Safer and sensually superior condoms may not have been the first
thing on the minds of the Nobel-winning team at the University of
Manchester that isolated graphene a decade ago, but they may be an
early eye-catching use of the new one-atom-thick material.
Billed as potentially the most important discovery of this century,
graphene — the thinnest material on earth and 200 times stronger
than steel — is also exciting researchers around the world exploring
its use in everything from electronics to nanotech drug delivery.
For British science, among the biggest questions is whether
graphene's home nation can spin its breakthrough into real monetary
gain, or whether — as a Thomson Reuters patent analysis suggests — global big hitters will nip in and grab the market.
The question could not be more timely, as a potential $100 billion
bid by U.S. drugs giant Pfizer for its smaller British rival
AstraZeneca threatens to upend another long-standing area of British
scientific expertise — pharmaceuticals.
A new government-backed $100 million National Graphene Institute
opens next year in Manchester aimed at putting Britain at the heart
of a much hoped-for graphene revolution.
Its business director James Baker has a vision for Manchester to
become "graphene city" — a Silicon Valley-style hub that will become
the place to be for everyone and anyone working in the wonder stuff.
"If you get this right, the ecosystem of graphene city could inspire
a whole industry, with start-ups clustering around the supply chain
and knowledge base," he said in an interview.
"Manchester is not unique in terms of graphene research, but if we
start to create this cluster, it could become unique."
Yet a Thomson Reuters analysis of worldwide patent filings shows
graphene's birthplace is already falling behind, with China and the
United States leading the pack when it comes to finding ways to
exploit this previously unknown form of carbon.
The organization with the most patent filings is South Korean
consumer electronics giant Samsung Electronics, eyeing graphene's
potential in flexible touchscreen displays and other areas.
The story shows the problems facing a mid-sized economy like
Britain, with a limited industrial base, striving to monetize its
science in an increasingly globalized world.
Britain's $2.5 trillion economy may still retain a leading position
in certain high-tech fields like aerospace and pharmaceuticals but
the competition is intense and cross-border corporate deals can
change the landscape overnight.
Pfizer's plans to swallow AstraZeneca have sent shockwaves through
the life sciences sector, which with GlaxoSmithKline at its helm has
been a rare success story for the British manufacturing industry.
For a graphic on graphene patents: http://reut.rs/1mWfRdI
Hawaii Restaurant Association Executive Director Roger Morey told
Reuters that restaurants would have to absorb rising costs in
Hawaii's tourism-dependent economy, though the slower phase-in would
help businesses prepare.
Melanie Lee, a former drug industry research head who now leads the
Think10 consultancy, said the damaging R&D cutbacks from such a deal
would be a "nail in the coffin" for a sector that is vital for
nurturing young biotechnology firms.
The vulnerability of even an established industry like
pharmaceuticals highlights the challenges facing Baker's dreamed-of
"I'm confident because I'm a 'glass half full' person, but it's not
an easy sell," he told Reuters. "We need some big British companies
to be prepared to back the vision with some serious engagement,
resources and funding."
Britain has been here before. Forty years ago, two researchers at
the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England,
discovered a way to produce highly specific antibodies — the foot
soldiers of the immune system — in a test tube.
Cesar Milstein and Georges Koehler thought their process might one
day have a commercial application, but the government department
backing them did not seek a patent when their work on monoclonal
antibodies was published in 1975.
Today, the world is awash with monoclonal antibody patents and six
of the 10 top-selling medicines in the world are made from them — but none are sold by British firms.
[to top of second column]
British scientists also did much of the work that led to liquid
crystal displays, used in flat-screen computers and televisions, as
well as studying the potential of carbon fiber. In these cases, too,
it was foreign companies that profited.
And with penicillin, one of the greatest medical discoveries of the
last century — by Alexander Fleming in Britain in 1928 — it was
scientists working for Pfizer who developed a deep-tank fermentation
method that enabled mass production of the drug for use in World War
"Time after time, Britain has led the way in scientific
research – only to see the commercial benefits accrue overseas,"
finance minister George Osborne told a gathering of scientists in
Cambridge last week.
"For decades we have done too little to turn British ingenuity into
Like a modern-day alchemist, seeking to turn basic science into
commercial gold, he is convinced things can be made to work better
in future, given guaranteed state science funding and fresh
incentives for entrepreneurs and venture capital.
And independent experts believe things are improving, with more
universities now actively promoting technology start-ups and science
hubs emerging around world-class academic centers in London, Oxford,
Cambridge and Manchester.
"The culture here used to be that universities produced pure
knowledge and then simply threw it out of the window for the rest of
world to do whatever it liked with," said Erkko Autio, professor of
technology venturing and entrepreneurship at Imperial College London
"The UK is improving but to be successful in translating scientific
advances into businesses you need to have a compatible industrial
base and over the past few decades we have seen the erosion of that
Certainly, the country has a scientific record to be proud of, with
three of the world's top universities in Oxford, Cambridge and
Imperial College London, as well as a run rate of at least one Nobel
prize a year since 2009.
Yet the country files fewer patents each year than the United
States, Japan, Germany, France, China and South Korea, and even in
its chosen field of graphene it comes in seventh place.
In the labs at the University of Manchester, Aravind Vijayaraghavan,
who leads graphene research here, says his team is bent on making
the kind of fundamental breakthroughs that will convince big British
business to back the wonder material.
Graphene could be used for everything from flexible foldable mobile
phones and tablet computers, to ultra-light aircraft wings, to
life-saving water filtration systems, to targeted cancer therapies.
When it comes to the condom, he explains, the market would be
relatively small, but it could be a great showcase for some of
graphene's best qualities.
The idea is that the next-generation contraceptive would be made
from a composite material "tailored to enhance the natural sensation
during intercourse", he said, combining the strength of graphene
with the elasticity of latex.
"We want to produce a new material which can be thinner, stronger,
more stretchy, safer and — perhaps most importantly — more
(Editing by Anna Willard)
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