How the UK risks missing out in graphene economy

Graphene

The UK led the way in graphene research, but foreign powers are winning more patents

Britain has been at the forefront of research into graphene, but research reveals that the UK is trailing other countries in numbers of patents in the much-hyped wonder-material.

According to tech strategy firm CambridgeIP’s research, Chinese organisations lead the global race to snap up potentially valuable patents for technologies that use or exploit the carbon-based material that was first in extracted in the UK in 2004, landing the University of Manchester researchers a Nobel Prize.

I am concerned that graphene researchers and companies in the UK understand what their global competitors

At the time of CambridgeIP’s study in December 2012, Chinese entities had published 2,204 graphene-related patents, while US players took 1,754 patents published. South Korean organisations staked a claim to 1,160 technologies, while British researchers trailed behind with 54 published patents.

Does the UK now risk losing out in what could be a lucrative technology, particularly in computing, in the coming decades? We spoke to CambridgeIP chairman Quentin Tannock to find out.

Q. Do these results mean that UK players are losing the race to maintain their lead position in graphene?

A. Before talking of players, one distinction that should be drawn is between types of players. For example, it is difficult for a university to compete on commercialising technology with companies whose entire existence is devoted to such commercialisation.  

It would be unfair to make a comparison between the graphene R&D centre at Manchester University and the graphene R&D centre at Samsung on the basis of numbers of graphene patents filed – and to conclude that the UK player is ‘losing out’ as it has less patents. 

The primary objective of Manchester University is to disseminate knowledge whilst the primary objective of Samsung Electronics is to make a profit.

However, when you look at the UK as a whole – including universities and companies - and look at another country as a whole, like China or South Korea, some comparisons are possible. Taking the UK and China as comparative examples we see many more graphene patents filed in China than in the UK. A large volume of patents doesn't equal quality, of course, and the UK has a well-deserved reputation for having excellent researchers and effective innovators, not only in graphene, but in a wide range of research areas.  

The UK hasn't lost the race for value from graphene, but I am concerned that graphene researchers and companies in the UK [need to] understand what their global competitors are doing and how very active they are – some appear to be making a ‘land grab’ for areas of the graphene patent landscape. The UK will miss out if players in the UK don't take this very, very seriously.

Q. Is there a need for more collaboration between businesses and academia?

A. Definitely. Professor Andre Geim [one of the UK-based Nobel Prize winners for graphene] commented in a BBC interview recently on the gap between business and academia in the UK.  Closing the gap may take additional resources and funding, but should improve knowledge transfer from academia to industry and, importantly, from industry to academia.

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