Made in Manchester: Traditional textiles family business helps eminent researcher weave a unique career through advanced materials at the global home of Graphene.
It’s a uniquely Manchester story – from the city’s cotton heritage, via a family textile business in India, to the formation of the University and its Nobel Prize winning discovery of Graphene, to innovating and commercialising ideas to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and leading to a US$ 1bn manufacturing JV in the UAE.
Dr. Vivek Koncherry has developed a unique academic career and research relationship with Manchester and his journey mirrors many of the developments at the University itself.
He is very much in the spotlight in Manchester - and now in the UAE. In April, he signed an MoU with a UAE partner to launch a JV company that will manufacture Graphene (the world’s first 2D material first isolated by researchers at the University and for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics) enhanced products that will disrupt a range of industries and support the country’s sustainability ambitions.
Vivek’s Manchester story started in 2001, when he joined the Textile Technology and Management undergraduate programme at UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology - before it became part of the new The University of Manchester in 2004). His chosen subject was influenced by his family in India, who ran a textile business there. It was the start of a unique academic and research journey which continues today with Graphene.
Originally from India, Vivek’s family business made carpets from natural fibres, such as coconut fibres and jute. They have been doing this for nearly 100 years and Vivek came to Manchester to study with the intention of returning to India to join the family business. He chose Manchester because – as a city closely linked to the cotton industry – it was “really good at textiles”.
Vivek completed his degree and did return to India to support the family business for a period. While at Manchester he had discovered a new area of interest – advanced composite materials – and was keen to learn more about them. So, in 2009, he started his MPhil in composite materials, and he continued this work when Bentley Motors awarded him a PhD scholarship to make a nano material coating machine. On completion, the UK Ministry of Defence asked him to do a post-doctoral project at the University.
How did his family feel about his extended stay in Manchester? “My family was very supportive of my plan to stay in Manchester and follow my developing interests from traditional textiles to composites. I was exposed to new fields all the time at the University and this is how I came to learn more about Graphene.”
In fact, Vivek’s timing had been impeccable. He studied at UMIST with the last batch of undergraduates in 2004, before it became part of the newly founded ‘The University of Manchester’. This represented a unique opportunity as he became exposed to a much broader range of disciplines and other potential areas of research. This proved key to Vivek transitioning seamlessly from traditional textiles to advanced composites; as Vivek puts it – “my background in textiles made me the researcher I am now.”
Of course, Manchester had been a leader in the cotton industry revolution, so there is a strong industrial heritage in the city. Today, advanced composites are mainly made of carbon fibres – the common denominator between traditional and advanced materials technology is weaving.
“My background in traditional textiles gave me an advantage when researching advanced composites; most of my fellow researchers had a mechanical engineering background whereas I had the weaving and textile technology background knowledge.
Vivek’s family textile business in India continues to flourish while he now devotes his time to continuing research, innovation and commercialisation around Graphene, more than two decades after first arriving in Manchester. What has kept him there?
“Manchester gives you the freedom to research without limits, which is essential and the GEIC (the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre - innovation accelerator hub) at the University provides all the support systems needed. The University also makes networking easy and we get to meet government contacts, for example.
“I was at Manchester when the Nobel Prize was announced for Graphene and saw the National Graphene Institute (NGI) established for fundamental research, then the GEIC, and the support from Masdar in the UAE focused more on Graphene applications and commercialisation, while promoting sustainability. When I met the Graphene@Manchester team, I talked about a Graphene suitcase idea and the recycling of car tyres into Graphene floor mats. I got EU funding to test the idea and I’m still involved with academics at NGI. With the establishment of the GEIC, new startups began to join and partner with the community to launch new application and commercialisation projects.”
There have been many ‘key moments’ during Vivek’s extraordinary journey but one in particular stands for him. “Definitely, meeting James Baker (CEO at Graphene@Manchester) for the first time was very important. At the time, I was happy at the University with my post-doctoral project and I loved the job. James introduced me to Graphene and he was more commercial and he motivated me to start a company.”
In his research work, Vivek sees no limits: when he entered the prestigious Eli & Brett Harari Graphene competition (which he won), it was for developing a Space Habitat using Advanced Robotics & Advanced Materials. He was also the Winner of the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Innovative Manufacturing Hub competition for developing Artificial Intelligence & Internet of Things for defect detection.
Today, as he transitions into a more business focused role (as interest in Graphene rises across industries driven by its potential as a route to greater sustainability), where does this eminent researcher and inventor see his future?
“Currently, I am mostly a CEO but I love research and like to make stuff – it makes me happy. Fortunately, I have a great team around me and so while I am in leadership and need to push people, we share the success and great people have stuck with me in the good times and not-so-good times (funding can be a challenge but the team has stuck with it).”
Graphene has been a ‘hero’ innovation of The University of Manchester since its formation in 2004 and advanced materials is now firmly embedded as one of the University’s research beacons.
“Manchester doesn’t stop with research - as shown by the GEIC, which has helped me a lot. In fact, without the GEIC, I wouldn’t be here today leading startup companies. There would be no companies and no employees.”
As CEO of several businesses, Vivek is aware of his changing role and responsibilities but can draw on his family experiences and the support of the University. “My role demands new and different skillsets but I have great business support around me. Alliance Manchester Business School has helped me with planning and collaborations across the University. Recently, five MBA interns helped with some business planning and a study of the competition. So, we help each other. I am also still connected with my University alumni groups and faculty.”
Looking ahead, Vivek sees exciting new challenges and opportunities but his roots are firmly in Manchester although the UAE is a major focus. “I will always belong here at Manchester because I have learned everything here and have access to resources, experts and talent. No one is as strong as Manchester for Graphene and advanced materials science. Even as Graphene goes around the world, Manchester is still the global home of Graphene.
“I have no doubt that we have passed the tipping point for Graphene and I believe that what we have done so far is nothing compared to what is coming in the future. Graphene has a very big future and our new JV in the UAE is a huge step forward in addressing the concrete opportunity – a US$ 1 trillion global market. We are now talking to different investors about a different level of investment – it’s a different ballgame. The UAE has vision and huge ambition and, of course, we now have to deliver but we have the learning and experience from many successful startups at the GEIC.
Vivek was one of the first partners at the GEIC and is now scaling up his business as it commercialises Graphene. It’s different to working alone in the lab (“making stuff” is still something he enjoys) and he is surrounded and supported by great people and collaborations. The Manchester team is like his family and he gives them the same freedoms he has enjoyed, preferring not to micromanage. Perhaps this is a reflection of his experience and learning from his own family business.
“Manchester has given me everything and made me a good scientist. It helped me understand hand weaving and developed my interest through advanced materials, carbon fibre and then Graphene. The University has given me strong backing to commercialise my ideas and provide support globally with people always ready to help. This includes in the UAE with the team at the University’s Middle East Centre in Dubai.”