Q&A  | 

James Baker: How to accelerate frontier material solutions

Tags: 'Tecnología'


Reading Time: 11 minutes

James Baker is the CEO of the Graphene Engineering Innovation Center (GEIC) at Manchester University. With over 25 years’ experience leading and managing high-tech business, James tells The Collider about the opportunities and challenges of graphene, and highlights the importance of accelerating the development of technologies and solutions based on frontier materials.

What are the purpose and the functions of the GEIC?

The GEIC is part of Manchester University. Its purpose is to transform graphene and 2D materials into products and applications, working in partnership with industry. 

With which type of companies or corporations does GEIC work and how are they committed to the development of new materials?

We work with over 300 industries from across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world: companies of all sizes that are making graphene solutions, from large corporates and startups to spin-outs from Manchester University, but also companies in the supply chain.  


We are creating the ecosystem of the supply chain of companies associated with 2D materials and applications. Working with the GEIC allows all these companies to be part of the ecosystem, and provides access to academics, equipment, facilities and to build collaborations to accelerate the adoption of graphene products and applications. 

Could you highlight two cases of graphene solutions that are being commercialized now and how they have innovated the industry?

Innov-8 has developed running, hiking and fitness shoes that include graphene-enhanced G-FLY foam that makes a shoe with a soft grippy rubber, is more durable, offers greater performance, and is a more sustainable product because it lasts longer. This is one great example already on the marketplace with over one million shoes already placed.  


Another really interesting area is concrete. By adding as little as 0.1% graphene into concrete, you can pour a slab that is 30% thinner than a conventional slab, which involves a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by using less material. This application is getting great interest driven by sustainability. 

What benefits would you highlight from solutions in general based on frontier materials?

Frontier or advanced materials offer opportunities, in particular when you consider features like multifunctionality. Using the concrete example, you have something that is tougher but that also cures quicker with no cracks. Advanced materials give benefits not just in one dimension, but in several dimensions: quicker curing, lower CO2, lower weight, lower cost, and higher performance. In short, using advanced materials in any product or application has many benefits, from lower manufacturing costs to more sustainable products and higher performance. 

What are the challenges or barriers to bringing graphene and frontier materials to the market?

One of the main challenges of advanced materials like graphene is that it takes many years from discovery to launching products in the marketplace, basically due to technology, scaling up, standards, verifications and certifications. In GEIC, we work to accelerate that whole supply chain of rapid development, not only working with industry but also bringing together industry, academia, and the supply chain to accelerate through those various stages of innovation. 

Does the GEIC have programs to generate or support new material Spin-offs?

A large part of our ecosystem is the creation of spin-outs from Manchester University and from outside of Manchester, other universities, and other countries. In the last eight years, we have delivered 43 spin-outs. Many of those now have a base in GEIC, where they have their R&D or operations.


The key part of our model is to disrupt certain markets by using some of these new materials, not just graphene, but we are also doing spin-outs involving other tuning materials. 

What is the situation of the innovation ecosystem for frontier materials in general? What do you think are the most relevant hubs?

Manchester is one of many hubs and the UK has a number of these, including Cambridge. In Barcelona, The Collider and PUZZLE X are also working along these lines, and there are also hubs in Singapore and China. I am keen to build collaboration among those hubs, so we can get some leverage and collaboration going across the countries and across different institutions. 

PUZZLE X Ventures is a venture builder focused on frontier materials. Which areas should this venture builder cover?

Innovation is a challenging area. In the UK we talk about “bridging the gap”, that is, bridging the gap between a good idea and obtaining serious investments or a customer who buys the product. Any program that helps bridge the gap and supports the whole innovation cycle is positive.  


Innovation in advanced materials can take many years, so it is important to reduce that overall time and accelerate. I usually use the term “make or break”. We want to make something, to make it quickly, and then repeat it or fail fast and learn, rather than spending three or four years doing something, failing and having to start again. So I am very supportive of any program that keeps the pace of acceleration. 

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who wants to bring a frontier material solution into the market?

I encourage any entrepreneur to adopt an open innovation approach. I would recommend finding a way to collaborate with a university, an incubator or an organization that can bring additional skills that the entrepreneur may not have within his or her organization. Collaboration and partnership with the right people might be crucial to accelerate any idea in the market. 

Promoting startups based on frontier materials

PUZZLE X was created in June 2021 as the world’s first deep tech hub focused on frontier materials in Barcelona. With the support of the Government of Spain, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Barcelona City Council, the Barcelona Free Zone Consortium, the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and the L’Hospitalet City Council, PUZZLE X is a global event and a builder of companies and generator of ecosystems of 365 days and the first place of collision of ideas, innovation and solutions for border materials focused on the Sustainable Development Goals. PUZZLE X’s mission is to accelerate transformation by using the most advanced technologies of our time for a prosperous and sustainable future.