As graphene tries to grow commercial wings a number of investors run the risk of waking up on the living room floor with a thick head and the lingering odour of Doner Kebab on their fingers. “Why oh why” they will moan as they fumble with the childproof top on a bottle of paracetamol, “couldn’t I say no to that last miracle material deal?”
In between searching for commercial applications and picking up the latest graphene gossip at the Commercial Graphene Show (“business is booming, our products are fantastic and everyone else produces total crap” was the message to filter out) I stood on stage for a while talking about a pot of white paint.
A tin of paint is a great metaphor for the challenges facing anyone producing graphene, or any nanomaterial. The person buying the paint doesn’t care whether it contains graphene as long as the colour and price are right. The shop selling the paint doesn’t care whether it contains graphene as long it sells in volume at a decent margin. The paint manufacturer doesn’t care whether it contains graphene as long as it sells in volume at a decent margin. The only people who do care are the ones producing graphene.
So if you are at the bottom of the value chain and you are trying to woo customers who don’t give a damn whether they use graphene, rhino horn or ear wax there’s a lot of thinking to be done.
This is where the IDEA3 methodology breaks down a bit – if you already took a decision to produce graphene you can’t focus on the unmet need and forget about the technology. as we teach at MIT. And technology push never works, right?
Wrong. It can work as Steve Jobs showed. Between blubbing in board meetings, firing people at random and believing that new age mysticism was a better treatment for pancreatic cancer than modern medicine he did manage to launch three products that no one knew they wanted. Of course he was an outlier but that’s where tech unicorns always tend to come from.
On another day at another conference I may show a raft of statistics illustrating just how many nanomaterials companies were founded, floundered and ended up on f***edcompany.com, or perhaps there’s a PhD thesis for me in there. But the key fact is that they didn’t all die. The natural selection of the market place weeded out the weak, the deluded and the mentally crippled while others built a pretty good business or managed to scramble a well timed exit.
While there are examples of graphene companies, and I’ll mention no names, who have burned through millions to achieve sales of diddly squat while producing nothing more than an averagely bright ten year old armed with a lump of graphene and a kitchen blender could, my sense is that a lot of the screaming lunatics have already left the building. No one accosted me with plans to make billions while disproving the Laws of Thermodynamics last week, which I found slightly disappointing.
While there were the usual mix of service providers (IP lawyers are ever present at emerging technology events) and makers of various bits of scientific kit whose marketing budgets keep these kind of events viable, I quite enjoyed the event.
Terrance Barkin of The Graphene Council gave a sane and rational overview of health and safety legislation and the need for standardisation, and was very candid about the timescales required. Steve Voller talked about his Zapp ’n Go charger which is a great commercial application. I was particularly impressed by the way that Steve raised cash on Indiegogo to pre sell the device in over 70 countries. This validated the market need and allowed him to attract more significant backing – now that’s a great example of how to do it in the 21st Century.
Overall it was a quite sane and sober event, something that makes poor television but could spawn some great businesses. Although I did find a few more examples to add to my swelling files marked “how to take a great nanotech idea up to 38,000 feet and slam it into the ground at a thousand miles an hour while dancing half naked on the table drinking a cocktail of hubris, stupidity, tequila, rum, anchovies and greed” – but not as many as a couple of years ago.You can download my presentation here