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Thanks to the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund, Dr Simon Thomas has transformed a research proposal into Paragraf, a new Cambridge graphene spin-out with its own premises and seed funding in excess of £2.64M.

It's all happened at breakneck speed. Dr Simon Thomas arrived in Cambridge in 2015 with a couple of promising research proposals. By the beginning of 2018, he was taking delivery of £500,000 of equipment from Taiwan, kitting out Paragraf's first premises and employing his eighth member of staff.

When he picked up the keys and walked onto the factory floor in January, there was a split second when Thomas wondered what on earth he'd done. “Because I'd been working so rapidly and so constantly for the past two years, there was no time to breathe,” he recalls. “Seeing what we'd put together, it suddenly hit me.”

The graphene field seems full of drama. Since it was first isolated in 2004, graphene has been hailed as a wonder material that will one day be used in myriad applications thanks to its extraordinary properties. “It's supremely conductive, transparent, strong and flexible,” Thomas explains, “so graphene is a material that beats most materials that have single good properties, and beats lots of materials in a single package.”

Until now, most graphene produced on a wafer scale is made using metal catalysts. Despite their efficiency, these catalysts have drawbacks because the metals contaminate the graphene layers so the material cannot be used for most electronic applications.

When he arrived in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, Thomas wanted to find new ways of making graphene without using metal catalysts. “We set about investigating an existing piece of equipment,” he says. “By modifying it and using some special techniques, we proved that we could produce graphene on substrates such as sapphire and silicon, which are staples of the semiconductor industry.”

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys' EPSRC Platform Grant provided initial funds for feasibility studies and, when the process proved promising, Cambridge Enterprise suggested that Thomas apply to the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund. “We had a long hard think about whether to take an academic or commercial path, and everyone was unanimous that this technology had a great value proposition,” he says. “The Follow-on Fund was helpful because it focused more on potential outputs and benefits of the technology rather than potential publications.”

The fund's quick turnaround also helped. Thomas kept his research on the boil during the application process so that when the funding arrived, he could accelerate rapidly to a point where he had a demonstration product. “It bridged the gap between fundamental research and being able to go to investors with a proposition.”

Together with Cambridge Enterprise, the Institute for Manufacturing and i-Teams, Thomas says that Humphreys’ help was invaluable. “Colin's incredible to have on your side because he's so supportive and so well connected. He introduced us to some very helpful people like Dr Andrew Lynn, people he'd started other companies with.”

There have also been challenges, not least because the graphene world can be a secretive place. “Working in the graphene area is difficult because most doors are closed to you; there aren't many collaborators. It's understandable – it has massive research and financial potential so everybody keeps their cards close to their chest – but it's not helping UK plc,” says Thomas. “It's been our biggest barrier, we could have moved much faster had collaboration opportunities been openly available.”

Finding commercial premises was a headache too. As well as a building with space for labs and production, Paragraf also needs plenty of outside space to store large quantities of process gases. “Most commercial properties now just come with four parking spaces, and many wouldn't allow us to have gas storage facilities even if the land was available.”

With premises, staff and £2.64M seed funding, Paragraf's pace is set to accelerate and Thomas is hugely optimistic about the company's potential. “We set out with a high level of funding with the expectation that it would allow us to move rapidly. I've invested a lot in capital equipment and we had a rapid hire plan and rapid tech transfer window,” he says. “Having made an enabling technology, our next step is to make graphene devices. Challenges still exist – but now I have people to help me.”

Based on his experience, Thomas has tips for others researchers applying to the EPSRC's Follow-on Fund. “Don't just use it for research,” he advises. “Instead, use it actively to engage with Cambridge Enterprise and plan your next steps. The Follow-on Fund is a stepping stone – if you use the extra capability, time and resources it provides to put your plan together you're far more likely to reach your goals.”