Graphene at Manchester: A Fast-Paced Culture Promoting Research and Industry Innovation

by Cameron Baker


James Baker has been the CEO of Graphene at Manchester (G@M) for the last 5 years, and has worked at the organization since 2014. Graphene is an exciting material with the potential to insert itself as a major catalyst for technological advancement in the near future. Baker has an illustrious, 25 year career in defense, aerospace and security. He is skilled at leading teams and fostering achievements in STEM and business. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to hear from James and learn about graphene, G@M, and the innovative, creative, work culture he promotes.


Tell me about yourself. Where are you from and what led you to your current position as the CEO of Graphene at Manchester?



My name is James Baker. I am the Chief Executive of what we call Graphene at Manchester. It's part of the University of Manchester in the UK. My background is from industry – I worked over 25 years in predominantly Aerospace and Defense businesses, the last of which was BAE Systems where I ran all the technology activity in the UK – the UK-based research, technology organization and BS systems.


I joined the University of Manchester about eight years ago and for me it was really because of the excitement of this material graphene that was first isolated at the University of Manchester 2004. Graphene is essentially sticky tape from graphite, but the role is not an academic one, it's very much focused around how do we accelerate the commercialization of graphene and 2D materials into products and applications.



Talk to me about Graphene at Manchester. What do you guys do? Graphene is a really cool material but not many people are aware of it or really know what it is used for.



Graphene was first isolated in Manchester in 2004. It has these great properties, including being stronger than steel, more conductive than copper, transparent, and flexible. In 2010, it got the Nobel Prize for physics for the two scientists who first isolated it.


For me, graphene is really now driving a whole new series of Advanced Materials research. Over 150 2D materials are now being studied and in the future you'll be able to create layers of 2D materials to create a sort of artificial design and material. Traditionally, it takes many years for a new material to go from the labs of universities into products and applications, so Graphene at Manchester was set up to work with industry. It's a collaboration between Academia and Industry and we have two facilities: the National Graphene Institute – which is very much about new science and research, and a second graphing building called the Graphene Engineering Innovation Center, or the GEIC. The GEIC is more about the translation of that science into products and applications.


Graphene at Manchester is very much about building supply chain partnership with industry to bring forward these new products and applications using graphene and 2D materials.



How has making meaningful relationships with your employees helped you throughout your career, both at Graphene at Manchester and just in general?


We're really trying to build new and existing companies. I use the term talent pipeline. We have people from University who are developed in spin outs and spin-ins, we've worked with over 47 spin-outs and spin-ins over the last 10 years. These are typically students – undergraduate or postgraduates who have gone on to create their own businesses.


Within the GEIC we have a team of around 50 people and many of those are from Academia, but most of them have worked in Industry as well so we're really trying to encourage this mixing of Academia and Industry. Some people want to be academics, they want to teach, they want to do research, but there's also people who want to create value, create products, create businesses, and become CEOs or CTOs of the future. We’re very focused on building this talent pipeline, both within the GEIC and within our partners.


Throughout my career I have also been a strong supporter of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – projects and I am a fellow of both The Institute of Engineering and Technology and the Royal Society of Arts. I'm also a chartered engineer, so I’m quite passionate about that technology and engineering and promoting the value of that in BAE. Additionally, I championed a program with UK sports helping athletes, and in the 2012 Olympic Games, the UK went up to 24 gold medals through an application of our technology, everything from rowing to cycling to sailing.


I am passionate about using that science and that engineering to make a difference and promote the whole engineering STEM agenda, both with students but also with Industries going forward.



How would you describe the culture at Graphene at Manchester?



It's an interesting culture in that we are a part of the University of Manchester, so we're part of a large university which traditionally is very strong in Innovation and research, but the culture of the GEIC is really to try and transition that research into more of an industrial mindset. We are working with industry on delivering projects and we are looking at new products to market the creation of jobs so our metrics are very different from a lot of traditional universities.


Traditionally, an innovation cycle in Advanced Materials can be measured in months and years, however at the GEIC, we measure our innovation cycle in days and weeks. The idea is to make something, test it, and then iterate it – what we call “make or break”. We tend to work in a culture that's quite creative and innovative.

In the last six weeks, I've lost about three or four of my staff – one became a CEO, one's a CTO, and one's become a senior person within an organization. There's not many organizations where you can work in and you can end up becoming your own CEO or CTO. We've got another person in the organization who's gone from a one-man researcher to now employing 20 people. He's got five million dollars of U.S investment and he's now looking to build a factory in Manchester building space satellites and pressure vessels all within a two-year period, so again we try to build a culture that supports creating real opportunity, not just for our staff but for our partners as well.



What advice do you have for somebody just starting out as a new CEO or C-level executive?



From my background, I've always been fortunate to be able to find good mentors or good people, so any new person going out there I'd encourage them not to be afraid to lean on others and seek advice. They are a CEO, so they have to make the decision – there's no one doing that for you – but there's nothing wrong in talking to people who will give you fairly candid advice which you can listen to. You don't have to take that advice into account but I'd encourage them to listen to them.


It's not just people who you like or will always agree with you either. Sometimes, it's quite helpful to find someone who challenges you in a constructive way and can introduce a different opinion or new perspective.



What is something you are most proud of in your career?



In my early career, I was involved in a number of programs with the UK Ministry of Defense, which is focused on counter IED, so detection of improvised explosive devices. We developed a number of technologies that help to detect and destroy explosives in a harmful environment.


More recently on graphene, we're looking at creating water filters to take dirty salty contaminated water and create drinking water. We're not there yet, but if we could do that that will start to make a real difference in lives around the world. Almost every day with graphene we're coming up with opportunities to make a difference, whether it's reduction in CO2 or global emissions, water supply, electric vehicles, or something else.




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Cameron Baker works as a Sales and Marketing representative at ELEFense, specializing in

content creation. He is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and attends the University of

Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is studying Economics and Political Science and is working towards a career in Marketing, Equity Capital Markets, or Public Service.