UK Graphene: Another Fine Mess?

The Sunday Times reports that “Researchers at the new £61m National Graphene Institute are refusing to work amid fears about the security of their ideas” in an article headlined  “Academics in revolt as China reaps benefits of British breakthrough

The article alleges some ill conceived deals and potential conflicts of interest, but perhaps the idea was ill conceived in the first place? It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that building a National Graphene Institute would boost academic research in the UK and there is little doubt that it will. Unfortunately in many of these flagship projects there is no clear division between the research and the development phases of commercialisation.   This means that a distinguished academic who may be a brilliant scientist or have a superb pedigree in managing research suddenly gets put in charge of commercialising technology. That is like putting the Governor of the Bank of England in charge of an academic research group.

It is difficult to find any example of a University successfully commercialising a technology, and in fact tech transfer departments with over inflated expectations often hinder the commercialisation process by getting in the way of people who actually understand how to take science based innovations to market. This habit of putting academics in charge of commercialisation, or even worse, hiring world class business development people and then overruling  them,  has messed up similar UK initiatives in nanotechnology and printed electronics. Somebody, somewhere, should have noticed that chucking money at high profile centres of excellence for technologies with no clear commercial applications is always a disaster.

Mixing private companies with academics rarely works, and any problems at the National Graphene Institute can and should be easily fixed by simply separating the ‘R’ from the ‘D.’

PS the journalist covering this story at the Sunday Times is Tom Harper and he is neither a relative nor a typo.

Comments 5

  1. I think this raises some important questions, but it glosses a bit over more complicated issues.

    Let me note that I am far more familiar with conditions in the U.S. than in the u.K. But from what I’ve experienced and observed here mixing academia withe commerce may ‘rarely’ work but sometimes does. Also, I would include in ‘academia’ government laboratories or research centers which are similarly disconnected from commercial experience and motives.

    A basic dilemma for governments or philanthropies investing in ‘research’ with the intent of achieving practical, commercially viable results is the transition from proof of concept to commercial development and marketing. Analysts long have lamented that a large share of the discoveries and innovations developed in academic or government labs sat on the shelf instead of being applied in commercial use.

    The cultural disconnect that often exists between academic and commercial settings is part of that problem. Proprietary interests — patents and such — also come into play. Related to that is the conflict at times of the academic interest in publication and sharing knowledge with commercial interests in secrecy and protecting intellectual property. Academic and government institutions both bring political demands and pressures.

    While many of the denizens of academic research lack the experience and capacity to navigate the obstacle courses between theory and practical commercial application, some seem to be capable of doing it. Their fans can point to some apparent successes. However the costs are often greater than supposed and the benefits not as great as claimed.

    More on these issues is here:

  2. My gosh…what a familiar story, I have worked the academic, industry, defense science and defense company integration field for some years. The academics doing their novel work have invariably faced the commercialization dilemma on what to do, particularly from Australia and the UK, while the Americans have been far more alert (in my experience) to opportunities. The Australian academics have invariably not done as well as they could, and yes have had in some cases their ideas stolen, yet there are several who have made giant success of their R&D but have not earned as much as they could have from their development. On balance, when you look at the whole picture over many years, the answer globally I think is that sadly academics cannot commercialize R&D. Sure there are some positive and great success stories, but taken over many disciplines the answer must rest in the question: How can we help academics get their great ideas to market? Best regards to the brilliant minds out there that can develop the model that will broadly answer the question, there is no simple answer.

  3. Pingback: Welcome to the National Graphene Institute - Now Go Home! - Tim Harper

  4. I am employed in an R & D Organization since 2000. So far my experience is concerned; I think that product/process development and its commercialization are two totally different things. A well learned academic will certainly develop a product/process but he can’t commercialize it as I think it’s not his job. There must be a proper commercialization unit in each academic institute with highly experienced relevant personnel which will serve as a link between the academia and the industry. The commercialization unit will also help the researcher to know about the end users of their products/processes just before starting the specific research project.

  5. Pingback: Graphene Commercialization: Pushing Too Hard - Tim Harper 铁木尔 哈珀

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