Understanding graphene commercialisation using big data

How can we use publicly-available online information from business web sites to better understand the strategies of those companies in developing and commercialising new technologies?  That is the topic we probe in our new study of small and-mid-size enterprises involved in graphene.

Graphene is an ultra-thin layer of carbon with exceptional properties holding 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.

The quality of graphene science in the UK is world leading. Indeed, in 2010, two researchers at the University of Manchester were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their scientific accomplishments in first isolating graphene in 2004. Public and private investment in graphene research and innovation has soared worldwide over the past few years. The field is expanding rapidly, with thousands of new patents and numerous companies already entering the graphene domain.

However, although there is rising worldwide interest in graphene, there are questions about the positioning of this emerging technology and when promised applications will materialise. 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.

While companies of all sizes are engaged in graphene development, in this study we focus on small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) involved in graphene innovation, including recent start-up enterprises. Innovative breakthrough technologies are often first pioneered by such smaller firms, although such firms also face challenges in scaling up and gaining market positions. The UK has spawned a number of SMEs engaged in graphene innovation – but what are the technological and business strategies of these enterprises and how do they compare with counterparts in other countries?

To address these questions, we draw on available secondary sources and bibliometric methods to profile developments in graphene. We then use publicly available online information on enterprise web sites by employing an advanced web content mining approach. Analytical techniques, including cluster and regression modelling, help us to identify patterns from this vast unstructured data.

As the paper discusses, enterprise web content mining does have caveats, including being based on what firms chose to publicly post. Nonetheless, increasing amounts of information are now being made available online by companies about their activities – presenting opportunities to explore what can be gained from mining this source.  

We focus on a set of 65 graphene-based small and medium-sized enterprises located in 16 different countries. Among these are 30 US firms, 10 UK firms, and firms based in other parts of Europe as well as in Asia. This is not every graphene SME in the world. In some countries, particularly China, we have not captured all firms, and this underrepresentation should be kept in mind when comparing across the regions.

In our analysis, we identify groups of graphene 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. In general, access to finance and the firms’ location are significant factors that are associated with graphene product introductions.

We also find that patents and scientific publications are not statistically significant predictors of product development in our sample of graphene SMEs. We show 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.

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.

This pilot 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 Nesta. This work was supported by Nesta (Project on Mapping Innovation and Business Growth in a Strategic Emerging Technology: New Data Sources and Methods for Real-time Intelligence on Graphene Enterprise Development and Commercialisation).

Philip Shapira, Abdullah Gök, and Fatemeh Salehi Yazdi


Philip Shapira

Philip is Professor of Innovation, Management and Policy at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School, University of Manchester; and Professor, School…