Insights from industry

Establishing a Graphene Industry and the Issues Faced

Graphene is an emerging technology, but there are only a few companies coming forward to lead its commercialization into industrial applications. Imagine Intelligent Materials is at the forefront of addressing graphene's commercialization issues.

In this interview, Chris Gilbey, co-founder and CEO of Imagine Intelligent Materials, talks to AZoM about the position of the graphene industry today, and how Imagine Intelligent Materials is aiming to develop the industry further.

In terms of its development, where would you place the graphene industry today?

I think it's a bit of a stretch to call it an industry, frankly.

It's a bit like saying there was a steel industry back in the days of Afghani artisans making steel blades for swords and trading them with the Vikings. Steel only started becoming an “industry” when the Bessemer process enabled mass production of high quality replicable material. Once mass manufacturing of materials where graphene plays an integral part is common, I would say we have an industry. I think we are on the cusp of that right now.

What are the current issues slowing down the development of the industry?

There are a number of issues, and perhaps the most important, in my view, is that old and obvious question, “what is the unmet need?” I really don’t see a future for companies that think by making a product that meets the general criteria of being able to be called graphene, they are creating an industry.

Industry requires there to be robust supply chains. And for there to be a graphene supply chain, there needs to be end products that provide differentiation - in terms of increased productivity, decreased price of the end product, ease of use, etc. All of which, in my mind, means that there has to be certification of the end product that contains the graphene, so that the end user/customer can have confidence that the risk of using a new product is manageable.

But I could reel off a dozen equally pressing issues that are going to need to be resolved – and most of them are about the need to understand how end users make decisions. Ultimately the critical issue is to show that there are proven validation customers successfully integrating graphene into products. Every time you get a validation customer – where scale is a key issue – decision makers in the supply chain will feel that risk is diminished, albeit because someone else has gone out on a limb first.

How are members of this burgeoning graphene industry trying to overcome these issues?

I don’t think that I have a broad enough knowledge of the overall marketplace to provide an objective critique of an industry. I would say that there are a lot of people who understand what is required, but they are currently tending to look toward others to provide the necessary infrastructure. The development of standards goes part of the way, but in my mind, addresses issues from a perspective that only recognizes part of the story, and in any event, is going to take place too slowly to be of use in the formative stages of commercialization with scale.

What is the role of Imagine Intelligent Materials when trying to overcome these issues?

We don’t have all the answers, by any means. We have given a lot of thought to the problems though. At the first meeting of the founders, one of the group who has been successful in the mining sector, said, “Graphene is like Vegemite. You can spread Vegemite a mile wide and a millimeter thick and still taste it. You could cover the entire planet with a kilogram of graphene at one atom thick. So how are we going to shift sufficient volume to make the investment in time and money profitable?”

We started with the view that we had to find volume applications and focus on them, and not on developing “cool” stuff without having a direct understanding of the market, the cost and margin structures, who the decision makers are in the supply chain we were seeking to enter, and what issues were top of mind for them.

We set out to build a culture within the company that was customer focused, with the intention of building strong trusted relationships, not only with the transactional customer, but with the influencers throughout the value chain.

Are there any examples of how Imagine Intelligent has put this into practice?

Yes, absolutely! We are the lead industry partner with Swinburne University in creating the Graphene Supply Chain Certification CRC-P. (CRC-P refers to an Australian Government initiative to fund Collaborative Research Centres for Product development). The research undertaken at Swinburne University will enable us to develop a comprehensive understanding of how to ensure replicability and predictability of materials that contain graphene. We are finding more and more that scaling up graphene manufacture has a lot of challenges, as I am sure anyone who is trying to do this is grappling with. Putting graphene into dispersions that can be utilized in manufacturing raises a lot of additional challenges.

Imagine Intelligent Materials' Base at Swinburne University (Image Credits: Imagine Intelligent Materials)

We think that this step is absolutely essential as a part of how we de-risk decision making for our partners.

Additionally, we have a business model that allows the notion of certification to be applied in a way that gives our partners confidence that the investment that they make into using our solutions is going to differentiate them and make them more competitive and more profitable.

What sets Imagine Intelligent Materials apart from other companies when developing graphene based product solutions?

This is the integration of certification, solutions licensing, materials sales, and the way that we partner with the primary solutions licensee. We develop solutions by working with validation partners who have a need to innovate in order to build market share. We provide exclusivity in the solutions licensing agreement so that they can be assured that they won’t see the impact of new and highly differentiated product immediately being diluted. And we don’t try to sell graphene to them. In fact, our agreements are not about putting a price on the graphene. Instead, our agreements are structured to make product planning simple, particularly when it comes to the bill of materials.

What is the current focus of Imagine Intelligent Materials?

We see conductivity in fibers and textiles being our main activity for the next 3 years at least.

Our immediate focus is on geosynthetics and solving problems associated with water management. Our first product, imgne® X3, is a conductive coating that enables inexpensive leak detection in liners for containment – dams, landfill, etc. The first couple of installations have been very successful and the engineers involved have been impressed with the product and the ease of installation and have also been tremendously helpful in giving us insights that will help both us and our manufacturing partners improve the product further.

Where this takes us next is going to be the interesting part of the journey though. Our goal is to develop sensing and reporting textiles and fibers. We have been working with civil engineers, who are building and installing containment systems to fast track product development of next generation geotextiles. By running our own case studies, we develop a deep understanding of the problems and the market need is.

How do you anticipate the graphene industry to take shape moving into the future?

Graphene R&D is very capital intensive when you are developing products. Early stage investors look for tangible evidence of value creation and quite reasonably want to see  liquidity event in the near term. I think this will inevitably lead to a period of consolidation as we see the Gartner hype curve being applied to graphene businesses.. Companies with strong balance sheets will buy and integrate the companies who can not be sustained. Big industrial chemicals companies will start acquiring graphene companies where there is a logical fit. However there will be a few that develop genuine revenues and a vision story that enables them to raise sufficient capital to remain independent and become serious businesses.

Artist's Interpretation of Graphene Based Smart Materials (Image Credits: Imagine Intelligent Materials)

Just as Amazon started as a book warehousing business, and as it morphed into becoming the largest retailer on the planet, became the largest vendor of cloud based computing, similarly some graphene companies will become IoT companies that are able to provide a soup to nuts data platform that will mine and interrogate data very competitively.

How do you envisage Imagine Intelligent Materials’ development alongside the predicted global development of the graphene industry?

As the say, “you have to eat your own dog food”. We have a hardware/software interface design group in the company now, led by a very bright DSP engineer who used to work for me in a previous company. We are in the process of establishing a data analysis project with a University, and anticipate that this will lead to the development of a lot of new and valuable IP, as well as helping us accelerate the offerings that we have. We are also funding a considerable amount of cutting edge research into smart fire development at another university, which will lead us into developing textiles with applications in health.

So, the net net is that I am hopeful that Imagine IM will be one of the companies that is able to survive and thrive without necessarily being absorbed into one of the global operators, but never say never!

Where can our readers find out more about Imagine Intelligent Materials?

Have a look at our website imgne.com and sign up for the news flash service at http://imgne.com/about-us/contact/

About Chris Gilbey

Chris Gilbey has been a pioneering presence in Australian IP based businesses for over 40 years.

His career runs the gamut of running a record label and publishing company and signing acts such as AC/DC, InXs, Keith Urban, to being CEO of audio signal processing company, Lake Technology. After selling Lake to Dolby, he became global consumer strategy advisor to that company. He then became Entrepreneur in Residence at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science (ACES) at the University of Wollongong and Honorary Principal Fellow at the Sydney Business School. While at ACES he spun out a water splitting technology company and then in 2014 co-founded Imagine Intelligent Materials.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

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