The Creative State – Graphene and the University of Manchester.
The University of Manchester (UoM) London Alumni (of which I proud to be one) were given a taste of the creative genius resident in UoM yesterday (18th June) when a talk was given on Graphene by the Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan and Ivan Buckley. It is a story of great science in the UK.
Aravind showed how Graphene was taken from theory to practice at UoM and that it combines a range of superlatives in a 2D substance – the first 2D substance (there are now more like Boron Nitride – called White Graphene – with similar qualities). The UoM Graphene website shows some of those qualities and capabilities – such as strength (it is 200x stronger than steel), incredible flexibility, fire resistant but retains heat, a superb conductor of electricity but non-porous (helium cannot pass through it).
The opportunities are enormous for its development into products that will likely be revolutionary in areas of medicine, clean / green technologies, aircraft, detection systems and a host of others beyond the touch screen technologies that are being developed in Korea or Andy Murray’s tennis racquet.
Here is a tremendous example of the State (via one of its top universities) creating something with enormous potential.
However, as Mariana Mazzucato provided evidence of in her recent book “The Entrepreneurial State”, many great scientific discoveries are made by Government or state that are then taken by companies (often outside the country of origin) and exploited. The beneficiaries may then not be the state (or, more importantly, the citizens of that state) but the shareholders of the companies (most likely the original shareholders rather than those that come in later).
Many will understandably say “good luck” to the corporate entrepreneurs that take the idea to development on the back of their own risk-financing and many will suggest that this shows up the state’s inability to understand markets. States can help to develop through research but not take it further. Only business minds can do that.
All of this is true.
The question is whether the State (in this case the University of Manchester, funded mainly by the State and, for its new home of Graphene, the UK and EU) can reap rightful benefits from its scientific discoveries or even whether the UK can, overall, benefit from its discoveries against a long history of new discoveries where (outside Pharmaceuticals) we seem to have allowed other nations to take the horse to water.
Ivan Buckley, Project Manager at the National Graphene Institute, provided an introduction into UoM’s plans for commercialization of Graphene and other 2D materials. It owns, for example, 11 key patents which will be core to the future usability of the material. The National Graphene Institute is a year away from opening and will house researchers alongside business brains. There is a strong focus on real commercialization in a way that gives some hope that the UoM and the UK will see payback from the discovery.
We don’t have a Google or an Apple or a Microsoft and didn’t have an IBM despite inventing Pegasus in the 1950’s (through Ferranti). We have Silicon roundabout instead of Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley was well established in 1980 when I was asked to take a job in Neston, Cheshire for the GEC-Fairchild joint venture in semiconductors by which time the US (and Japan dominated). But, we do have ARM.
Also, we do have a tremendous life sciences base that is shown by the recent takeover attempt for Glaxo Smithkline (GSK) and the investment going into the Oxford – Cambridge – London triangle.
We have great scientists and a great culture for science. Graphene and 2D materials provide a tremendous opportunity for the UK to move from the lab into the community but in a way that the community benefits not just through products and maybe some jobs but, through excellence in commercialization, to reap the commercial benefits from 2D. This would require British companies (with proper financing) to come forward and establish a strong base in the new world of nanotechnology.
Dr Vijayaraghavan suggests there are 10 years for Graphene to make itself into useable killer apps. This is also 10 years for the UK to show if it has the capability to establish a world leading commercial centre that also benefits the UK beyond its known status as a great discoverer. Can we move from the Creative State to the Entrepreneurial State (or at least a State of entrepreneurs).