Graham Howes is a technology manager at BP ventures, where his responsibilities include advanced materials investing and interaction with the International Centre for Advanced Materials, which was set up by BP with a $100m investment in 2012. This interview was conducted for ‘New Fusions in Advanced Materials Innovation and Corporate Venture Capital’, a new report from LEIF and Global Corporate Venturing. The report is sponsored by Airbus APWorks, the advanced materials and additive manufacturing subsidiary of Airbus, and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV), the corporate venture capital subsidiary of Saudi Aramco.
LEIF: What is your investment strategy with regard to advanced materials?
Graham Howes: Extend the operating envelope of steel through changing the physical properties and/or applying coatings to make the native material more resilient to conditions experienced in the operating environment. Identify alternative cost effective materials as potential replacements to steel
LEIF: Please provide two or three examples of advanced materials technology businesses you have invested in? In each case, please identify the advanced materials innovation.
GH: No investments to date
LEIF: What are the biggest factors driving innovation and growth in this area?
GH: Demanding environments faced by customers. Depending on the sector the environmental conditions are different; regulatory for transportation sector to meet energy efficiency requirements, physical and chemical for oil sector as field conditions change
LEIF: What are the challenges of investing in advanced materials?
GH: Time to qualification and over-coming prejudices. Materials are mission critical so must perform better than incumbents which requires a collaborative, open qualification and testing regime, possibly the production of new standards. High TRL solutions are preferred as risk is reduced but this is not consistent with advanced materials which are by definition new in form or new to the application.
LEIF: In the near future, what types of advanced materials technologies and business models are you hoping to invest in?
GH: Advanced steels, protective coatings that are compatible with non-pristine surfaces, surface modification to reduce fouling, all solutions will ideally have the ability to report on health and/or NDT/NDI (non-destructive testing / non-destructive inspection) techniques to confirm the integrity of materials.
LEIF: Long term, what break-through innovation do foresee? What excites you?
GH: Materials that can report on their health or condition and self-heal
LEIF: Advanced materials are used across all industries. What challenges does this present to their commercialisation? How should advanced materials technology businesses prioritise their business development?
GH: Who has the biggest problem that only your material can solve in a cost effective manner. Does this application have a short qualification cycle or one that is clear and transparent
LEIF: Different types of venture capitalists are active in this field – financial and corporate venture capitalists with backgrounds and core strengths in energy, med-tech, clean-tech, ICT and others. Can co-investment among them be successful or will it lead to investee companies being pulled in too many directions?
GH: At the risk of stating the obvious, the most important aspect if for the company to get a deep understanding of the drivers in each market for advance materials. This will help to identify the most attractive route and provide options should the conditions in the chosen path change. A key aspect in the timeline to adoption is the qualification process. Platform technologies may allow for diverse investors, such as surface modification to provide ultra-hydrophobic surfaces or deposition techniques to improve bonding. Identifying clear synergies between the environmental challenges could enable co-investment from different sectors.