On 20th February we were joined by Krzysztof Koziol, Cranfield Professor of Composites Engineering and Head of the Enhanced Composites and Structures Centre, for the second in the 2019 Wednesday evening talks hosted by the Bettany Centre.
Krzysztof has combined a glittering academic career with the successful commercialisation of one of the key transformative technologies of the 21st century, graphene. He is a passionate advocate of this remarkable material and its almost unlimited potential for helping to solve a major environmental issue of our age: the release of excess methane gas into the atmosphere as a by-product of industrial processes. Through turning conventional wisdom on its head, Professor Koziol has shown how what has been seen for many years as a problem can be turned into a business opportunity.
Since the 19th century graphene has been known as a form of carbon, derived from graphite, which possesses exceptional properties. It is light, immensely strong, flexible, bonds with other materials and can take many forms. But creating usable graphene is also extremely challenging. It first came to wider public attention about 15 years ago when breakthroughs in nanotechnology research enabled much easier lab-based production. A Cambridge PhD and Research Fellow, Krzysztof was one of the material scientists fascinated by graphene and its potential. Supported by fellow researchers, he worked from the late 2000s on developing nanomaterials, both graphene and carbon nanotubes, with a focus on their molecular design and on finding novel, sustainable production methods. He also pioneered a new generation of electric conductors, based on nanocarbons, as better alternatives to copper and aluminium, and built the very first electric machines to use carbon nanotube wires.
In an enthralling hour and a half session he explained to his audience how he and his team took their discoveries out of the lab and into the marketplace. To be a commercial proposition, technology transfer has to solve someone’s problem and, ideally, a big problem. Krzysztof and his team had found that harnessing methane in the graphene production process created significant improvements: faster cycle times and larger quantities of the end material. For many manufacturers, on the other hand, methane gas is viewed as a headache: it’s a by-product of numerous chemical processes, is treated as waste and has traditionally been burned off into the atmosphere. That creates a whole new set of problems, as methane is 30 times more damaging to the environment than CO2.
Recent conventional thinking has been to contain the problem through gas capture and storage. Krzysztof’s insight was that this “hostile” material could be transformed into an ally through employing it for large-scale graphene production. Once his ideas attracted an audience, in no time a large Malaysian company was knocking on his door, seeking a collaboration to explore how to capitalise on its own excess methane production. Suddenly Krzysztof had to create a vehicle for commercialisation, and in 2012 Cambridge Nanosystems was spun out of the university. Two years later the company formalised its joint venture with Felda Global Venture Holdings, the partner bringing to the party both seed-money investment and the opportunity to scale and pilot Nanosystems’ technology in the field. In the same year, 2014, Nanosystems received a development grant of £500,000 from Innovate UK. Today the company can manufacture graphene which has a thickness of a single atom, and its customers include Jaguar Land Rover [JLR], BAE Systems and Red Bull.
Krzysztof devoted much of his presentation to discussing the two fundamental challenges of a technology transfer venture: the technology and the management. A career academic is better prepared for the first. Colleagues provide an invaluable source of expertise and support, and the stages of technology development can usually be mapped once the basic technical problems have been solved. The greater challenge is often managing the business. Krzysztof was fortunate in having a number of factors working in his favour. His PhD students were set on a career in industry, so actively embraced the opportunity to work with a commercial partner. The fact that Felda had made the first approach reduced the need to go out on the road selling the concept. He had also witnessed other technology transfer initiatives emerging from academia and was fully aware of some of the obstacles to gaining traction.
For example, a market often needs educating. Once the initial excitement over graphene had subsided, people started asking how it could actually be used. The answer is that its uses are endless: applications are as varied as biosensors for healthcare, high frequency electronic transistors, wiring for aerospace, and energy generation and storage. It can also be employed in everyday materials commonly seen as commodities. Krzysztof referred to graphene’s incorporation into concrete, which preliminary research suggests can be made significantly lighter and stronger. But much work needed to be done in the early days to show to potential customers the range of market possibilities that exist.
The company has funded its growth and development through further rounds of fund raising. Krzysztof has released a majority of the equity in the business – the reluctance of academic founders to surrender shares is another obstacle to successful commercialisation that he has seen at first hand. He is also open about his own limitations. He now takes more of a back seat and, while continuing to be involved, Krzysztof is primarily an academic. He moved to his present position at Cranfield in 2017, where his research sits alongside a host of other exciting new, emerging technologies with commercial potential. But he is still as committed as ever to the cause of graphene. Give him £100 bn, he says, and his business could really start to exploit its full possibilities.
Professor Koziol’s presentation was the second in the 2019 series of Wednesday Business Enterprise Talks at Cranfield University, hosted by the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship.