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Versarien – Interview

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Versarien’s Neil Ricketts on global expansion plans and ‘exciting times’ for graphene sector

This year has seen smart materials player Versarien announce a wide variety of collaborative agreements and a major acquisition based around its offering of so-called ‘wonder material’ graphene. With shares declining this month following a bull-run over the first three quarters of the year, we check in with CEO Neil Ricketts for an update on the firm’s global expansion plans and the graphene sector more generally.

Smart material

Although Versarien has plastic, thermal, and hard wear divisions, its primary focus this year has been on graphene. Graphene is a type of carbon made up of sheets that are just one atom thick and it has previously been called the most durable material ever tested. Thanks to this strength, it has been utilised in many areas, including display screens, electric/photonics circuits, solar cells, and various medical, chemical and industrial processes.

Although graphene’s popularity has been increasing for some time now, some think its uptake is due to accelerate over coming years. For example, one report from Statistics Market Research Consulting expects the global market for the material to grow by 40pc a year between 2017 and 2026. Meanwhile, another expects it to be worth $278.5m by 2020.  

This year has seen carmaker Ford announce plans to incorporate graphene technology into its vehicles while phone maker Huawei has introduced ‘graphene cooling’ into its latest range of phones. Ricketts tells us he believes the industry is at a ‘tipping point’:

‘A lot of new products are being released, which shows the market is maturing considerably. Everything is moving on. I think we are going to see more products and sectors moving to test and collaborate on graphene in 2019 and 2020. It takes a while for people to change their process and start bringing these things online. It is an exciting time as this stuff moves out of the laboratory and into commercial use.’

Stop, collaborate, and listen

To identify and commercialise graphene opportunities, Versarien has established numerous industry partnerships. For example, it has links with the University of Cambridge and – most notably – the University of Manchester, where Ricketts tells us more than 300 researchers are currently working on graphene applications. It is also a member of the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, the National Graphene Institute, and the Graphene Council.

Ricketts tells us that being part of this network has helped Versarien to establish collaboration agreements with businesses looking to enter the graphene space. For example, this year alone has seen the company begin working on projects in areas such as medical sensors, sports footwear, tyres, and audio equipment.

Most recently, Versarien has been growing its presence in the construction and materials areas. In August, it signed an agreement with South Korea-based AXIA Materials to develop graphene-enhanced composite materials and smart graphene devices. These will use Versarien’s Nanene graphene nanoplatelets and graphene inks.

August also saw it agree to work on a US-based project involving the incorporation of Nanene into large-scale polymer structures used in civil infrastructure projects, with the hope of increasing their strength. Then, earlier this month, the company signed a deal with Advanced Insulation to work on incorporating Nanene into sub-sea insulation materials to improve tear resistance and reduce water absorption.

Ricketts says construction is an area where technological requirements and standards are rapidly changing, creating significant opportunities for the new generation of smart materials:

‘At this point, only a few sectors are being heavily disrupted by smart materials. The areas that do face disruption – like mobile phones, sports goods, and cars – are changing very quickly. Construction has become one of these sectors because industry-wide problems are arising that require quick changes to the way things have been done for over 100 years. For example, technologies like graphene and 3D printing can help to build large structures to a superior standard. As this becomes the norm, firms need to keep up.’

Adding value

As well as establishing collaboration agreements, Versarien has been making acquisitions in areas where it believes graphene can add value to an existing technology.

Most recently, it acquired a Spanish business called Gnanomat for £2.6m, funded in part by a placing at 145p a share last month. Gnanomat will use Versarien’s graphene products to create energy storage devices offering long battery life, high power density and instant recharging for use in electric vehicles and portable electronics products.

Ricketts tells us the collaboration was a perfect fit for both firms, with Gnanomat requiring funding and Versarien looking for a way to enter the energy and battery market:

‘We knew this market would the hardest one in which to establish ourselves, so we were immediately interested in Gnanomat. Likewise, it was pleased to have us on board because graphene and our skills – things scaling up processes, making products, and getting them out to customers – can add value. What’s more, with everything that is happening with Brexit, we thought it would be necessary to establish a European base.  It was a good fit for everyone, and those are the kind of deals we like.’

Global mover

Moving forward, Ricketts says Versarien will continue to work on its global expansion, having appointed of a head of outward direct investment in May this year.

Notably, earlier this year, the firm entered a letter of intent with Jinan, the capital of China’s Shangdong. It has previously said that subsequent discussions have created possible links with another 23 cities or companies in the country. Ricketts adds that the business is now testing the waters in several additional regions:

‘I have just come back from Texas and will soon go to Washington and California to visit government and customers. We also have activity and research in India, Singapore, Japan, and China. It is now about producing these products, getting orders and seeing the global expansion of the group.’

Finally, despite Versarien’s share price dropping from 183p to 113p over the last month, Ricketts tells us the business’s fundamentals have not changed:

‘We are having a bit of a turbulent time in the market. However, behind that, the company remains strong. Over the coming months, we would like to have more news on the international expansion, some order from the collaborations we have already established, and new collaborations in new sectors with new products.’

You can hear the latest audio interview with Neill Ricketts CEO from 24/09/2018

CEO Neill Ricketts presented at the latest TMS event, encapsulating the audience below

The author does not hold shares but was remunerated