Nature Nanotechnology volume 13pages 528–530 (2018)


Nature Nanotechnology has asked Jong-Hyun Ahn, Yi Cui and Hagan Bayley, corresponding authors of the three papers published in the journal that have received the highest number of citations in the patent literature, to share their insights about doing applied research in academia and whatit takes to transform an idea into a viable technology.




You authored the papers published by Nature Nanotechnology that have been most-cited in the patent literature (Table 1). At the time, did you expect that the science described would be useful in several patented technologies?


J-HA: Yes, I believed that our paper would make a great contribution to graphene technologies. In 2010, there was a simple method to produce graphene, but it worked only for small sizes. Our paper introduced a roll-to-roll method to transfer graphene from the growth substrate onto more useful, large-area substrates. The implications for real applications were clear, in particular for realizing transparent electrodes for optoelectronics such as solar cells and touch sensors or related flexible electronics. As expected, there are now many researchers and companies that have developed graphene technologies based on the approaches suggested by our paper.


YC: Before publishing the paper on silicon nanowires for batteries in 2007, I had predicted that nanoscience would become very important to the design of the next generation of battery materials with high capacity. These materials can store several times more charge, although they have large structure and volume change during cycling. I thought that this paper would be highly cited in the scientific publication literature, but I did not expect that it would stimulate such a large amount of patented technology development.


HB: By that time, yes. We had been working on stochastic sensing since the early 1990s. In this single-molecule approach, individual engineered protein pores were used to detect a wide variety of analytes. The current carried by ions through a pore was monitored and changes in that current reflected the association and dissociation of analytes. Already back then, my programme officer at the Office of Naval Research, Harold Bright, had encouraged me to protect our intellectual property. The resulting patents were critical when I founded Oxford Nanopore in 2005. While continuing to develop our technology as a general sensing platform, the company soon took on the then speculative idea of sequencing DNA with protein nanopores. The results described in the 2009 paper were a huge encouragement to continue with this challenging enterprise.




What is the current status of the technology described in your paper? Has it reached commercialization?


J-HA: After publication, there was a significant advancement in experimental techniques. Many companies in Korea, China, Europe and the United States have made a massive investment in developing an industrial, scalable method for manufacturing high-quality graphene based on roll-to-roll methods. In addition to transparent electrode applications, recently, several companies have tried to apply chemical vapour deposition-grown graphene to the encapsulation layer of OLED displays and water filters. Although these graphene-based products have not reached the final stage of commercialization yet, many researchers (including myself) believe they will soon appear on the market.


YC: Long before the Si nanowire anode paper was published, I had filed a patent application through Stanford University. In April 2008, I founded a start-up company, Amprius Inc., and helped the company obtain exclusive licensing from Stanford University. Over the past ten years, Amprius has raised venture capital financing exceeding US$100 million. This really shows that to commercialize a battery technology costs a lot of money and time. Amprius has been producing rechargeable batteries cells consisting of Si nanowire anodes with the highest specific energy and energy density on the market (>400 Wh kg–1, 1,000 Wh l–1). These batteries are currently used in portable electronics and drone applications. Pilot-scale production has been successful, but large-scale production is still yet to be achieved. The Si nanowire anode also triggered the development of other nanostructured Si currently used in Amprius battery products.


HB: From 2005, research on nanopore sequencing was carried out both in academia and to an ever-increasing extent within Oxford Nanopore, with the company publicly announcing success in 2012. The outcome has been the MinION sequencer, a hand-held (and, dare I say, revolutionary) device for low-cost sequencing characterized by extraordinary read lengths greater than 1 megabase. There are now 6,000 MinION users worldwide, with additional products (GridION and PromethION) launched recently, and more in the offing.




Is your research group still involved in this type of work? If not, where did you move towards and why?


J-HA: Yes, we’re still working to develop key technologies to grow graphene for real applications in flexible and wearable electronics. In addition to graphene, we are also studying other 2D materials such as MoS2. Graphene is well-suitable for flexible transparent electrodes because it is a semi-metal and has outstanding mechanical and optical properties. However, for some applications we need semiconducting materials, as well as electrodes with specific functions. To make up for the weak points of graphene, we have developed several other 2D semiconducting materials and hybrid electrodes.


YC: Perhaps the most important impact of our silicon nanowire anode paper has been to trigger a worldwide research effort on the use of nanoscience approaches to design battery materials to address critical problems, which was not possible before. Over the past 10 years, we have designed another 11 generations of silicon anode materials. Some examples include core–shell, hollow, double-walled hollow, yolk-shell, permanganate, graphene-cage and self-healing. Each generation was aimed at solving one or more critical problems that arise when silicon anode materials are introduced into the battery cell processing. Many of these problems are rooted back to fundamental research.


HB: Since around 2010, when it became clear that Oxford Nanopore would succeed in DNA sequencing, my research group has largely bowed out of nanopore nucleic acid sequencing. This stems from our belief that academic research should initiate new ideas, but is unlikely to have the resources to produce a marketable product. The ‘last 10%’ often requires a massive sustained effort. With respect to new directions that may impact DNA sequencing, we are exploring alternative means for parallel nanopore current detection and methods to engineer nanopores with unique properties. Additionally, after the success with nucleic acids, our thoughts have moved towards the nanopore analysis of proteins, especially splice forms and post-translational modifications. Further afield, we are pursuing our interests in single-molecule chemistry and synthetic tissues, both of which require engineered protein pores.



Large-scale graphene production is used in prototype touch screen technologies by Samsung.Credit: Byung Hee Hong, Seoul National University and Graphene Square Inc


“Academic research should initiate new ideas, but is unlikely to have the resources to produce a marketable product”



To what extent do you think applied research should be carried out in academia, as opposed to industry? How do you go about building a meaningful relationship with industrial partners?


J-HA: I think that academia and industry are complementary to each other. Researchers in academia have trouble carrying out scalable research that requires large investment of capital and man-power. In contrast, industry generally can’t carry out fundamental research and ‘blue-sky work’ because they should make profit from their products. Therefore, I believe academia and industry should concentrate on things that each is good at. In my opinion, researchers in universities and national research centres should develop technologies starting from fundamental research and then carry out feasibility studies to a certain degree to confirm the viability of their ideas. After that, industry should try to mature it for real product development through various engineering works for reliability, scalability and so on. My team has continuously collaborated with several companies, big and small, focusing on fundamental technology that is difficult to manage by industry, as well as on aspects related to smoothing the technology transfer process to companies.


YC: From my experience at Stanford University, where science, engineering and engagement with industry all flourish, I do believe that academia should carry out research with a balance of fundamental and applied research. While the discovery-type of research continues to be important, I also believe that research driven by societal problems and critical technology needs is increasingly important. It is challenging to draw a clear boundary between the applied research in academia and in industry. Indeed, it is healthy to have some overlap. I see that there is a great value for academia to take one more step towards industry by having technology translational facilities, a pilot version of an industrial facility. A successful example is the semiconductor fabrication facilities, now present in nearly all the major universities. This model could be duplicated in other research areas. I have exercised two ways to build meaningful relationships with industry. The first way is through my own start-up company. I was engaged actively in the Amprius technology development. I passed on my knowledge to Amprius directly by frequent interaction. At the same time, many technological problems Amprius faces could be good research problems for academia. I myself also have the opportunity to shape research and organization in Amprius. I view that this interaction is a highly effective university–industry relationship. The second way has to do with contracted research with the R&D department of existing companies. In this scheme, a defined research project with statement of work is identified. This should explore an area of novel opportunities or address a problem currently plaguing industry. In both cases, the engagement with industry has proven very valuable as it has opened up a wide range of exciting and applied research problems that would have been hidden from academia.



Silicon nanostructures are used as anodes by Amprius, a Li-ion battery supplier. Credit: Amprius Inc


“There is a great value for academia to take one more step towards industry by having technology translational facilities”


HB: I am a firm believer in the notion that academics should do fundamental research. Of course, this requires the support of creativity and a tolerance of failure by the funding agencies, which is not always the case. If something interesting comes up, researchers can seek means for commercialization. Almost all new ideas — and truly new ideas will be the best targets for commercialization — come from basic research and most of these are unplanned; they come out of nowhere. Commercialization can be through the formation of a spin-out company or by prudent collaboration with a larger existing enterprise. We have obtained research grants from the spin-outs we set up, Oxford Nanopore and OxSyBio. From my viewpoint, it is important that these grants have no strings attached; they should allow exploratory work in the general area of interest to the company, rather than sponsor contract research for specific tasks.




What should academics do more to make their applied research more likely to become a viable technology?


J-HA: Many researchers in academia are generally satisfied with publishing a paper without particular interest in technological development. But a suggested new technology always needs an additional effort for optimization and confirmation of its practical feasibility. If this extra step is not carried out, a new technology, regardless of the hard background work put into it, will most likely fade away and never develop into a technology that can make real benefits to society. Academia and industry should strengthen their cooperation towards each other, but governments and funding agencies need to play a key role.



Commercial DNA sequencers are now available by Oxford Nanopores. Credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies


“Academia and industry should strengthen their cooperation towards each other, but governments and funding agencies need to play a key role”



YC: I think that it is important for academics to know more about the whole process from the beginning of the scientific concept to the final viable technology. A system-level analysis can already be carried out in academia and can pick up important and meaningful problems to be developed further.


HB: The intellectual property associated with new discoveries in academia (not necessarily applied research) should be protected. This is our currency when dealing with potential funders of spin-outs or establishing a deal with a larger entity. Researchers should also talk with potential users of a technology. Users are often sceptical, but they do provide useful feedback. Both academics and technology licensing offices in academia must advertise what we have, not just by putting a page on a website, but actively approaching funders and users face-to-face.




Finally, is there something journals (including Nature Nanotechnology) should do better when evaluating manuscripts reporting applied research carried out in academia?


J-HA: In my opinion, journals have a tendency to obsess over novelty when they evaluate the quality of a manuscript. If a manuscript includes considerable technological improvement or suggests a new direction of an existing technology, this effort should be valued as much as conceptual novelty.


Alberto Moscatelli: Manuscripts reporting important technological advances are considered as much as those reporting conceptual advances; admittedly, the task for editors is much harder there because technological advances tend to be incremental; but if a manuscript is compelling, we should be able to recognize it.


YC: A challenge the scientific community and the journal editors are facing is the fact that we tend to publish papers on ‘hot topics’. However, there are quite a number of important areas that do not have adequate presence in top-tier journals, in my opinion. For example, technologies for dealing with environmental issues (air, water, soil) have gained little attention. I would encourage increased attention to research driven by societal problems.


AM: We have been expanding the breadth of the journal to cover environmental issues linked to nanoscience and nanotechnology, such as technologies for water purification and desalination, the environmental fate of nanoparticles used in agriculture, life-cycle assessment of nanomaterials used in batteries and fuel cells. We expect content on these topics to increase in the future.


HB: I’d like to turn this on its head. Can we hear more about the research done in industry? There is a treasure trove of unpublished work out there. How can Nature Nanotechnology encourage industrial laboratories to tell us what they’ve been up to?


AM: We regularly visit R&D departments with the intent to encourage submissions to Nature Nanotechnology, though admittedly with scarce success. Perhaps this is also due to a traditional reluctance of researchers in industry to publish in scholarly journals. We also aim to cover industrial research with editorial pieces and commissioned articles.







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