Norman Apsley considers the challenge of commercialising innovation

Image: A steam train at London Victoria station in 2010. James Watt’s innovations with steam engines were a vital factor in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Credit: Kotomi_ 

This blog originally appeared at Physics Focus, a community for those passionate about physics.

Graphene hit the headlines a decade ago with its remarkable properties and single-atom thickness. But can we turn hyperbole over the “wonder material” into exponential economic growth?

Of course, our inability to commercialise our science has become as legendary as our weather. Actually, I should say our recent inability to commercialise science, for it was not ever thus.

No sooner had Joseph Black solved the conundrum of latent heat in the University of Glasgow (paid for by the Distillers of Scotland) than his mentee and the university’s model maker, James Watt, had applied it to the Cornish steam-powered pumping engine, making it vastly more efficient. But, at the time, Glasgow didn’t need a better pump, and failed to build a successful business. Matthew Boulton of Birmingham did spot the business model, and persuaded Watt and his family to move to the Midlands. The rest of the Industrial Revolution, as they say, is history.

“Our global corporations must stay involved and connected with our universities and their research”

There are many such stories in the 18th and 19th centuries, but few in the 20th. It was a century of warfare, and the bending of science to that and to other state-strategic ends. Those issues dominated the thinking of the time, and commercialisation took second place, with the consequences we all know. Graphene is a prime example of a truly disruptive technology that has the opportunity to be developed for purely commercial and economic reasons. So what are the lessons from when we did it best?

First, the state must not be overbearing. It has a major role of maintaining a level playing field nationally and internationally, which today includes funding for university teaching and research-based learning to keep our young men and women at the ever-widening frontier of knowledge across all the disciplines needed in this age of globalism. But the state must not act alone.

Our global corporations must stay involved and connected with our universities and their research, even if they are not the funder, and in topics wider than their own current narrow interests. Equally, universities must make it easy for busy executives to know enough of what has been learned, and what is going on in the world at large. A national lunar society is what I’m thinking.

Then we come to the hardest part of all: finding the elusive business model that will carry graphene through its expensive development phase to the customers who will not just want to buy it, but need it enough to pay the premium of the early adopter. Aerospace and defence were the usual suspects of the last century in this regard, but their processes, necessarily slow and secret, hindered pure commercial innovation.

“It’ll take doing – experimental development, fuelled by entrepreneurial zeal and conviction.”

For this we’ll need lots of risk-takers with excellent knowledge of all the domains likely – or even just possibly – affected by graphene’s properties, all trying quickly to find that all-important breakthrough. Many will lose their backers’ money, but, if the potential that we all see is truly there, then all will balance in the end.

For graphene, the business model might involve health and life sciences, protective coatings for extreme environments, new sensors enabling an extended range of robot tools – I don’t know. What I do know is that it will take more than thinking, and better understanding of materials: it’ll take doing – experimental development, fuelled by entrepreneurial zeal and conviction.

We do our young people a disservice with our condensed views of the history of science and technology. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t toil for years to achieve the famous summons to his assistant and suddenly all was well and the telephone company bearing his name was born. The real work came after that historical first phonecall.

The winners of the first Queen Elizabeth Prize of the Royal Academy of Engineering spanned the process well in the case of the World Wide Web. The eyes of the typically young physicists, engineers and other scientists in and around our graphene centres of excellence should be on that prize – and on what it will mean for them and for our economy.

IOP’s Innovation Awards are open for entries until 30 May.

Norman Apsley is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Science Park, and blogs at: