Breakthrough technologies are everywhere and are generally pretty easy to spot. But reducing them to practice and then finding their right point of commercial entry are both extremely challenging. I was reminded of this when digging into the world of graphene on behalf of a client.
Graphene was discovered in 2002, introduced to the world in 2004 (through an article in Science) and garnered a Nobel Prize for its founders in 2010. It was seen by an awe-struck scientific community as a wonder material which, as the Guardian newspaper put it, ‘could change the world’. Graphene is no more than a slice of carbon one atom thick and, in fact, in early experiments was produced by ‘peeling’ carbon off pencil leads with sticky tape. Existing quite happily in an atomic plane, graphene has some wondrous properties indeed: It has a mobility (the speed at which electrons rush through it) more than 2 orders of magnitude greater than silicon, it displays a field effect (a critical behavior of silicon which is exploited in chips), it is much stronger than its equivalent weight of steel, it is completely impermeable to gases and it is pliable and flexible. Its potential seems boundless ranging from such things as a new paradigm in computer speed, as graphene displaces silicon as chip material of choice, to ultra-lightweight and energy efficient planes, cars and trains.
Researchers in Corporations and in Academia rushed to their labs, with pencils and tape in hand, and were soon producing a staggering list of inventions (by the beginning of 2013 more than 8000 graphene-related patents were in application). Enormous quantities of resources (time, money and brain-power) have been expended on graphene and here we are thirteen years on from its discoveries and you will find graphene only in tennis rackets and very expensive inks. How can a technology based on abundant and seemingly cheap base material and with such potential and so much interest struggle to get the winning post?
In the case of graphene the answer has much to do with three common issues: Cost the inherent strength of the incumbent and the odd technical detail. Of course, stripping layers of carbon off a pencil is not a practical route to produce graphene. High volume methods developed to date include heating copper foil to 1800F in a vacuum and then ‘growing’ graphene on the copper. It is expensive and challenging. Displacing silicon will require overwhelming cost and performance advantages and an enormous arsenal of lengthy testing. And graphene pioneers have also discovered a hitch or two in the technology: for example, unlike silicon, graphene cannot be turned off and is always consuming energy when in a device.
The course of great technology breakthroughs does not run smooth!
So what does all this teach us? Of course, technology takes time but beyond that there are, at least two other important lesson to learn:
As you approach a new technology be clear on what assumptions you are making about its viability. Explicitly state and rank these assumptions. Focus your early work on building knowledge on the most critical assumptions - seek to prove them. If you can’t then perhaps this is a technology to leave with academia.
Think about market entry points that might be especially receptive to the technology. These are often not your ultimate destination but places where the burden of proof is lower or the higher cost of an early stage technology can be borne.
Breakthrough technologies will always come with high risks and high costs but good thinking early on can mitigate both.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!