UK's National Graphene Institute Kerfuffle Gets the PR Treatment

With a UK Parliament inquiry looming, an urgent defense of the NGI from a Nobel Laureate could turn public perception

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UK's National Graphene Institute Kerfuffle Gets the PR Treatment
Photo: The University of Manchester

Earlier this month, the UK newspaper The Sunday Times broke a story  claiming that researchers at the University of Manchester and the National Graphene Institute (NGI) were reluctant to occupy the NGI’s new $71 million research building. Their reason: fear that the work they produce there would be taken by a foreign company.

Since that news story broke, damage control from the NGI, the University of Manchester, and BGT Materials, the company identified in the Times article, has been coming fast and furious. Even this blog’s coverage of the story has gotten comments from representatives of BGT Materials and the University of Manchester.

There was perhaps no greater effort in this coordinated defense than getting Andre Geim, a University of Manchester researcher who was a co-discoverer of graphene, to weigh in. Geim, typically reluctant to speak with the press, offered a full-throated defense of his employer and its partners, saying that the UK has not lost out on graphene-related tech jobs, nor is the new research institute close to empty.

It’s easy to imagine that it took some coaxing to get Geim to make these comments. Back in 2013, when receiving the prestigious Copley medal from the Royal Society, he was less than enthusiastic about the prospects of the NGI’s new research facility. He said at the time: “I'm not interested in going into industry or property development or creating ‘graphene valley’ as the government would like me to. It's a bit silly for society to throw a little bit of money at something and expect it to change the world. Everything takes time.”

Despite Geim’s recent public defense, and a full-on PR campaign to turn around the perception that the UK government was investing millions into UK research only to have the fruits of that research sold off to foreign interests, there was news last week that the UK Parliament would be launching an inquiry into the “benefits and disbenefits of the way that graphene's intellectual property and commercialisation has been managed, including through research and innovation collaborations.”

No clear connection has been made between this parliamentary inquiry and the recent kerfuffle over graphene at the NGI, but one is struck by the coincidental timing of the legislative body’s call for input.

If one puts aside the issue of how many researchers are working out of the new NGI research facility—a matter which is hotly contested—what remains is another issue that the Times article indirectly raised: What is BGT Materials and why did this article represent the first time that many of us are hearing of the company?

For many, the Times article highlighted the glaring omission of BGT Materials from last year’s widely-publicized story of the graphene light bulb as graphene’s first big commercial application. Even the University of Manchester’s own coverage of that story  at the time went to great lengths to mention the NGI, the University of Manchester, and a shadowy spin-out from these two organizations called Graphene Lighting PLC, but no BGT Materials.

Since the publication of the Times article, we have learned that Graphene Lighting is actually a subsidiary of BGT Materials. And, upon further investigation, we have also learned that despite the fact that the CEO of BGT Materials is from Taiwan, the company was incorporated in the UK in 2013.

Nonetheless, some sources have indicated that if you order graphene products from BGT Materials, those products would be sourced from China (oddly not from Taiwan). However, Thanasis Georgiou, a researcher at the University of Manchester and now a representative of BGT Materials, told IEEE Spectrum that if we were to buy graphene products from BGT Materials today, they would come from the UK.

If indeed it is the case that BGT Materials is a UK-based company and its products are manufactured in the UK, then why wasn’t the company identified in the original stories covering the graphene light bulb?

Georgiou insists that there was no deliberate “hiding” of BGT Materials; he even cited a story in Nature in June of last year that mentioned the company’s role in developing the light bulb technology.

Regarding why BGT Materials was omitted from the original stories that appeared in March, Georgiou explained that: “It's a testament to Manchester's graphene expertise, as well as the fact that the University is a shareholder in BGT Materials and Graphene Lighting.”

If this entire story does end up being nothing more than a PR snafu, there will still be an underlying—and no less troubling—issue: How is the research from the UK’s national labs and universities commercialized? And will government funding into those research institutions produce an economic impact for the region in terms of jobs beyond the initial rounds of research?

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