Best of British Business

by Zita Goldman

The great leap

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How a small UK enterprise with a background in academic R&D found its way in China.

 

Last November Versarien, a small British business specialising in advanced materials, reached an agreement with a major Chinese investment firm to establish a manufacturing centre for its proprietary graphene products in the country’s Jinan Innovation Zone in return for significant funding. The super-material’s potential has certainly made ripples in the country, with Chinese experts saying that Versarian’s graphene technology “has a certain world-leading position that can be introduced in China to strengthen technical co-operation between China and the UK” at a recent demonstration.

 

Graphene – a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal sheet, that was invented by two Russian scientists at the University of Manchester – has been celebrated as a revolutionary material, thanks to its strength (it is 600 times stronger than steel), elasticity (a single sheet can stretch to cover a football field) and thermal conductivity. The initial problem was that its fiddly extraction process (from graphite) could not be scaled, until research at the University of Ulster led to a simple, low-cost and environmentally friendly method to bulk-produce high quality, few-layer graphite nanosheets. Trademarked as Nanene, the material was developed and made ready for commercial use in composites.

 

It’s always this next step – commercialisation – that presents the biggest challenge. Graphene received some £120million in government funds, but outcomes were so underwhelming when set next to the initial hype that, in December 2016, disappointed MPs brought the issue to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

 

But there are few other areas where the adage that good things come to those who wait has more relevance than in R&D funding. Industry experts, for example, maintain that, as a rule of thumb, it takes up to 20 years from discovery for new materials to realise their full commercial potential. (Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director at electronics company IDTechEx, is also convinced that “during the next five to ten years graphene will be still mostly restricted to the additive market”.)

 

While a majority of UK universities have set up technology transfer offices – such as UCLB (University College London Business) or Cambridge Enterprise – to protect and license intellectual property, they often struggle to cover the high costs these processes entail, while academics may find it hard to pitch their “product” to a TTO with limited resources. Many argue that part-financing the building of iconic research centres such as the National Graphene Institute (NGI) (£61million, finished in 2015) and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC), which opened last December, is not good enough from the government if the burden of getting inventions to the market remains on universities.

 

However, GEIC has the laudable mission to maintain the UK’s world-leading position in advanced materials by focusing on supporting pilot productions, characterisation (a prerequisite of commercialisation) and application development. Three companies have already signed up as “Tier One” partners: First Graphene, Haydale and Versarien, all of which already have formidable achievements in the field. Although all the three are small enterprises with 13, 25 and 100 employees respectively, GEIC is also reaching out to multinationals with graphene-related business ideas to develop, protect and commercialise.

 

For Neil Ricketts, the CEO of Versarian, the main appeal of having become a Tier One Partner lies in gaining access to a world-class facility that the company couldn’t otherwise afford, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with other partners.

 

Versarien has always benefitted from its links with universities, and its strategy could be a viable alternative to existing commercialisation models. Founded in a garage by Neil Ricketts and business partner Will Battrick in 2011, Versarien soon became a high-growth enterprise. In 2014 the company acquired an 84 per cent share of 2-D Tech, a graphene spin-out of the University of Manchester. As a result of 2-DTech’s investment programme, Versarien has developed its own proprietary graphene production technique founded upon a process licensed from the University of Ulster.

 

As Ricketts explained in reply to a question about why British universities and companies can’t value IP, taking out patents is a time-consuming, expensive and long process, which will hold back fast-growing and agile companies. However, when it comes to revolutionary technologies such as graphene and its derivatives, taking out blocking patents is the way. (China has the majority of graphene patents, while the UK owns only 1 per cent of them.)

 

Versarien has already had several partnership programmes in the UK before investing abroad that apply its graphene tech, ranging from batteries and capacitors to graphene-enhanced sports equipment and aerospace components. However, as Richard Jones, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out, the “UK doesn’t have many firms that are well placed to exploit graphene in commercial applications. China, however, is well ahead of the game – it has 70 per cent of the world’s total graphene production capacity, and the material is already extensively used in batteries, anti-corrosion coatings and printed heater applications.

 

Versarien has been busy forging business partnerships in China, increasing the number of its Chinese partners from one to 24 in only a six-weeks period. At the beginning of January there was news of the company inking yet another MOU with “a mystery Chinese aerospace firm”; in the wake of the news Versarien share prices pushed ahead 2.66 per cent. Little David’s collaborative dealings with the Asian Goliath are exemplary, but if graphene does live up to the huge expectations of it, could we live to regret the fact that UK-funded graphene technology has ultimately ended up with competitors who were ahead of the curve in the first place?

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