At IDTechEx we have invited a number of leading players in the graphene industry to write opinion pieces, reflecting on their products, latest research, market insight, and commercialisation experience. We will be releasing these articles over the next few weeks.
This article is by Dr Giulio Cesareo, Founder and President of Directa Plus, an Italian graphene company serious about revenue generation.
To learn more about the industry, please refer to our report Graphene and 2D Materials: Markets, Technologies, and Opportunities 2015-2025
This sentence is written at the bottom of the large mural inside the Graphene Factory of Directa Plus.
The large and variegated families of innovators
I believe that everyone who operates in the area of the production and application of graphene has a special courage. To do so, you have to know how to use simultaneously:
- a long lens, to rapidly foresee the drivers of change that characterize our time
- a reverse lens, to be able to identify as soon as possible what must be abandoned and why
- a wise lens, to always be able to seize the advantages even from unexpected and negative situations.
The variegated universe of graphene producers is characterized by an enormous variety of processes and products. I do not think it is necessary to underline that the term 'graphene' is commonly used to identify a family of nanomaterials that goes from the pristine graphene nanoplatelets to single layers. Disregarding the purely semantic considerations, linked to the term 'graphene', one thing is certain as far as the producers of these materials are concerned: we are all different and at the same time we are all the same.
Different because each of us has their process and product, the same because we aim to provide, by adding very limited quantities of graphene-based material, unexpected increases in the properties of the finished products of our end customers.
Many of these innovators, in my opinion, are geniuses of the present as they do not invent new theories in physics and chemistry, but see what others do not see and understand what few other people are able to understand, by doing only one thing... imagining.
Competition and markets
In this scenario, competition is an advantage for everyone. The potential market is so great that more than adversaries, my competitors are allies who can also help me gain access to new markets.
I imagine a future, in three to four years' time, when many partnerships and alliances will be made and where we will be able to identify two different families of producers: the extremely specialized ones and a few of a very large dimension that will have succeeded in positioning themselves geographically with flexible, low-cost plants and large production capacities capable of differentiating and engineering the product at the same time. Directa Plus has the ambition of being a player in this match.
Another major theme few people talk about is that of over-capacity.
There can be no doubt that there are very many potential end markets and they are very large, the question remains on the time it will take to gain access to many of these markets.
In the meantime, very many producers of graphene-based materials are proudly announcing plans to expand their production capacities, generating from now on a strong imbalance between the real demand of the market and the potential supply. In this case, those who have designed a business model where access to the markets is supported by a key sector where their company has a clear competitive advantage that sets it outside the economic-financial tensions generated by the supply-demand imbalance, will be able to grow globally and wait patiently until the opening of many interesting markets which are still testing graphene-based materials but which could take longer than expected to adopt them.
We also have to consider that very many markets, even large-sized ones, are still "below the radar" and this could explain the confidence with which some producers are announcing important scale-ups.
Directa's business model has been designed by taking this subject into account, temporarily privileging the existing markets rather than the future ones. Our production plant has been designed in such a way that at every advance in production a product is generated that has been tested and we are now beginning to sell on large markets.
Our value equation therefore allows turnover to be generated at every step of the process.
I believe that in a short time the companies able to offer great flexibility in the morphology of products, the capacity to "blend" different products to be able to guarantee the uniqueness and the patentability of the solution adopted for the end user and therefore the consequent competitive advantage, will dominate.
The choice of strategic customers
I would like to conclude by talking about the importance for everyone of the process of identifying the first key customer. When we speak about new processes and new materials, it is essential to have the ability to identify those that are real "marquee customers". The companies that will become important partners for promoting new materials, helping graphene producers to build up their credibility but at the same time validating their technology and their team, must be identified from the very start.
In this case, Directa Plus has been very fortunate in crossing paths with the Vittoria group which, in the person of its Founder and Chairman Rudie Campagne has had the vision, the courage and the strength to modify a successful product to introduce an innovative but totally unknown technology. We are facing a radical innovation process, not an incremental one.
We are talking about a process that started four years ago, punctuated by a great deal of trial and error. In spite of the difficulties, neither our partner nor ourselves ever gave up, showing considerable resilience, repaid in the end by perfecting a new family of elastomers, unique in their characteristics and performances which are and will certainly be rewarded by the end users.
As the great philosopher Plutarch wrote "ex pede Herculem", you can recognize Hercules from the size of his foot. According to the same logic, the companies of real success in graphene production will be easily recognized in relation to the response given by the end markets to the products containing their material.