If you haven’t heard the term “graphene” before, don’t worry. Most people haven’t.
The team at Lansing-based XG Sciences (XGS), one of just a handful of manufacturers of graphene nanoplatelets globally, readily admit that most people have never heard of the material which was discovered by scientists in 2004.
However, that hasn’t stopped the company from working to establish itself as a worldwide leader in this emerging technology.
The vastly oversimplified explanation of the material is that graphene manufacturing involves taking a large piece of graphite and reducing it to microscopic thin layers, its fundamental molecular building blocks.
“A lot of people probably have heard about nano technologies and the like, but graphene was first discovered in 2004, so it’s a relatively new material,” says Bob Blinstrub, President and CEO of XG Sciences.
Blinstrub was one of a handful of people who recognized the power and market potential for graphene, which he says is 200 times stronger than steel and is more electrically conductive than any other material on earth.
“It’s really a disruptive technology,” says Blinstrub.
For XG Sciences, innovating and creative thinking is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of the company, which was incorporated in 2006. Starting a company with the basis of manufacturing and introducing a brand-new material into the marketplace presents its own unique challenges.
“There’s no handbook on this,” says Scott Murray, VP Operations for XG Sciences. “It’s a brand-new technology in a brand-new market. All of the processes had to be developed and scaled. So innovation is kind of what we’re all about.”
Blinstrub said there has been a lot of trial and error in actually creating the material and “getting the product right.” Being that the product is so small — it’s made at the molecular level — manufacturing the material correctly and consistently has been a process all on its own.
And that’s before the company even gets to the commercial side of things. In addition to continually refining and improving the manufacturing process, XG Sciences also will continue to engage the marketplace and quickly scale capacity.
AJ Boechler, Chief Commercial Officer, states they have been able to acquire 1,000 customers globally over the last five years. More and more are adopting the emerging technology and experiencing the benefits of the material. He says XGS’s approach is to focus their commercial activities on a targeted group of market segments. It’s a tricky thing to do, considering there’s potentially over 40 different commercial applications of the product.
“Our business is based on the innovation of graphene, this allows us to really focus on the customer’s specific needs,” says Boechler. “So we’re segmenting (the sales effort) to focus on a few strategic markets where we see a solid path to grow our business.”
“We were one of the first manufacturers in this space,” says Murray. “From the day we started, we were going to be a manufacturing company.” Other companies in the space have focused their efforts on research and intellectual property generation which carry much less of a learning curve.
What has helped in XG Sciences’ success over the years? Murray says the people and culture within the company have really pushed the envelope as well as the willingness to embrace risk. “You need to have an open mind,” says Murray. “There’s no one person with all the answers. Having said that, you must define goals. I think we’re very clear what our goal is and what the timetable is to accomplish the goal. We’ve done a good job with that.”
Blinstrub agrees that they have a tendency to seek out people with an entrepreneurial spirit and a can-do attitude.
“I have to give the team around me a lot of credit,” says Blinstrub. “They have strong character and a lot of knowledge and know how to apply themselves.”
The company has seen a lot of growth over 14 years but, looking forward, they see limitless potential as they consider graphene to be a billion-dollar industry. XG Sciences, of course, hopes to be in the driver’s seat when the market hits the accelerator.
“We’re a manufacturer of this new material, but at the same time, we’re pioneers to introduce this into materials usage,” says Blinstrub. “That’s the entire basis of our organization; that we’re new, we’re disruptive. In reality, the last 14 years have been about innovation, how to manufacture the product and how to introduce it around the world. I see that as the continual foundation for XG Sciences for years to come.”