Giles Salt, CEO of M&I Materials, discusses moving from development to commercialisation in demanding material applications
Thousands of new materials are developed each year, many of which could be game-changing. But even with the concept proven – even with the huge hurdles in figuring out how to produce a lab-proven material at scale surmounted – there is still a long way to go. How do you commercialise materials for use in demanding applications?
Start with a double take
In the excitement of having developed an innovative, new material it’s easy to get carried away. But whether in the context of a multinational’s research and development department or a couple of post-grads tinkering in the lab, it’s important to start by taking two things: a breath, and a step back.
Now is the time to invest in developing a deeper understanding of the material’s potential customers, markets and applications. The hard work is not over yet.
Working specifically in demanding applications can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, competition may be less fierce and the ‘where to start’ element less bewildering than a more commoditised material. But if you’ve developed a marginally stronger but otherwise undifferentiated plastic polymer where would you start? It could be applied anywhere from chairs to toys to packaging and there would be ruthless competition at every stage.
By operating in the demanding applications space, there is less likely to be closely comparable competition, but it also means the fit has to be just right. Yet higher specificity means more effort is required to understand precisely where commercial opportunity lies. The business model for demanding, niche applications is often likely to be one of high value, low volume; so, understanding each potential customer and their specific needs is doubly important.
As an example, one of our brands, Wolfmet, produces a tungsten heavy alloy that found its niche in providing fine balance to Formula 1 cars and Boeing 737s on the one hand, and radiation shielding on the other. The two applications aren’t closely related so finding these commercial opportunities depended on judicious and comprehensive research.
It is easy to be blinkered when it comes to a material you have spent years developing. Having worked with it every day, its benefits and applications may have become second-nature and seem obvious, and it’s easy to forget that they may not be so apparent to others. Putting in the effort to research potential customers and their needs is crucial.
Of course, researching a market for a new material implies that it already exists. In fact, it often doesn’t – yet. Sometimes it’s not as simple as saying: “I’ve got a great material, what do you think” – it’s about creating the market.
This could involve working with companies who are developing new technologies so that the materials become integral to the design. For our MIDEL transformer fluids, we work closely with transformer manufacturers as they looked to design new models; our product helps to push their design in terms of performance.
These sorts of opportunities don’t occur by themselves. It involves going out and collaborating to create the market, providing benefits for all.
Developing a new material and its early use cases calls for very specific types of technical expertise. Commercialising it requires a different set of skills. Chief among these are patience and tenacity.
For materials designed for specialist, demanding applications it can feel like forever getting the first customer, signing the contracts and putting the supply chains in place. Engineers can be risk averse, preferring to stick to what’s tried and tested; tenacity is required at every step to bring them around. But it can also go the other way. Conversely, certain applications, such as Formula 1, are always looking for something that can give them an edge, making them more receptive to innovation.
Pick your partners
Frequently manufacturers need to seek out organisations with complementary expertise to bring a new product to market. More often than not, commercialising new materials is a collaborative effort. Manufacturers looking to take a new material to market often need to seek out organisations with complementary expertise to their own.
This might take the form of research from universities or private laboratories, collaboration with potential customers, or even other private companies.
There are also a host of agencies that exist purely to help promising, young technologies scale by providing tailormade, commercial support.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is to never stand still. New applications may still be developed for successfully commercialised products. At M&I Materials, we’ve been making Apiezon, a range of high vacuum greases, sealants and lubricants, for over 80 years. Yet we recently created a new grease to work at a wider range of temperatures replacing several products.
Commercialising a material for demanding applications is a complex process with no set formula, the key is to remembering that the material itself is only ever the start.