Graphene Pioneer Eyes Biosensor Market
Since it was first isolated in 2004, graphene has been labeled a wonder material that could transform electronics, as well as other industries. Graphene, which is just a single atom thick, weighs very little and offers significantly higher electrical and thermal conductivity compared with silicon. It has yet to find a killer application, but one that looks promising is biosensing.
Even if that market application proves to be successful, there still remains the question of how to integrate graphene-based product manufacturing within existing supply chains so that it is also scalable.
One company that has made answering those questions its mission is Paragraf, which was spun out from Cambridge University in the U.K. in 2017. Having raised about $85 million in funding, it plans to enable the killer app and scale up manufacturing. We sat down with Paragraf CEO Simon Thomas in London to understand the company’s grand ambitions.
“We’re doing things that people only imagined,” he told EE Times. “Our goal is to make science fiction a reality.”
It is easy to see why investors are backing Thomas and the company he co-founded with Ivor Guiney. I have seen and worked with many startups over the last 25 years, and it is relatively uncommon to meet scientists who also have a bit of commercial nous. But the way Thomas talks about the challenges of current supply chains, raising a lot more money to make science fiction a reality and build manufacturing capacity, you can see that he’s not just a clever scientist or technologist. Yes, he is a scientist and engineer with a background in physics, materials science, and chemistry. But he also has a keen grasp on the challenges Paragraf faces to scale up.
Emboldening his science fiction statement, and referring to “Star Trek,” he said, “Our goal is the tricorder.” This refers to a future, handheld medical device that can sense, compute, and analyze a patient’s vital signs without invasive tests, from a single sample, and within minutes. The path to that goal is the company’s graphene-based biosensor development that Thomas hopes will be a key application the company can successfully commercialize.
Before we get to how he believes he can do that—which involves building manufacturing capacity in the U.S.—let’s take a look at why graphene is so significant, and at Paragraf’s place in this market.
Graphene is suited to electronics applications because of its high thermal and electrically conductive properties. Electrons in graphene have much higher mobility, and hence speed under an applied electric field, than semiconductors like silicon. This means that graphene makes it possible to create more efficient devices that operate faster than conventional alternatives while using less power.
It is also very lightweight, at just one atom thick, and despite being lightweight and flexible, graphene is significantly stronger mechanically than standard semiconductors, enabling it to tolerate much higher voltages. As industries, especially automotive, increasingly move toward greater electrification, this will become a key factor. In addition, at the higher power levels that these systems are likely to operate at, graphene’s thermal stability and ability to conduct heat away rapidly can help to reduce device complexity and materials costs.
Paragraf has developed and patented a contamination-free deposition technology to bring mass manufacturing of graphene-based electronics to market, making sure it also plugs into existing manufacturing infrastructure.
The company essentially has developed its own manufacturing plant near Cambridge, U.K., to produce high-purity, 2D graphene sheets at scale. Its first product, launched last year, is a graphene-based Hall-effect sensor, which is ideal for electric-vehicle battery-cell mapping, but more broadly for magnetic field sensing and positioning applications.
The next big sector it is addressing is medical diagnostics, and particularly biosensors. “Our goal is to create a point-of-care monitoring device that can, from a single sample, identify many different diseases,” Thomas said.
This is where he refers to being able to make the fictional tricorder from “Star Trek” a reality. He added that solid-state sensors are relatively new, and this is where they hope they can help make a breakthrough using graphene-based biosensors.
As part of this, Paragraf recently won a GB£ 550k grant from the British Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, for a two-year program to develop a proof-of-concept combined procalcitonin (PCT) and C-reactive protein (CRP) test on a single panel.
Collaborating with several universities and hospitals in the U.K. (including the universities of Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle), the goal is to deliver a clinical study of the combined PCT/CRP test in mid-2023.
In a recent announcement about the collaboration with Paragraf, Paul Dark, a professor of critical care medicine at the University of Manchester, had said that a proposed acute inflammatory marker test will have the capability to deliver accurate results for emergency patient care within a few minutes, from a small sample of blood. The accuracy of the test is envisaged to be at least comparable with hospital-centralized lab-based immunoassay (antibody) tests, which can take hours to provide results back to emergency services.
The graphene-based diagnostic test is expected to give clinicians the ability to identify patients who need an antibiotic treatment within the space of a regular 15-minute clinic appointment. It is expected to encourage antimicrobial stewardship by giving clinicians the insight into when not to prescribe antibiotics, as the test result differentiates viral from bacterial infections.
Paragraf hopes to go on to deliver a series of high-sensitivity, rapid tests for disease biomarkers in areas including cardiovascular disease, oncology, and infectious diseases. The ambition is to develop a comprehensive suite of tests that could be used in almost any environment or health-care setting.
“With our disruptive pipeline in novel IVD [in-vitro diagnostic] products, we aim to make a major contribution to resolving some of the most intractable problems in health care globally, including antimicrobial resistance [and] the early detection of cancers and cardiovascular diseases,” Thomas said.
Why the U.S.?
The key to making graphene commercially viable is to enable its vertical integration into existing electronics manufacturing supply chains, said Thomas. “We want to get the world to start using graphene. But to do that, we must be able to integrate it into existing electronics tool chains and supply chains. We have already put graphene through those same toolsets.”
So how successful has Paragraf been so far? Thomas said the company already has orders in the millions for its first products, the graphene Hall-effect sensors. The company raised $60 million this year to help expand its manufacturing capacity and further enhance R&D in boron nitride, which he said is a “fantastic insulator,” aluminium nitride, and other areas.
This manufacturing is currently in the U.K., but Thomas said he believes the U.S. will provide a springboard for Paragraf to massively scale up capacity.
“I really want to scale, and that requires significant funding, maybe around $150 million, which needs to be closed by the end of 2023,” he said. “But I want to do it earlier.”
And that means Paragraf will need to do this from the U.S., he said.
“In the U.S., if we want to shoot for the stars, they [investors] say, ‘Let’s shoot for the stars.’ In the U.K., they look at your vision in the here and now, whereas the U.S. investor is very much driven by a future vision.”
After raising all that money, the natural question to ask next is about exit plans.
Thomas again showed his commercial intellect. He said there are three options: an IPO, an acquisition, or a private buyout. He would aim for an IPO in the next five years, he said. “Lots of companies are interested in the acquisition path. But if we go that way, we won’t be able to play out our vision.”
And Thomas certainly appears to be keen on accomplishing his vision of bringing graphene-based electronics to mass production. And maybe even contributing to the development of a tricorder in the not-too-distant future.