UK Graphene Policy: More Fawlty Towers Than Fraunhofer Institutes?

The Sunday Times follows up its recent articles with a piece headlined “Academics accused of failing to protect wonder material” based on evidence submitted to the parliamentary inquiry.

It’s hard to second guess what went on at Manchester, and the reasons for not protecting graphene may have ranged from not wanting to block its applications to the low likelihood of getting a return on the investment of the university’s limited resources in IP protection. If, as  some academics would have it, there will be no commercial applications of graphene for decades then any patents would have expired and be virtually worthless. Another perspective, and a more usual one, would be to take a chance that the material may find applications and that a few key patents would  generate some kind of return of the University. Licensing those patents to a local company would then allow it to raise the capital required to attempt to kick-start graphene applications for Graphene Valley which Manchester is promoting.

It is odd is that the University of Manchester is investing £120 million in two graphene research and commercialisation centres without much of a business case. If these were simply graphene research centres then no one would bother too much but it is the mention of commercialisation which confuses matters. This includes the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) unfortunately known as “the Geek.” In the case of the GEIC an existing building will be  demolished to make way for it and all of this for a material which the University admits won’t have any near term commercial applications and whose market in the next five years is forecast to be somewhat less than the cost of the buildings. I wonder which one will be the first rebranded “2D Materials” rather than graphene?

Innovate UK, the body responsible for investing in cutting edge UK businesses has invested more in the GEIC than it has in SMEs working with graphene. Investing £120m (or even that £5 million) in businesses applying 2D materials would have a greater effect than putting up two new buildings where the majority of the budget goes into the infrastructure and little is available for commercialisation.

A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) quotes Manchester University as estimating “the impact on the UK economy with a minimum target of 10 times the funding achieved after 10 years of operation.” The report also says for the National Graphene Institute and other graphene-related projects the business case assessment was either absent or limited in areas of looking at alternative options, estimating the running costs and affordability, sensitivity analysis of costs and benefits, tracking and assessing benefits realisation and estimating the return on investment.  In fairness the NAO criticises most of the other large UK scientific infrastructure project for being poorly though out, more of a reflection on the poor assessment procedures of the department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) than the academic institutions involved. As an example the NAO report that “BIS informed us that it would not have been relevant to assess alternative options to the National Graphene Institute because the investment had already been announced” – a political masterstroke by Manchester which side-stepped any need for assessment of alternatives by getting a prominent politician to announce the project.

The conclusion is that the UK is generally inept at commercializing new technologies, and this isn’t limited to graphene. Politicians and Civil Servants seem content to hand out large sums of cash to academics for poorly assessed projects with little chance of any economic return to the UK, who then run the new centres as extensions of university research while making half-hearted, ill-informed and generally disastrous attempts to dabble in the commercial world. More Fawlty Towers than Fraunhofer Institutes?

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