The challenge of graphene

The Iain Gray Column

Closer international partnerships have a very important role to play in the development of technologies in the UK

I took part in some interesting discussions and meetings this month — ranging from the potential progress of graphene in the UK to how we could develop closer technology and business links internationally.

I was invited to attend the first meeting of the UK/Israeli Science Tech Council, which was created following an agreement between David Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu to build a partnership in technology. This first meeting gave me an opportunity to report on the activities of the Technology Strategy Board and we also agreed some key sectors for the two countries to explore together, including water technology. I was intrigued that the Israeli chief scientist had a specific role to ‘turn science into business’ and it struck me how this was aligned to our own organisational strategy of ‘concept to commercialisation’. Whatever the phrase we use, it is the end goal of delivering real business growth and success that we are all striving for, and if closer working with new international partners helps to contribute to that then it is in all our interests to build these important bridges.

International partnerships were also on my mind during the month as we facilitated 16 of the UK’s best, high growth potential clean-tech companies on the Clean and Cool Mission to San Francisco. The aim of the mission is to provide these rigorously selected companies with a chance to meet the best of Silicon Valley’s investors, customers and supply-chain partners — and, of course, tochampion British clean-tech innovation on an international stage.

Lamenting the reasons why the UK does not have its own Silicon Valley offering is a much discussed topic and I found it interesting that it again reared its head as part of the debate about the graphene hub plans for Manchester. During the month I met with Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of Manchester University, and we discussed the three main issues surrounding graphene — the science; the identification and development of applications; and the manufacture of it in industrial quantities. For me, there is an interesting comparison to be made with the discovery of carbon composites and the challenge of how scale changes can take many years to be introduced and filter down through different supply chains and sectors. It was back in the 1960s that scientists in the UK first realised the high potential of carbon fibres yet it is only recently that we have started to see their wider application in commercial and civilian aircraft, recreational, industrial and transportation markets. We all need to ensure that graphene builds on the reputation that the UK has for a diverse, well-managed and innovative range of products with international appeal.

This was also touched upon by George Osborne in a speech I heard him give at the first annual EEF conference in London. The conference focused on competitiveness in the global economy and was an excellent opportunity for some strategic high-level discussions with a range of key players. I also found it an invaluable networking opportunity and an excellent platform for the Technology Strategy Board in its objective of reaching out to more companies in the sector.

Iain Gray is chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board