Featured Tech Startup: Graphene Frontiers

Graphene Frontiers’ CEO Michael Patterson says the company has hit an inflection point. Six months into its key National Science Foundation grant, the tech startup is shifting from broad research to development of a specific application in the biosensor market.

The company was established in 2011 through the University of Pennsylvania UPstart program. UPstart works with Penn faculty and staff to launch new companies based on university inventions. Graphene Frontiers, based on the research of co-founders Dr. Zhengtang Luo and Dr. Charlie Johnson, has developed scalable method roll-to-roll manufacturing of graphene sheets. A key to the technology is the ability to build the graphene layers on copper and then remove it without the use of expensive and toxic chemicals. The layers of graphene on the sheet are just molecules thick, and at the right price point would play a big role in the electronics industry in applications ranging from display screens to solar cells.

In the fall of 2013, Graphene Frontiers received a $744,600 award from the National Science Foundation. The company is using that funding to develop methods of producing large rolls of graphene with technology that will eventually drive the cost down to pennies per inch. The company expects to have a prototype production system ready by 2015.

But Patterson says the company hit an inflection point about six to seven months ago when the team decided, in addition to continuing development of the roll-to-roll production capability, to work on a more specific application of the technology. The company then started development of graphene based biosenseors using Graphene based Field Effect Transistors. Graphene Frontiers is speaking with several large companies in the diagnostics sector and believes its chips will allow competitively fast, sensitive and selective diagnostics.

The company plans to sell consumable chips and to license the biosensor technology. “At the scale we are at today we are producing, in batch production, continuous films about 400 square centimeters. With one piece of material that big we can make tens of thousands of functionalized GFET biosensors” says Patterson. “That means we can bring a product to market for research purposes by the end of this year. It’s a much faster path to revenue that we can already deliver on at the scale of production we have today”.

Patterson says the team evaluated numerous potential applications for the technology. The biosensor market probably makes good sense for the company. The sales of graphene were only $9 million in 2012 and sales are forecasted to grow to $390 million by 2024 according to Lux Research. In contrast, Transparent Market Research says the global biosensor market was valued at $9.9 billion in 2011 and is expected to grow to $18.9 billion by 2018.

The company is well on its way to achieving its goals of both enabling roll-to-roll graphene production, and bringing GFET biosensors to market. In addition to the non-dilutive grants, Graphene Frontiers raised $500,000 in private equity in 2012. The company disclosed that it closed a $1.6 million round in early May of this year. Patterson says, “That, coupled with some industrial partnerships, will take us to a proof of concept program with the biosensors and allow us to continue on the phase two of roll-to-roll production at which point we could be potentially attractive for an exit in mid-2015, or in a position to raise a larger round of funding.”


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