I was asked by the Sunday Times’ journalists to comment on their allegations about involvement of the University with BGT Materials, but finding them ‘not only wrong’ but simply ridiculous I declined to reply. Little is true, and much is twisted to fit the imagined scenario.
Our staff have been doing their best – well beyond their job descriptions – to move graphene from academic labs to the industry floor; dedicated and truly altruistic efforts. For example, accusations that academics are ‘boycotting’ the National Graphene Institute are untrue. We are gradually moving to the new building without disrupting ongoing research, and I was declined extra space last week because, to my own surprise, all the offices available for research staff have already been assigned. Another example of the dystopian heights reached by the Sunday Times was a journalist counting people entering the building. One can only laugh at such investigations, especially when the journalist was placed at the street entrance used by visitors whereas staff normally enter from the opposite side.
Since the advent of graphene, I have seen little interest from British industry or big industry in general. This has been disappointing but it is a feature of modern times. No one likes disruptive technologies, when shareholders demand dividends every quarter. Another recent trend is ‘graphene entrepreneurs’ who regularly come with offers to jointly raise capital. In most cases, they have a lot of enthusiasm (that I appreciate) but little understanding of the material and especially its limitations. Less naively, a few such entrepreneurs offered us many millions in return for using our name in what I would describe as selling ‘graphene oil’. Needless to describe our response, but investors elsewhere should be aware of unscrupulous ‘graphene entrepreneurs’ with their own motives
What do you do under the circumstances? You can either lock yourself in an ivory tower or dare to cross the notorious gap to the industry. For the last 10 years I have encouraged our PhD students to start their own companies. This resulted in Graphene Industries, 2D-Tech, 2D Research and Eksagon to name but a few. On a personal note, I have not taken any remuneration but am happy that students can make their livings out of the knowledge acquired during years spent in our labs. The University leadership was also supportive, organizing special entrepreneurship courses for graphene researchers and even helping with seed money from alumni. This is our bottom-up approach, organic growth of small graphene companies.
We also try the top-down approach. BGT Materials, the UK company with extensive international connections singled out by the Sunday Times, is an example – one of more than 40 companies from the UK and around the world who fund collaborative research at the University.
Graphene is a very new material. Efforts to exploit it started less than 10 years ago.
I see the relationship between the University and collaborating companies as a way to stimulate graphene developments for the good of UK PLC rather than for profit. If and when the companies start generating profits, the University will of course benefit through shareholding and patents. But this is secondary. Everything the companies do for the moment, including thermal management of LEDs, graphene composites and ink, is based on common knowledge, published simultaneously by many groups. I only wish someone would use our IP or patents, but it is still too early at this stage of graphene development. The Institute’s involvement has been to provide expertise in graphene, which allows companies including BGT Materials to avoid silly mistakes. Some things could be absolutely trivial for me and other graphene researchers but as for a company this gives a significant competitive edge and saves millions. This is the Institute’s most important function for the moment.
Graphene is a very new material. Efforts to exploit it started less than 10 years ago. Silicon, aluminium or carbon fibre took many decades before the first commercial products appeared. Beyond reasonable expectations, graphene has already delivered its first products, although this is still on a small scale. The University staff deal with dozens of enquiries every week, helping newcomers with information about the material and setting up new ventures.
It would be sad if selective quoting from an allegedly disaffected academic among more than 200 working in graphene at the University make people here and in other universities scared of taking risks and force them back into their ivory towers.