graphene lightbulb moment

Technology Commercialisation – More Light than Heat?

An interesting snapshot on the commercialisation of graphene emerges from some recent evidence submitted to the UK’s Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. Policy makers and academics have much in common, especially the ability to make extravagant promises and then conveniently forget them when it comes to delivery.

In short the University of Manchester has been signing NDA’s and furiously patenting graphene applications with a growing focus on graphene as an additive. This makes sense as one of the few applications of currently available types of graphene is dumping it into various polymers to change the  properties – conduction, heat transfer, stiffness etc. In ten years time there may be word changing applications of 2D materials, by which time the politicians and policy makers demanding immediate gratification will be long gone.  This will be a strategy familiar to anyone who followed carbon nanotubes, another wonder material that promised to change the world but still ended up as not very compelling additive to composites.

It also gives an insight into the metrics on which University efforts at commercialisation are judged. In this case it is NDA’s, industry collaborations, publicity and patents – all useful precursors to real commercial activity but no guarantee of success.

On the commercial front the picture is less rosy, with plans for a Chinese company to produce six million graphene lightbulbs a month – although there is no indication of when or why, and this looks more like the unsupported claims to be able to produce hundreds of tonnes of graphene a year that Chinese companies regularly make. Other than that, there’s little to shout about, which means that the ROI on research funding is at the usual low UK level.

In contrast to Manchester’s upbeat message, a submission from the University of Sheffield to the same inquiry looks at the issues involved in technology transfer and makes some valid suggestions.

“The separation between commercial and public benefit research is not at all clearly defined as the pursuit of new knowledge and the duty to apply those gains are more fundamental than the particular mechanism used for dissemination.  There is a lack of understanding that commercialisation is the societal choice of mechanism to get new things done like developing a new drug to treat a disease.  Revenues universities make from TTO activities are reinvested in research.  Many medical charities have relied on this model for years.  If anything is actually going to be sustainably achieved it will almost certainly be through a commercialisation process.  One might reflect that attempts to translate anything to application in Columbia, for example, have been thwarted because academic staff are prohibited to patent because their work is publicly funded and should, in their thinking, be freely available to ‘the public’.”

The key message from both Sheffield and Manchester’s submissions is that the use of Technology Transfer Offices by universities is half-hearted and underfunded. While the Manchester report concentrates on graphene, which by its very nature will always be technology push, Sheffield are more ambitious wanting to ” grow our research base in such a way that we can develop more similar innovation assets – to respond to demand from industry but also to anticipate significant opportunities for the UK to build on these existing assets in order to drive the re-shoring of high value manufacturing, and to use this to drive inward investment, and impact from our research.” In both cases however, and in most other universities, tech transfer appears to be seen as a distraction to the real business of academic research and something that has to be seen to be done rather than being a core part of the University activity.

Innovation is a paradox that is poorly understood by the academic and public sectors. I have sat in many meetings over the past two decades concerned with finding some form of metric to measure innovation, patents, new research lines, spin outs, industry funding etc and the inevitable conclusion is that if you try to measure and quantify innovation by setting targets then you kill it.

In the UK fertile conditions for early stage investors already exist, including susbtantial tax breaks like EIS and SEIS  already exist, as does world-class academic expertise. Innovate UK, the Catapult Centres and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships all seem to work well. The blockage still seems to be at the interface between Universities and the “real world,” something that many professors of innovation or politicians also have scant experience of.

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