Dr. Elena Polyakova, CEO of Graphene Laboratories (Graphene Supermarket), speaks about the graphene market, other 2d materials, and graphene start-ups.
You are the CEO of one of the most well-known graphene distributors, at least among those that provide graphene to researchers. Do you have any tips for those looking to start their own graphene company in this rapidly developing market?
Starting a business is very difficult, and requires a lot of knowledge, time, and patience. I would say that it’s important to pay attention to the size of the market and make sure that there’s still room for profit, and enough profit to justify the effort put in to starting a company. The next stage for graphene is commercial applications – the demand for graphene being sold to researchers is being met, but the market will expand drastically once corporations actually need graphene for their products. There will probably be more room in the market for profitable companies when that becomes a reality.
There are also other 2D materials which are being explored that are competing with graphene for use in many of the potential applications graphene has become known for. There will likely be a growing demand for these new materials; some of them even have band gap, unlike graphene. Graphene Labs is taking advantage of this by becoming one of the first retail manufacturers of not only graphene, but of these new materials as well.
As far as what would make a start-up graphene company successful, it’s too early to say. When graphene finds actual commercial applications, the company which is able to take advantage of that will be the successful graphene company.
Other than that, my advice would be more generic to beginning any type of a start-up company. There are a lot of unexpected costs associated with starting a business; make sure to be aware of as many business expenses as you can account for. Also, be willing to change direction as necessary. The business model for successful companies which began as small start-ups is usually much different than how they began. The market will change, be ready to change with it.
Many of those that start graphene companies come from a scientific background. Is the new role much different from being in academia? It must be daunting and confusing to search for investment capital, look for customers, manage production, and perform other tasks related to the commercial role.
Yes, it is significantly different than working in academia, but it would not have been possible to start a successful graphene business without in-depth knowledge of material science; much time is spent helping customers by answering technical questions. One of the advantages of our company is that we have the knowledge-base to give support to our customers.
The fact that my academic background is in science and not in business is more of a blessing than a curse. I have had real world experience in business before starting Graphene Laboratories, so it is all familiar and I am quick to learn what I need to. However had I not been formally educated in physics, I wouldn’t have an understanding of the market for 2D advanced materials.
Graphene Laboratories is a self-sustaining enterprise because we view this as a business and not as an extension of our careers as scientists. By focusing on the business aspect of our company, it has allowed us to become a leader in the manufacture and sale of 2D materials. We pay as much attention to business as we do to technology, which is one of the main contributing factors to our sustained growth.
There are many different forms and qualities of graphene, each behaving well in specific conditions and for a specific purpose. There is exfoliated graphene, CVD-grown, graphene oxide, polymer composites… What’s next?
Expansion into other 2-dimensional materials. A lot of what we have learned from processing graphene can be applied to other nanomaterials. Graphene is a very exciting material, and will certainly have some great commercial applications, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of 2D materials. Some of those materials include Boron Nitride (BN), Tungsten Disulfide (WS2), and Molybdenum Disulfide (MoS2). All of these materials have their own unique properties, and we expect that they may outperform graphene for a variety of applications.
The largest customer base for Graphene Laboratories seems to be formed of science research labs. Are you planning to expand to other directions?
Many of our customers are universities, yes, but many are also the R&D departments of major corporations. As these companies determine which applications will use graphene and begin needing large quantities of the material, we look for Graphene Laboratories to remain in their supply chain as a major materials manufacturer.
Further than that, we are just beginning to sell other 2D materials ourselves, including BN, WS2, and MoS2. As I’ve noted before, graphene isn’t the only 2D material with exciting properties, and I’m very excited about our company being one of the first to branch out into other 2D materials.
When do you think the price of graphite will become the limiting factor in commercialization of graphene, instead of production costs, reliability issues, and other challenges that the market is facing now?
It is highly unlikely that the price of graphite will affect the price of graphene in the foreseeable future. Right now solving issues related to production costs, reliability, and scalability of graphene are first and foremost. The highest cost with regards to making graphene is the price of its treatment. Addressing that cost, as well as other production-related costs will have far more of an effect on lowering the price of graphene than lowering the price of graphite. Less than 1 percent of graphite is used to make graphene, so graphite as a commodity is unlikely to have a large effect on the price of graphene. Further, many methods of production, including Chemical Vapor Deposition, which we use, do not require bulk graphite.
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