Thinking Beyond the Academic Bubble

escaping the academic bubble

Recent elections and a certain referendum highlighted the dangers of living in a bubble or an echo chamber. This can include surrounding yourself with people who always agree, creating a safe space on social media by filtering out anything that may contradict your world view, imposing a tyrannical Steve Jobs / Kim Jong-Un style culture by firing or executing anyone who disagrees with you, or simply hanging around with too many academics.

As a veteran of a vast number of nanotechnology and 2D materials meetings and conferences I’m only too aware of this effect. Speaker after speaker will tell the audience how their particular bit of great science is going to change the world by providing cheap energy/water/healthcare while we all nod in agreement. But once I leave the conference bubble, a place where critical thinking seems to be suspended, the gulf between good science and global impact seems as wide and unbridgeable as ever.

Stuck In Place

One of the prime causes of the problem is the lack of movement between the academic and commercial worlds. Of course academics work with commercial companies, but normally only as scientific advisors which are rarely privy to the mysteries of cash flow, inventory management and corporate finance. While the Bessemer Society has a number of PhD level CEO’s and founders of high growth technology companies, none of these spent much time as a career academic, indicating that the longer the time spent in the academic bubble the further from commercial reality one becomes. The fabled ivory tower?

Academic Fish Out Of Water

A few recent events help to illustrate this. The first was a Guardian Science podcast “Is graphene really worth the hype?“Taking part were materials scientist and author of Stuff Matters Professor Mark Miodownik of University College, London, physicist and blogger on science and science policy, Professor Richard Jones from the University of Sheffield and Cinzia Casiraghi, professor in nanoscience of Manchester University, who works closely with the University’s National graphene Institute.

Although that is a great scientific line up, and a panel I’d be happy to take scientific advice from any day of the week, when the talk turned to commercialising graphene it began to fall apart. It’s not the job of academics to commercialise anything any more than it is for economists to roll their sleeves up in the lab, so why invite some academics to even discuss it?

The second reminder came from a graphene conference invitation that claimed:

“The power of the Cambridge graphene proposition was demonstrated in January when a majority stake in Cambridge University spin-out Cambridge Graphene Ltd was acquired by AIM-quoted UK business Versarien plc for £170k – £25k in cash and the rest in shares.”

While an exit is an exit no matter what the quantum, that would normally fall into the “undisclosed sum” category were an AIM listed plc not involved. A powerful proposition would involve at least a few million, but perhaps not inside the graphene bubble where losing a few million per year to generate a few teams of thousands in revenue counts as a significant?

Excellent Science Is The Easy Bit

After twenty years of commercialising technologies I can say with great certainty that 99% of the big scientific breakthroughs announced by breathless university press officers will amount to nothing. As Margaret Harris puts it in Physics World ‘How many times have you read that a nifty piece of nanotech supposedly “holds great promise for quantum computing” or “could revolutionize medical imaging”, only for it to slip quietly out of sight.’

The same applies to most of the companies producing 2D materials who will either find a major market in the next twelve months or won’t be around by 2020.

You’ve Made One, Now Make A Million To Escape The Bubble

But the hard tech companies that survive and flourish all follow the same pattern. The academics come up with the science, and then hand it off to a team with the necessary commercial and engineering expertise.

The biggest risk, and the greatest source of failure is always in scaling up the science to an industrial process. Making something in a university lab is very different from creating an industrial process, which is why G2O Water Technologies, our graphene water filter business, works with the Centre for Process Innovation to develop the large scale manufacturing techniques required.

When it comes to commercialisation, the paper in Nature is only the start of a long and difficult struggle to escape the bubble.

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