The European Commission has announced that it is providing 1bn euros over 10 years for research and development into graphene – the ‘wonder material’ isolated at The University of Manchester by Nobel Prize winners Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov.
The University is very active in technology transfer and has an excellent track-record of spinning out technology, but some think that the University has taken a different view when it comes to patenting and commercialising graphene. Others have expressed a broader concern about British Industry lagging behind in the graphene ‘race’, based upon international ‘league tables’ of numbers of graphene patents.
A recent interview with Clive Rowland (CEO of the University’s Innovation Group) addresses the assumptions about the University’s approach and reflects more generally about graphene patenting and about industry up-take of graphene. The interview is summarised below.
Question: Has the University set up any commercial graphene activities?
Answer: The University owns a company, called 2-DTech Limited, which makes and supplies two-dimensional materials and has an interest in another, Graphene Industries Limited, which sells graphene made by a different technique to 2-DTech.
Question: Is the University falling behind in graphene?
Answer: The University is the world’s leading university for graphene research and publications. It led the charge for UK investment into the field and has been awarded The National Graphene Institute, which will be a £61m state-of-the art centre. This Institute will act as a focus for all sorts of commercial graphene activity in Manchester, from industrial research and development laboratories locating “alongside” the Institute, developing new processes and products, to start-up companies. The University championed the major flagship research funding programmes that have been initiated in the UK and Europe and has been awarded a number of prestigious grants. Graphene is still a science-driven research field and not yet a commercialised technology.
Question: Did the University miss the patent opportunities for graphene when it was first isolated?
Answer: All options were considered thoroughly prior to and immediately post the initial 2004 publication. There were no credible or commercially valuable patent options at that time, something with which experts in the field agree. The material will need to be modified for most applications. The key is a scaled-up manufacturing technology platform which no-one has yet come up with. The University has patented where it sees good cases for doing so. These are based upon internal development projects on the fundamentals, such as manufacturing and coatings and approaches that enable new techniques which might lead to commercial applications. The University will continue to patent where it sees potential financial value in doing so. Not all of the University’s intellectual property transfer transactions take place through independent patenting. Patenting is just a part of the commercial strategy – not the sole aspect, nor a target in itself.
Question: Have British firms lost out to the Far East on patenting?
Answer: The picture is more complex than mere number counting suggests. Not all of the patents necessarily equal real business opportunities. Some of the patents reference graphene rather than being about graphene technology. Japanese firms were very active early on but have since been overtaken by Korean and US firms. China is getting very active but much of the patenting there is by research institutions rather than firms, which isn’t the experience elsewhere, so it’s difficult to know the level of corporate capabilities there. Much of the early work on graphene was – and still is – for electronic and related applications. So much of the patenting activity has been by electronics firms, which reflect that industry’s structure and geography – predominantly in the Far East and the US. Competition in graphene is at an early stage. There are many significant aspects which aren’t yet addressed. There is still time. As the uses of graphene become clearer, more opportunities for British companies will open up. Nevertheless the window of opportunity could narrow. It’s vital that more British firms increase their knowledge of two-dimensional materials like graphene. For Britain to be successful, graphene will need to be treated as a project on a very large scale. To keep themselves in the picture, British firms should invest now in long-range R&D, and engage in university research partnerships and collaborative projects. The National Graphene Institute at the University is an excellent place to do this.
Question: Are the Nobel Prize Winners interested in the commercial side of graphene?
Answer: Professor Geim and Professor Novoselov focus on science, which is key to the success of the development aspects that everyone is interested in. At the same time they have been very supportive of their students engaging in enterprise activities, such as business training courses and start-ups. They both actively lent their support to help set up the two existing companies. Much of the graphene commercialisation will be through collaboration with companies with the requisite product know-how and manufacturing facilities. During the last year, more than 100 firms have been to the University to talk with them. They see everyone that they can to discuss possibilities. They recognise there’s potential for the University to licence-out graphene intellectual property and they support such efforts by the technology transfer office as appropriate.