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The case for a collaborative framework in advanced materials?

Human progress is critically linked with advancement in materials and is a way to define leaps in technological and commercial development: the stone, iron and bronze ages, the silk road, silicon valley. It’s been argued that ‘the story of materials is really the story of civilisation’. Silicon valley was built on to developments in semiconductors from the 1950s onwards, the internet as we know it today requires millions of km of optical fibres developed in the 1960s. Despite the challenges I discuss below, it is vital for humanity to invest in advanced materials development.

Vector Homes and Vector Labs were born out of the ‘advanced materials ecosystem’ in Manchester. The city has brought significant investment into advanced materials in the last decade with well known examples being the National Graphene Institute (2015), Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (2018), Henry Royce Institute (2018) and the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub (2020). The objective of many of the academics and start-ups working in this space is to commercialise advanced materials and I want to look at the associated challenges. But first, it is informative to understand what we are talking about. 

Caption: Development timeline for metallics (Henry Royce Institute) 

What is an ‘advanced material’?

A simple question to ask, but a more challenging one to answer. Anyone working in the materials space probably has a good idea and can name various advanced materials. I’ve been looking at this question on and off since undertaking a consultancy exercise for a client in 2017. To give us a flavour, we can look at the types of materials which are listed in advanced material journals (eg metamaterials, superconductors, photonics, nanocomposites) but this doesn’t really get to the crux of the question.

We can look at the dictionary definitions of ‘advanced’ and ‘material’. I think we can leave material aside for this discussion but Merriam Webster defines advanced as ‘being beyond others in progress or ideas’. We can infer from this that an advanced material is something which has relevance to a particular time frame - certainly steel, copper, silicon could all have (and may still) been described as advanced materials at some point in time - so our definition also needs to include a time frame of some fashion. We can try and define three rough time periods: 1. The material is unknown. 2. The material is ‘in development’. 3 The material is well-developed. The lengths of these periods are not defined and vary greatly depending on many things including level of investment, interest and ease of manufacture. Advanced materials would fit into the second time frame. From discussions with various experts across the field it is clear there is a lack of consensus on a definition, and it is so it is perhaps futile to attempt to create one here but we can use some general principles to achieve a loose definition which will inform the challenges for their commercialisation. Drawing from several sources we can say an advanced material: 

  1. has an expected performance improvement over materials currently in wide use.

  2. is an existing material being used in a new way (new applications).

  3. Is an existing material being manufactured in an advanced way (improved performance/cost).

  4. has an immature or developing supply chain. 

I will at some point delve deeper into this topic but I can pick out several factors, which while not being universally true for all advanced materials, do lead to challenges associated with their commercialisation, particularly from the viewpoint of start-ups. 

1. Remote position from end-users (Influence): This is a predicament for many of the developers of advanced materials based in academia or in start-ups. They are several steps removed from the end-users of their innovations. This distant position creates a gap in feedback and understanding, making it difficult to understand the full specification requirements for their materials and also influence those who will ultimately benefit from the materials, potentially making investors wary of the disconnect.

2. Low in the value chain: Within the gamut of industrial production, advanced materials often find themselves in the earliest stages, becoming mere components of larger, more tangible products. Their vital role might be overshadowed by flashier end-products, often leaving them unnoticed and undervalued.

3. No established route to market: Unlike conventional products with well-trodden paths to consumers, advanced materials must often create new routes. This uncertainty can deter potential investors who prefer the predictability of tried-and-tested markets.

4. Prolonged high technology risk: Advanced materials research is a land of hypotheses and experiments. It can take years, if not decades, to transition from a promising material in a lab environment to a commercially viable product. This long development period, filled with technological uncertainties, can often lead to funds drying up before a commercial proposition has been reached.

5. Access to expensive equipment: Delving into the microscopic realm and tweaking atomic structures isn't a venture for the poorly equipped. The machinery and tools required for advanced materials research can be prohibitively expensive. Certainly, government investments in High Value Manufacturing Catapults and other centres of excellence is essential to facilitate access to production and characterisation equipment for start-ups. 

6. Lack of standards/quality control: With innovation comes chaos. A new field, still in its early stages, often lacks a universal set of standards and robust quality control measures. Such ambiguity makes it hard for investors to gauge the credibility and potential of innovations as well as leading to many false starts for customers who are unable to adequately compare materials from different early stage suppliers. 

7. Need for complementary innovations: A perhaps silly yet informative example being the investments in foldable smartphone touch screen technology. Of course, without ‘foldable’ batteries and processors, a foldable touch screen isn’t of significant merit. Similarly, some advanced materials demand complementary innovations to be functional. This interdependence multiplies technology and market risk, and elongates the time to market and return on investment.

8. No economy of scale: Most advanced materials start their journey in small batches, tailored for specific applications. Scaling up production, while maintaining quality and cost-effectiveness, remains a challenge and one of the most significant barriers to adoption for most markets. 

9. Intellectual property challenges: Innovations in the field of advanced materials often raise IP concerns. Protecting the intellectual property of new materials can be a complex and expensive process, especially when these materials are being developed for a global market with varying IP laws and enforcement practices.

10. Regulatory hurdles: Advanced materials, especially those intended for use in sectors like health, food, or transportation, can face significant regulatory scrutiny. The process of getting approvals can be long, unpredictable, and expensive.

11. Competition with existing materials: Often, advanced materials compete with existing materials that have established manufacturing processes, suppliers, and markets. Overcoming the inertia of the status quo and convincing industries to switch can be a significant hurdle.

So this can look pretty daunting for researchers, investors and end-users but overcoming these challenges can present society with significant boosts to energy usage reduction, performance and create whole new use cases and applications. We can look at the example of kevlar fibre which required ‘$5.7 million on in lab research, $32 million on in pilot plant development and over $300 million on commercial plant construction and approximately another $150 million on marketing, sales and distribution’ to be commercialised. And this is an example driven by a multinational materials supplier, DuPont which natively overcomes many of the challenges above. Most start-ups are in a far worse starting position in commercialising their advanced material innovations but one approach is through collaboration and forming of consortia which separately bring expertise in research, manufacturing and market but all too often this is hindered by concerns around ‘sharing the fruits of the labour’.

I will be looking more at how we can build better collaborative frameworks for advanced materials development in a future article but would welcome contact from anyone with thoughts and comments in this regard.

My gratitude for insightful discussions with Thanasis Georgiou, Andrew Pollard and Vicente Orts Mercadillo.

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