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Graphene web content mining pays dividends

Academics from the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIOIR) at MBS have completed a major mapping exercise to unearth the strategies of companies in the rapidly expanding graphene sector.

The study by Professor Philip Shapira, research fellow Dr Abdullah Gök, and doctoral researcher Fatemeh Salehi Yazdi focused on small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) involved in graphene innovation, including recent start-ups.

Graphene is an ultra-thin layer of carbon which holds great potential for path-breaking applications across a range of areas including strong lightweight materials, next generation electronic devices, specialised coatings, new biomaterials and sensors, and innovative medical applications.

Public and private investment in graphene research and innovation has soared worldwide over the past few years since the isolation of this two-dimensional material by scientists at The University of Manchester, and the field is expanding rapidly with thousands of new patents.

From a UK perspective, significant public investments are being made to support the research and commercialisation of graphene and other novel advanced materials. But concerns have already been raised about economic returns as graphene patenting in the US, China, and other leading countries is outstripping that of the UK.

The MIOIR research focused on 65 SMEs in 16 different countries including 30 US firms and 10 UK businesses, as well as companies from other parts of Europe as well as in Asia. Innovative breakthrough technologies are often first pioneered by smaller firms, although they also face challenges in scaling up and gaining market positions. The UK has spawned a number of SMEs engaged in graphene innovation. The study explores the technological and business strategies of these enterprises, making comparisons with counterparts in other countries.

The authors identified groups of SMEs differentiated by how they became involved with graphene, the materials they target, whether they make equipment, and their orientation towards science and intellectual property. Data mining methods and analytical techniques were used by the authors to discern technology and business strategies from publicly available online information on the web sites of these enterprises.

The study found that, in general, access to finance and the firms’ location are significant factors that are associated with graphene product introductions, and that corporate patents and scientific publications are not statistically significant predictors of product development. In particular, it showed that the UK has a cohort of graphene-oriented SMEs that is signalling plans to develop intermediate graphene products that should have higher value in the marketplace.

Dr Shapira, Professor of Innovation, Management and Policy at MIoIR, says: “Our findings suggest that UK policy needs to ensure attention to the introduction and scale-up of downstream intermediate and final graphene products and associated financial, intermediary, and market identification support.”

Dr Gök adds that the study illustrates how web content mining can provide additional information on commercialisation beyond conventional publication and patent data sources. “While web mining has been used in other applications, including for marketing and probing customer relationships, we demonstrate how web mining can be used to probe the enterprise development and business strategies of technology-oriented SMEs.”

The paper, Graphene Research and Enterprise: Mapping Innovation and Business Growth in a Strategic Emerging Technology, is published by the independent innovation charity Nesta.

Professor Shapira and Dr. Gök are part of MIOIR’s thematic group on the dynamics and governance of emerging technologies. The group is working on projects related to strategic intelligence, anticipatory governance, and responsible research and innovation for new and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, graphene, and synthetic biology. Fatemeh Salehi Yazdi is completing her doctoral research at MBS on the commercialisation of emerging technologies through networks, using the case of UK nanotechnology SMEs.