Partnerships lay foundations for graphene commercialisation

By Laura Syrett
Published: Thursday, 12 September 2013

Collaborative “knowledge economy” will support application development

As global interest in graphene continues to snowballat an astounding rate, research into commercialising carbon science’s vaunted miracle material is an intensely competitive business.

Manchester's National Graphene Insitute has
just signed a £5m-deal with US-headquartered
Bluestone Global Tech to develop commercial
applications for graphene (image: dullhunk). 

The world of high-tech industry teaches us that commercial operators are usually reluctant to share the spoils of technical innovation; but graphene development, it seems, is an arena determined to benefit from some intellectual crowd sourcing.

As the material edges ever closer to achieving its widely-discussed commercial potential, the future of the science looks likely to be shaped by strategic, collaborative ventures, rather than solo initiatives.

This is particularly fitting, since the very discovery of graphene was itself a joint effort.

Back in 2004, Russian émigré scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov pooled their knowledge and expertise to isolate the atomic layer of carbon from flakes of graphite, a feat which earned them equal shares in the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.

And the collaborative legacy looks set to continue, as more and more academic institutions and commercial outfits join forces in the search to turn nano-carbon into into mega-cash.

Bluestone teams up with Manchester

This week, one of the world’s largest graphene manufacturers, US-headquartered Bluestone Global Tech, announced that it had agreed a £5m ($7.9m*) research partnership with the UK’s University of Manchester, where graphene was first discovered by Geim and Novoselov almost a decade ago.

The partnership will allow Bluestone to draw on the expertise of Manchester’s 100+ graphene and 2D material specialists to produce the next generation of graphene applications, including advanced displays, flexible electronics, energy storage materials and cosmetics.

The deal marks the first strategic partnership for the UK’s National Graphene Institute (NGI), a £61m-centre due for completion early next year, and will see Bluestone open a pre-production facility to work with a handful of consumer companies, before setting up a pilot plant in Manchester.

“It’s like building a bridge across a river,” Nathan Hill, business development and strategy director for Manchester’s NGI told IM.

“On one side, you have scientists working on how to produce the material in large volumes, and on the other side you have those working on applications. Here at Manchester, we are building the bridge from both sides,” Hill said.

“Partnerships are key to the future development of the science and its successful transition to commercial products, and Manchester is always open to proposals from prospective partners,” he added.

According to Hill, part of the reason for pursuing partnerships in this field is that graphene is fundamentally intertwined with the science behind it, and building up a “knowledge economy” to support the material’s development is crucial.

“Some materials can divorce their production from the science that created them, but with graphene I think we are going to see the knowledge driving the material for at least the next 20 years,” he said.

Grafoid and ProScan target cancer

Partnerships in the sector are not limited to business-academic tie-ups, with purely commercial graphene joint ventures (JVs) also cropping up around the world.

In Canada, graphene technology company, Grafoid Inc., last week revealed that it has set up a JV company with biomedical research firm, ProScan RX Pharma Inc., to develop graphene-based treatments for cancer.

The new venture, called Calevia Inc., will work on using Grafoid’s patented graphene product, MesoGraf, to engineer targeted photothermal therapy that eradicates tumours while avoiding some of the side effects and limitations associated with existing cancer therapies.

“Calevia sets a clear example to the world how graphene technologies serve humanity,” said Gary Economo, Grafoid’s CEO.

According to ProScan’s Dr Claude Vezeau, co-founder and CEO of Calevia, forging a partnership with a graphene-focused technology firm could lead to a redefinition of cancer treatment.

“Targeting the photothermal ablation of prostate and, subsequently, other solid cancers, bridges the gap between conventional therapies and today’s nanotechnology revolution,” he said.

The collaboration with ProScan is Grafoid’s first foray into the medical industry, having previously signed agreements with a handful of universities and energy companies for research into graphene-based renewable energy applications.

Grafoid is also in a JV with junior graphite miner, Focus Graphite Inc., to develop production methods based on exfoliated natural graphite– a business model that has been emulated in the mining industry by companies including fellow Canadian, Lomiko Metals Inc., and UK-listed Nordic Graphite AS.

A growing Chinese graphene network

Unsurprisingly, Western partnerships form only part of the globally burgeoning graphene picture, with huge sums and intellectual resources being ploughed into the industry in Asia.

July saw the establishment of the China Graphene Industry Technology Innovation Strategic Alliance in Beijing, a government-sponsored body tasked with developing graphene science as part of nano-technology initiative outlined in the country’s 12th Five Year Plan.

Private Chinese companies are also earmarking significant chunks of funding for graphene development. Zhongtai Chemical Co. Ltd, a Shenzhen Stock Exchange-listed chemical manufacturer, recently announced plans to invest Chinese renminbi (Rmb) 14.1m ($2.3m) in a graphene start-up company, Xiamen Knano Graphene Technology.

Resource firm Shenyang Yinji Development Company also revealed in August that it has signed two cooperation agreements for investment in new graphite new materials with the flake graphiteminer, Heilongjiang Aoyu Graphite Group.

The wild west of intellectual property

Something of an antidote to collaboration in the graphene sector has been the rapid encroachment of intellectual property rights and suspected industrial espionageover graphene-related technologies.

Earlier this year, research by the UK-based consultancy, CambridgeIP, revealed a surgein the number of patents filed and published across the world, particularly in Asia and the US.

CambridgeIP’s report showed China leading the field with 2,204 published patents as of 1 February 2013, followed by the US with 1,754 and South Koreawith 1,160.

However, NGI’s Hill believes that while securing graphene patents are important, having a small number of quality patentsrather than a large volume of IP rights will be the key differentiators that mark out future leaders in the industry.

“It’s something of a ‘wild west’ of IP out there, with some of larger companies setting out to take every patent going,” he told IM.

“This is not to underplay the importance of owning property rights, but it will be the best quality research that will make the difference,” he said.

*Conversions made September 2013