Graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice. It is the thinnest material known to man and also 200 times stronger than steel. A remarkable substance with a multitude of astonishing properties that could change the world, it holds unlimited potential for integration into almost any industry.
Graphene Composites, based in Sedgefield near Middlesbrough, is developing applications for graphene in a number of sectors, including personal armour and an anti-viral ‘ink’ for use in ventilation systems. Its greentech application is a coating for wind turbine components which stands to enhance performance and efficiency by improving the durability of wind turbines and preventing overheating of their engines.
The founder and CEO of Graphene Composites is Sandy Chen. Born and educated in the US, he spent some 25 years as an analyst with leading institutions in the City, but when it came to raising seed funding for Graphene Composites, he found that: “The City was a well-developed ecosystem that couldn’t feed us. Investors said to me, ‘Come back once you’ve developed the technology.’”
Chen took the decision to turn to crowdfunding to finance Graphene Composites’ proof of concept. Since then the company has been through eight rounds of funding. An initial £150k from SEIS (the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) was raised in three days. “and, right from the beginning, we worked with the CPI at NETpark, also in Sedgefield, to turn our ideas into a reality. By working with the CPI, our R&D lab saved a huge amount of time and millions of pounds.” The Centre for Process Innovation, based at five locations in the North East, is a founding member of the UK Government’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult; it helps companies develop, prove and commercialise new products and processes.
As it happens, the CPI is the only institutional investor to have contributed (through grants) to the total of £4m that Graphene Composites has so far raised. The company received some support from the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), but the rest has indeed come from angel investors and crowdfunding. The company has a total of some 3000 investors, primarily located in the UK and US.
Graphene Composites also works with established manufacturers to put its applications into action. While it collaborates with businesses all over the world, it has several partners in the North East, a region Chen feels combines “depth of expertise with a robust, unvarnished approach to getting stuff done”.
As a carbon product, graphene links back to the region’s coalmining heritage, and the importance of the region’s industrial heritage is exemplified in Graphene Composites’ close collaboration with Thomas Swan, a chemical company in Consett, County Durham which was founded in 1926.
In true entrepreneurial style, Chen says that “We have had to build a powerful relationship with failure. As we have developed our technologies, we have learned more from our failures than our successes. When things don’t turn out as we expect, it often leads to breakthroughs – once we have learned to take failures as opportunities to work through them, together as a team. Or as our CTO Steve Devine says, ‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research!’”