Graphene@Manchester: how we adapted to lockdown
Wednesday 17 March marks a year since The University of Manchester was closed for all but essential operations as a response to the gathering COVID-19 crisis. Graphene@Manchester CEO James Baker and Application Manager Paul Wiper reflect on a period of unprecedented change and adaptation at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC).
James, Paul, do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you heard the University was going into lockdown?
James: I remember I was in the GEIC and whilst we “saw the lockdown coming”, it was still a surprise and the priority was enacting the GEIC’s Business Continuity Plan, with staff returning home to work and ensuring the safe shutdown of the building and equipment. We didn’t know for how long we would be away, so it was definitely a case of ‘unknown unknowns’!
Paul: I had only just returned to the office after being in quarantine for 14 days, having returned from northern Italy. I was pleased to get back to work only to be told we were being shut down, which was frustrating but obviously necessary in hindsight.
James, as CEO of Graphene@Manchester, there must have been so many things going on in your head…
James: In addition to staff safety and wellbeing, a real concern was that progress towards graphene commercialisation would come to a complete halt. Primarily because our laboratories were closed, but also, working from home it would be difficult to engage with both our existing partners and our potential future partners.
The GEIC model is very much built on collaboration and engagement between academics, GEIC staff and industry partners to build supply chains. I was very pleasantly surprised, however, that we quickly adapted to the new ways of working on Teams, Zoom and online working, and actually, through a series of engagements with partners via webinars, via one-to-ones and discussion forums, it was almost the opposite of what we feared: we actually increased the pace of collaboration and engagement during that initial period.
Paul, you run the CVD [chemical vapour deposition] lab in the GEIC and you also oversee the ERDF Bridging the Gap programme for SMEs. What were your specific concerns in either or both of those areas?
Paul: I shared the concern with James about commercialisation slowing but what was different is that compared to the GEIC’s Tier 1 partners, we work with much smaller companies who we knew would be less able to take the hit from lockdown. As the months went on, we were worried about the longevity of some of our beneficiaries from ERDF Bridging the Gap.
We’d built up a good working relationship with our customers so there was a concern whether they would still be in business, if there would be redundancies, and secondary to that was our working relationship with them relating to projects – obviously that was all delayed.
And for the laboratory side, we house some unique deposition equipment, which was planned to be commissioned in Q1 and Q2 of 2020 and was all pushed back.
Over the coming months, we maintained good dialogue with our customers and took on board new partners and where possible tried to work with them on innovation and new ideas.
For anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain what Bridging the Gap is and how it works?
Paul: Bridging the Gap is a programme funded by ERDF [European Regional Development Fund] which essentially aims to work with start-ups and SMEs within the Greater Manchester area to explore and integrate graphene and 2D materials into their products or processes through collaborative R&D projects. The programme has supported more than 100 businesses and we are pleased that we’ve been able to extend it until 2022.
What we’ve also done is to develop links to other investment programmes, such as The Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub with the Henry Royce Institute, and the Business Growth Hub, which provides a range of business support. We offer an integrated package of support that provides a real competitive advantage and opportunity to SMEs and businesses in Greater Manchester.
What have been the challenges around collaboration with our partners and any notable successes during this time?
James: One of the big successes that has come out of the pandemic has been our whole business model of engagement. Our Tier 1/Tier 2 agreements and Bridging the Gap provided a framework that enabled flexibility and agility in working with partners.
That included the use of space, access to kit and delivery of projects. So with that framework in place we were able to adapt under the circumstances to do things in different ways. There was more emphasis initially away from lab work, keeping our partners – both existing and new ones – engaged and interested, so when the labs reopened, we hit the ground running.
What we’ve seen in the second half of 2020 is a significant increase in the number of projects that we’re now delivering with our partners.
The key outcome that we’ll start to see evidence of in the next months and year or so, is products hitting the marketplace as a result of those partnerships and collaborations.
Over the last year we’ve seen that when confronted by necessity, almost anything is possible – for example, hundreds of billions spent on the furlough scheme. Do you think that strengthens the case for investment in advanced materials research – the sense that only really bold action will enable the COVID recovery?
James: The GEIC was always designed around what I call a ‘challenge-driven model’. Quite pertinent at the moment is the new ARIA organisation [Advanced Research and Invention Agency] based on DARPA principles. We’ve seen evidence that the GEIC has responded to that challenge.
In the early days it was about how we might support PPE supply but I think it’s also become critical for industry and governments to achieve impact in the near term. They need to create jobs, they need to create value and the GEIC model has also played there, with our rapid prototype development to get products to market.
It’s what industry needs in these challenging times. If it was 10 years’ time before you could get a product to market, some of the budgets that are being challenged at the moment wouldn’t pass, when the necessity is for revenue and income and jobs in the near term.
So I think the GEIC has been able to respond to that – hence, we’ve grown membership and projects and our business model enables people to do that very rapid work and get results in a very short timescale. That leaves us ideally placed to support both government and industry needs coming out of the pandemic.
Paul, as a CVD specialist, you’re closely engaged with both the fundamental chemistry of graphene and the onward commercialisation of products. What should we be looking out for in this space in the near future?
Paul: In particular with the CVD lab, pre-COVID we’d been doing a lot of work around scaling up the fundamental science that’s been incubated at the University of Manchester and proving that we can scale-up electronic and optoelectronic devices and barrier technologies.
What we’re aiming to do over the next 12 months is to bring online a unique PECVD/MOCVD system to grow other 2D materials at the wafer scale.
We believe that if we can produce good-quality 2D materials at the wafer scale, it will help push the market for 2D devices and drive commercial outcomes.
We’re also looking at advanced coatings with some of our partners. There’s a lot of fundamental science out there that shows CVD graphene can be a good barrier but there are a lot of challenges in scaling this up and looking at the longer-term protection these coatings offer. So over the next 12 to 24 months, this is what we’re aiming to prove – the engineering challenges of scale-up and looking at how this can be done.
Assuming all goes well with reduction of restrictions, what are you most looking forward to in the rest of 2021 and beyond?
James: I really think we can start to build some deeper relationships with both our existing partners, and also through Bridging the Gap and some of our start-ups and spin-outs – there’s real opportunity to work with those around achieving scale-ups.
The biggest success that the GEIC can contribute towards is the creation of these new companies and new supply chain of small firms, so through investment they can become the next generation of big companies.
Already we’re seeing that through the work on Bridging the Gap. A number of those who started on that programme have now joined as a Tier 2 Partner and a few of them, potentially in the next 6-12 months, could become Tier 1 partners with a dedicated presence and base in the GEIC.
If we can be part of supporting that journey, it really does start to deliver what we’ve often referred to as Graphene City: an ecosystem of companies making graphene, making graphene products and also end users who are using those products in their applications or marketplace.
In that ecosystem we’ve always talked about, I can see excitement around that coming to life with real examples of partners in the GEIC and through the GEIC, starting to accelerate the market adoption of graphene and 2D materials.
Will having that additional contact with our SMEs and start-ups through Bridging the Gap help you to bring them through faster?
Paul: Absolutely. What’s been really great with these companies is seeing them on their innovation journey, where we’ve proven that we can add graphene into their products and processes, all the way through to them becoming Tier 2 members.
They have lab space and we’re building this ecosystem around all of these different companies, working in different sectors with tangible products and processes. Seeing these come to market over the next 12 months is going to be really exciting.
The other positive that we’re starting to see is that we’ve been able to broker business connections between companies under Bridging the Gap and our Tier partners and making these business-to-business connections, which we think is really valuable, especially for the smaller companies and start-ups. That’s not just a great outcome for the University and the GEIC but also for the local economy.
If you want to engage with Graphene@Manchester and see how our expertise and capabilities can help your business, please fill in the contact form and our business development team will be in touch.