual observer of nanotechnology’s development since the launch of the US’s National Nanotechnology Initiative
in 2000 knows that it hasn’t measured up to people’s inflated expectations. Outside of giant magneto resistance (GMR)
effect that makes possible our now enormous hard disk drive capacity, where has nanotechnology’s impact been in electronics? Has carbon nanotube memory displaced Flash memory
? Of course, we have continued to shrink chips to where the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) expects to see 14nm nodes this year. But we are still not beyond the Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) paradigm as nanotechnology had seemed to promise.
To sort out where we are with graphene and what sort of solutions and expectations we should expect to see with graphene’s commercialization, I interviewed Richard Jones, a physicist and Pro-vice-chancellor of research and innovation at Sheffield University in the UK.
Beyond him being interviewed in the Guardian piece, Jones was the co-author of a report published by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) “The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology” (2003), and he chaired the Nanotechnology Engagement Group, a body set up by UK Government to support the development of best practice in publish engagement around nanotechnologies, and to ensure that public engagement feeds into policy and decision-making.
He was also the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) from 2007 to 2009, and in 2013 he was appointed to the Council of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Jones is also renowned for his foundational book “Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life
” that “explains why things behave differently at the nanoscale to the way they behave at familiar human scales, and why this means that nanotechnology may be more like biology than conventional engineering.”
Q: Andre Geim complained last year in discussing graphene, “You can't throw a little bit of money at it (graphene) and expect it to change the world.”
Do you believe as someone who has analyzed the commercialization of nanotechnology, specifically in in the UK but by extension the world, that there’s just that too little being spent, or is there a more fundamental problem in the commercial development of graphene?
A: To begin with, I think there's a danger of considering the problem the wrong way round. It's tempting for scientists to think that because some marvellous new material has been discovered, it must be useful for something. But the market isn't interested in whether graphene is commercialised or not, the opportunities are for new materials, whatever they are, that deliver certain functions more effectively or more cheaply than existing materials, or allow entirely new things to be done.
For example, there's an obvious and well-known need to find new materials to provide transparent electrodes for a variety of existing and potential applications such as LCDs, touch screens, organic solar cells etc. Graphene could provide that function, but so might silver nano-wires or a number of other possibilities or combinations.
To get to market takes a great deal of development work, work which needs to be carried out with a very clear understanding of the technical requirements of the particular application, and with an understanding of what's going to be possible to incorporate in a large-scale manufacturing process, which already imposes many constraints due to the size of existing investments.
The development work costs a lot of money, and is most likely to be done in the commercially focused, industrial laboratories. The ongoing decline of industrial R&D in the UK over the last few decades will make it difficult for this to happen in the UK. One also needs to bear in mind that not much value is captured by producing an isolated gizmo; that comes from the complete system that makes a product.
So the organisations that successfully commercialize graphene will need to be well integrated in a larger supply chain. There is a geographical clustering effect here - to return to the example of transparent electrodes, it will be much easier for a company to bring a graphene based solution to this problem if it is based close to the centre of gravity of that industry in the far east.
Q: There are so many factors in successfully bringing a material like graphene from the lab to the marketplace, i.e. university tech transfer offices and their licensing deals, large capital costs, competitive resistance to new products, etc.
Where do you see the major stumbling block in bringing a disruptive technology to market? And where can we have the most effect in positively changing the current system? And are those two places the same or different?
A: We have at least three distinct ways of bringing inventions made in university laboratories to the marketplace. The university can protect IP that results from basic research, and use that to found a spin-out to be financed by venture capital, it can license the IP to the highest bidder, or it can work more collaboratively with companies to develop the technology together.
One problem with the IP based approach is that the original research is carried out without thought of what the markets are; sometimes it works but there's always a danger of solutions being found to non-existent problems. The scale and timescales of VC funding are often too small and too short to develop truly disruptive new materials and processes. Collaborative work between universities and industry can be very productive but in the UK there's an issue of industrial R&D capacity in many of the crucial sectors. The need is for patient capital, on the one hand, and R&D that is more closely connected to what the final products and systems will need, on the other.
Q: If you could put into place the ideal innovation process what would it look like? And what we would need to change to see that process take hold? For example, new tech transfer schemes, new approach to IP, closer relationships between research institutes and industry?
A: I'm not sure I know the answer! I suspect it would involve more translational research institutes, such as Taiwan's ITRI or Germany's Fraunhofer Institutes. But the optimum form that such institutes will take will depend both on the industrial ecology of the country or region that they serve, and the culture of the research base.
Q: How do you gauge the chances that graphene will stall in its commercial development the way that carbon nanotubes have languished, i.e. 60/40, 50/50?
A: I am confident that some interesting and valuable applications of graphene will be found, and that some inventors and investors will do very well. I'm less confident that graphene will have a transformational effect on whole industry sectors or regional economies. But prediction is very difficult...
Q: What initial efforts need to be taken that will help graphene and other related 2D materials make their way to market?
A: We do need to recognise that we don't know the future, and we have to continue to support a diversity of basic research on these materials. We have to have mechanisms that can recognise opportunities from this research to deliver solutions to industry, consumer and societal needs, and we need to recognise that the development work to convert good ideas into manufacturable and cost-effective products can take a lot of money and time.