Success stories: advice on crossing the chasm from Nanoco, Solexa and ARM

There’s plenty of talk about the hurdles that scientists have to overcome to commercialize their research, and while there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the scale of the challenge, it’s important to celebrate the success stories too. The Royal Society strikes a positive note in its recent video featuring Nanoco, Solexa and ARM, which offers advice on translating technology from the lab to the market.

Winning investment
The speakers are well placed to comment on the journey from discovery to devices, and each of them discusses different pieces of the puzzle, which includes raising money.

In the clip, Paul O’Brien, a professor at the University of Manchester and co-founder of Nanoco, emphasizes that the trickiest part to get funded is the step between invention and product development. To grab the attention of potential backers, it helps to think like one.

“The pull for the investor is the potential for a market,” O’Brien explains in the video. “So, if you can point towards a market like displays and say that [your product] could be in every house, in every country in the world, then they start to look interested.”

- You can find more videos from the Royal Society on its YouTube page

For additional case studies, check out the following articles from the journal Translational Materials Research -

Optical coatings for automotive applications: a case study in translating fundamental materials science into commercial reality – Manrico Fabretto et al, Transl. Mater. Res. 1 025001

Photocatalytic nanomats clean up produced water from fracking – P I Gouma and J Lee, Transl. Mater. Res. 1 025002

A lab-to-market roadmap for early-stage entrepreneurship – Jesko von Windheim and Barry Myers, Transl. Mater. Res. 1 016001

10 tips to help materials start-ups succeed in the market

Access to venture capital is frequently identified as a key factor in moving ideas beyond the lab and enabling start-ups to turn functional prototypes into market-ready devices.

“Venture capital can bring not just money to a project, but also business skills and technical knowledge, which are different from the connections and advice that the state and the region can provide,” Serdar Sariciftci, a leading researcher in the field of organic photovoltaics, told Translational Materials Research (TMR) in a recent interview. “Experienced venture capitalists (VCs) who have done this thing before in similar sectors are invaluable to a scientist like me.”

VCs are well-placed to examine what it takes to translate research breakthroughs into products and TMR is fortunate in being able to draw upon the experience of Andrew Haughian, partner at Pangaea Ventures and a member of the journal’s Editorial Board. Haughian is a regular contributor to TMR, and has written for the journal on the topics of ‘Focus’, ‘Licensing’ and ‘Funding mathematics’, with more articles in the pipeline.

Here are 10 tips from the discussion so far, with links to the original opinion pieces after the bullet points.

Highlights from the VC desk

  • On the one hand, there is a temptation to ‘add value’ by demonstrating as many applications as possible. On the other, there is the repeated message to do one thing and do it well. The reality is that the key to building an important and valuable company usually lies somewhere in between.
  • The 80:20 rule applies to start-ups. 80% of the effort is focused on getting the first product to market, while 20% is spent on what’s next. The first product should meet minimum market requirements, and market entry should primarily facilitate organizational learning about the market and operations while at the same time building a brand.
  • An ideal licensing situation is when there are levers in addition to intellectual property (IP) that can be incorporated into the licensing negotiation. One lever is the control of a key ingredient(s) used in the production process.
  • Getting technology into the market as soon as possible is critically important, while the real game-changer continues to brew. The key here is that the next-generation technology must be substantially differentiated in terms of IP and product benefits, such that a ‘Gen One’ licensee does not effectively undermine the possibility of successfully commercializing ‘Gen Two’.
  • There are many considerations in picking the best licensee partner(s), but picking a brand name that will lend credibility should be at the top of the list.
  • A licensing deal can create a significant draw on management and technical resources, so care must be taken to ensure core activities are not disrupted.
  • When mergers and acquisitions is the likely endgame, acquirers are unlikely to pay a technology premium unless they truly believe that buying a company gives them a long-term sustainable advantage.
  • In many cases, new materials technologies are competing against incumbent commodity-like products. Usually these incumbent technologies are well along in bottoming on the cost reduction curve, whereas the new technology is starting at the top.
  • Poor consideration of value chain issues usually ends up being the Achilles’ heel of even the most exciting materials technologies. Finding the right set of partners that complement the core value proposition is vital for eliminating the cost and time of reinventing the wheel.
  • There are a lot of moving parts in getting focus right. The good news is that this critical commercialization skill is transferable to other technology industries, and so a vast network of management talent can be tapped.

Original articles from the journal Translational Materials Research (TMR)

From the VC desk: striking a balance on focusTransl. Mater. Res. 1 010202 (2014)
From the VC desk: add licensing to the materials start-up toolkitTransl. Mater. Res. 1 020201 (2014)
From the VC desk: venture capital funding math, making it workTransl. Mater. Res. 2 010201 (2015)

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Liquid lenses offer alternative eye-care model

In the latest podcast, Josh Silver – a physicist and inventor based in Oxford, UK – introduces his liquid lens enabled adjustable eye-wear. Dubbed Adspecs, the product offers an alternative eye-care model by allowing wearers to tune the power of their spectacles. To do this, users put on the glasses and pump fluid into lens chambers formed between clear, high optical quality plastic films, which changes the curvature of these flexible structures and brings the wearer’s view of the world into focus. To complete the simple setup procedure, the left and right eye adjusters are locked-off leaving the spectacles fixed at the correct prescription.

Physicist and inventor Joshua Silver of The Centre for Vision in the Developing World talks to about the prospects for self-adjustable glasses.

Physicist and inventor Joshua Silver of The Centre for Vision in the Developing World talks to about the prospects for self-adjustable glasses.

In the interview, Silver talks about the positive impact his invention could have in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where there are insufficient numbers of optometrists to deliver vision correction through the conventional approach of eye-tests and traditional glasses. He also describes the challenges of taking his ideas from the lab and bringing them to mass market. Silver came up with his first prototypes in 1985 and through the work of The Centre for Vision in the Developing World he hopes to see a billion people having Adspecs-enabled vision correction by the year 2020.

Barriers to success
It’s easy to pinpoint cost and performance as important considerations, but as Silver explains, there were other lessons to be learnt when translating the technology from first prototypes into products with market appeal. “When people meet one another, they tend to look at their eyes,” he commented. “People are very sensitive about what their eyes look like and so you’ve got to get the fashion right as well as the optical function.”

Listen to the interview in full on

Related links -

Adjustable glasses (Institute of Making)

Graphene Flagship highlights commercialization opportunities in 2D materials roadmap

Europe’s Graphene Flagship – a € 1 billion research initiative tasked with bringing together academia and industry to translate 2D materials from the lab to the market – has released an Open Access version of its science and technology roadmap highlighting key application areas for graphene and related structures and providing estimates of timelines to market.

The report (PDF | Rich HTML) includes the views of more than 60 academics and industrial partners, and concludes a four-year project to collect and coordinate information “to guide the community
towards the development of products based on graphene, related two dimensional (2d) crystals and hybrid systems.”

The roadmap flags flexible electronics, composites, and energy as three areas that could generate close-to-market products within a 10-year timeline. Further out, the programme hopes to see silicon-integrated photonic devices, sensors, high-speed electronics, and biomedical devices based on 2D materials also making an impact beyond the lab.

For more information, visit –

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National University of Singapore and BASF team up to develop the use of graphene in organic electronic devices

Supercapacitors: market factors to consider

Supercapacitors are a promising application for advanced materials such as high surface area nanocarbons, but what are the translational issues and market factors that researchers need to consider to win-over commercial partners? To find out more on the topic, TMR+ spoke with Franco Gonzalez, a senior analyst at IDTechEx and co-author of ‘Electrochemical Double Layer Capacitors: Supercapacitors 2014-2024’ – a 10 year forecast analysing the market, applications, technology, patent and profit trends, and key players in the sector.

Advantages over batteries
Supercapacitors don’t rely on chemical reactions and this gives them several advantages over batteries including a higher power capacity per unit mass, superior operation at low temperatures and extended operational lifetime. Truck-makers are using supercapacitors to guarantee that vehicles will start in very cold weather – a scenario where lead-acid batteries perform poorly as their energy capacity can be reduced by as much as 50%.

The longer cycle lifetimes of supercapacitors compared with batteries can lower system maintenance costs and improve reliability. It makes devices attractive for large resource power applications, particular in remote locations. In wind farms, supercapacitors are used to power actuators that change the blade pitch in high winds to protect the turbines.

IDTechEx senior analyst, Franco Gonzalez

IDTechEx senior analyst, Franco Gonzalez

Energy recovery
Although supercapacitors store less energy than batteries, they can be charged very quickly without detriment (unlike batteries). This makes them ideal for regenerative breaking systems, for example on trains and trams, which convert kinetic energy into electricity. They can also be configured to recover potential energy stored in cranes operating at cargo loading and unloading sites. “At ports, these machines can be in use almost constantly, so it’s a great opportunity for energy recovery,” said Gonzalez. “The need to reduce CO2 emissions is driving the market.”

It often makes sense to pair a supercapacitor and a battery together. “Power surges reduce the energy capacity of a battery,” he explained. “But you can protect it using a supercapacitor.” The combination can be used to extend the lifetime of batteries in renewable energy systems, or in smart phones where power-demand fluctuates depending on the functions in use.

Industry factors
As a general rule, supercapacitors are well-suited to applications with highly-variable power demands. In principle, this means they are a great match for ‘stop-start’ systems fitted to modern cars, which switch-off the engine while you are waiting in traffic or at stop lights and then restart the vehicle when you engage the gearbox. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“Different industries focus on different parameters,” Gonzalez cautioned. “Auto-makers are looking for supercapacitors that are half the price of current devices as they focus on the cost per unit energy and are concerned about the selling price of the car.”

Sales of electric buses and on the other hand are much less sensitive to the initial purchase price as buyers in this sector pay more attention to the total cost of ownership of the vehicle. In this case, because supercapacitors bring down the price per charging cycle, the market is more lucrative for developers.

Today, supercapacitors are more attractive to industrial users that are open to considering the system level cost rather than the cost per unit energy of devices. But, as Gonzalez points out, supercapacitor manufacturers are nevertheless working hard at the material level to reduce price and improve device performance to offer a better cost per unit energy to customers.

Device development
Advances in materials can contribute in a number of ways to making supercapacitors more competitive in the market. Increasing the surface area of the electrodes through activated carbons and nanomaterials will drive up the capacitance and benefit the energy storage capacity of the device. At the same time, finding ways to reduce the resistance (of the active material, the electrolyte, and the porous separator) will boost the power output.

However, it is the operation of supercapacitor cells at higher voltages (V) and finding the right materials to make this happen, which may impact performance in the short to medium term. Both the power and the energy of a capacitor are proportional to V2. “Electrolytes in organic solvents can withstand 2.7 V, but developers are also looking at ionic liquids – room temperature salts – that operate at 5V,” said Gonzalez.

Devices come in many shapes and sizes, and he highlights micro-supercapacitors as a particularly exciting and growing area of research. Gonzalez advises researchers to look at lower-cost materials and manufacturing methods in the first instance. “If you want to use expensive materials then you need to find an application that will pay for that,” he commented. “Researchers need to be aware of how the industry is changing and the relative sensitivity to price of the different applications.”

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Related articles from the journal 2D Materials

Fabrication of graphene foam supported carbon nanotube/polyaniline hybrids for high-performance supercapacitor applications

Fullerex talks graphene pricing; identifies growth areas and supply targets

Nanomaterials broker Fullerex has updated its pricing report on graphene, which includes up to date sale prices listed according to order size across the various nanopowder grades of graphene currently available in bulk quantities. The report also analyses a range of market opportunities including composites, lubricants, 3D printing and concrete. By exploring these sectors in detail, the report identifies price-points that graphene would need to reach to penetrate each of these industries.

“In the near-term we see functional fillers as being a growth area for graphene commercialization,” Tom Eldridge, co-founder of Fullerex, told TMR+. “The challenge for graphene providers has been supplying the material in a format that’s ready for customers to use.”

Today, graphene makers are responding to the issue by formulating their materials as inks, dispersions and even masterbatches, which make it easier for customers to integrate graphene into their manufacturing processes.

It’s a critical step in building the market and generating compelling performance data. Longer term though, Eldridge believes that there’s a ceiling to the amount of processing and materials development that graphene providers, many of them small firms, can undertake.

“As you move up the value chain the burden of R&D falls more and more on the nanomaterials producers, which strains the resources of these companies,” he explained.

Another factor to consider is ‘supply availability’ if graphene is to succeed in high-volume sectors such as plastics and concrete.

“If you consider mainstream commercial markets then a supply capacity of thousands of tonnes is a drop in the ocean compared with the supply of other global commodities and what would be required of graphene in these sectors,” Eldridge said. “On top of that virtually none of today’s supply of graphene is interchangeable.”

Standardization in the classification of graphene (see – CARBON 65 2013 1-6) and the coordination of product definitions have a role to play in addressing this. As the user base for graphene expands, Eldridge is confident that this activity will pick up.

“Once these materials can prove their commercial worth and generate demand then these supply problems can be overcome, particularly if the right financial tools are in place and the market is operating efficiently so that communication is made effectively between participants to instigate some cooperation,” he commented. “This is what we feel the role of a broker/merchant such as Fullerex can bring.”

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Nominations now open for 2015 MATERIALICA awards

MATERIALICA has been championing new materials and innovative applications since launching its awards program in 2003. “We honour products which combine outstanding design and high technology expertise,” explained Robert Metzger, jury member and organizer of the MATERIALICA Design + Technology Award.

Boosting the thermal conductivity of plastics

2014 winner SILATHERM (image credit: Quartzwerke Gmbh)

Last year‘s winners include Budenheim’s Excelion material, which is used to advance lithium ion batteries, and SILATHERM from HPF, which improves the thermal conductivity of plastics without downgrading the electrically insulating properties of the host substance. Also recognised in 2014 were LZN Laser Zentrum Nord and EDAG Engineering – co-recipients of the silver award for surface technology. The prize acknowledges the winners’ use of 3D printing to enable a multifunctional aluminium housing for electric vehicles, which weighs just 900 g compared with 1900 g for the reference casting.

In 2013, I-MEET (Institute of Materials for Electronics and Energy Technology, University Erlangen-Nuremberg) won the gold product award for its solution-processed flexible semitransparent organic solar cells. The modules are laser patterned and feature silver nanowire meshes as top and bottom electrodes. Applications for the devices include windows (the cells exhibit 56% transmittance at 550 nm) and skylights.

The deadline for submitting nominations to the selection committee is 17 July 2015. Application forms and further details can be found by visiting

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3D printing (6 stories)

Fast-tracking innovation: Euro 200 million funding initiative goes live

The European Commission wants to speed up the translation of new ideas into socio-economic value and is implementing a range of funding packages to meet this challenge, such as its Fast Track to Innovation (FTI) call, which opened this month.

Supporters hope that the FTI scheme (see leaflet pdf) will act as an incentive for European industry to continue investing in innovation, and lead to “game-changers” for growth and jobs in tomorrow’s economy.

The pilot programme, which will be reviewed in 2016, has a budget of Euro 200 million and seeks projects that are at Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6 or above – in other words, technologies that have been demonstrated in a relevant environment.

Grants of up to Euro 3 million are available to successful applicants to support activities including systems validation in real working conditions, testing, piloting, business model validation, and standard setting.

Proposals must describe the market potential of the technology and include a credible commercialisation strategy that identifies the next steps.

If you are interested in applying, the first step is to contact your closest National Contact Point (NCP) for advice on whether or not the FTI pilot call is a suitable opportunity for your organisation or consortium.

A list of FAQs (MS Word doc) is also available from the FTI participant portal.

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5 ways to tackle materials translation and build better products

One of the highlights of the launch of Translational Materials Research (TMR) has been the opportunity to discuss the journey from lab to market in detail with the journal’s Editorial Board through a series of exclusive interviews.

Here are five key takeaways from the conversation so far -

Invest in fundamental research
“[When I started the Quantum Science Research Initiative] I wanted to have something big that would grab people’s attention and get them to understand that long term fundamental research can be a valuable corporate strategic asset,” revealed Stan Williams, Senior Fellow and VP of Foundational Technologies at Hewlett Packard Labs. “A lot of companies are now realizing that they have to invest more in innovation, and invest more broadly as a means of risk reduction.”

Build on a solid understanding
“Regardless of what you choose to do in the future, first you need to be the best scientist or engineer you can,” advised Zhenan Bao, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Stanford University, and co-founder of tech start-up C3-Nano. “You need to have a solid fundamental understanding that you can build on to develop the skills needed for solving problems, especially complex problems, as this will serve you well if you choose to start your own research group or technology company.”

Go large
“Having a well-defined big problem gives you a strategy to attack it. Of course, it branches as time goes on, but that strategy provokes a whole set of things that you need to do in order to reach your goal, and there can be unexpected pay-offs,” said Peter Littlewood, Director of Argonne National Lab.

Take a broad view
“One of the things that we do already is to look beyond the science problems and imagine what the system would look like,” Littlewood continued. “Could we build it? How heavy would it be? This is what we call ‘techno-economic modelling’, and we do this as part of the whole programme, which can mean that you decide to back-pedal on some of your initial ideas.”

Manage your ideas well
“You need an organizational structure with ‘low interfacial resistance’, which allows ideas to go from science to product development, and for people to move from one department or area to another,” commented Om Nalamasu, Chief Technology Officer of Applied Materials.

For much more on all of these and other key topics related to the translation of materials research into robust products and devices, visit issues #1 and #2 of the journal, which are now both live on IOPscience.

And don’t forget that you can receive TMR+ news alerts by joining our mailing list. It’s easy to sign up, just look for the “subscribe to email alerts” box on the journal’s companion blog, TMR+.

Related articles from the journal Translational Materials Research (TMR) -

An interview with board member R. Stanley Williams
An interview with board member Zhenan Bao
An interview with board member Peter Littlewood
An interview with board member Om Nalamasu

Online graphene course educates engineers in 2D materials

Materials MOOC: Introduction to Graphene Science and Technology (course preview)

Chalmers University of Technology, which coordinates the European Commission’s EURO 1 billion Graphene Flagship initiative, is launching a series of MOOCs – massive open online courses – beginning with an “Introduction to Graphene Science and Technology“.

Spread over 10 weeks, the graphene primer will be presented by Jie Sun of the Quantum Device Physics Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience at Chalmers.

“At the end of the course, an engineer should be able to determine if graphene is suitable for the company’s products, and a student should be able to decide if the subject is of interest for continued studies”, he explained.

To enrol, visit the edX platform, which also features online material from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Delft University, EPFL, The University of Tokyo and many other institutions.

The course is “free of charge and accessible to anyone with a computer” and starts on 23 March 2015.

Update [24 March 2015]
It looks like plenty of people want to know more about graphene. The Chalmers’ MOOC now has 5000 learners signed up, according to the organizers. For more updates, follow @GrapheneMooc on Twitter.

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