Is the UK losing out in the global graphene patent race?

Materials World magazine
2 Nov 2013

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to experts on whether the UK should be worried about the number of graphene patents it has filed compared to its global rivals.

Paul Gill, CEO Lomiko Metals Inc, Canada

Statistically, 1% of all patents make 99% of all profit. The sheer number of patents is not always a good measure of overall market success, revenue generation or profitability. For the UK to succeed, focus must be on final applications of graphene and products. Just filing patents is not the answer, but the UK should be worried about the relatively few patents it has filed. If worry leads to investment of time and energy into innovation, it will create a strategic advantage. The potential impact of graphene is enormous and the UK needs to be a visionary leader in this field. The American industrial machine is already turning its vast resources and incredible talent pool towards realising a graphene-based future, while the UK is suffering from a lack of outspoken business people who are either too fearful or lack the vision to invest their time and energy in the most exciting material in the last 100 years.

Nicole Grobert, Professor of Materials Science, University of Oxford, UK

As with most research patenting in the UK, industrial infrastructure is the most significant factor to consider. It is industry that most needs the knowledge generated through patents, and is in the best position to take advantage of each potential development made.

In South Korea, for example, companies such as Samsung have the money and infrastructure to exploit any patent that shows real promise, and can patent every new advancement in the field. In the UK, there is not the same industrial presence, and academics attempting to progress in the same way could be seen to be wasting funding, because so few patents lead anywhere, and patenting is such a costly process.

Graphene is an exciting material, but now we have to look beyond the hype and focus on producing it, upscaling production, quality control and applications.

Clive Rowland, CEO UMI3, University of Manchester, UK

The picture is more complex than mere number counting suggests. Not all R&D patents necessarily equate to real business opportunities. For instance, Japanese firms were very active at filing patents early on but have since been overtaken by South Korean and USA firms. In China, much of the patenting is done by research institutions rather than firms, so it’s difficult to know the level of corporate capacity there.

Most of the patenting activity has come from electronics firms, reflecting the industry’s structure and geography – predominantly in the Far East and the USA. Competition in graphene is still at an early stage and there are many significant aspects that haven’t yet been addressed. There is still time. Nevertheless, for Britain to be successful, graphene needs to be treated as a larger scale project. British firms should invest in long-term R&D, and engage in more university research partnerships and collaborative projects.