Prof. Steve Tennison, MAST Carbon’s director, has recently decided to establish a spin out company to commercialize biomedical carbons to the market.
How was the idea of MAST Carbon born?
Both my business partner, Andy Blackburn and I worked in the research and development department of British Petroleum. Sixteen years ago, when BP was downsizing its research and development activities, we decided we wanted to do our own research and development so we left BP and set up this business, specifically to work in the area of high performance carbon materials. This was an area we knew a lot about and we believed there was a commercial need for it.
What do you exactly do and how?
Basically we make two kinds of carbon from different polymers. The Novacarb materials, which we make from phenolic resin, and the C-Tex carbon cloth materials, which we make from viscose rayon. The phenolic resin makes the beads and the monoliths and the C-Ttex is where we convert the viscose rayon into carbon fiber.
We take polymers and bake them at high temperatures (typically 800 hundred centigrades) and the baking process converts the polymers into carbon - it’s a bit like burning toast but more sophisticated. The carbon has a very large surface area, you can think of it like a sponge with holes in it. These holes are very small and because of this the area becomes very large and the two things go together, the smaller the holes, the bigger the surface area. This is where nano comes into our material, since the holes in the material are down around one to ten nanometers. These materials all have in common an internal structure made of holes and since they have extremely large surface areas they are very efficient at adsorbing things.
What specific areas of application are you concentrating on?
We have an equal effort into the areas that are clean-up devices (such as air purification) and protection devices (for first response chemical defense) and have a quite large involvement in the electrochemistry area (for instance supercapacitors for energy storage).
We are also looking at biomedical uses and in this case we look at processing liquids, in particular blood filtration. For instance, if you think of dialysis, where the kidneys remove toxins from the blood, when the kidneys fail dialysis is the only current way of removing these. We are now looking at direct blood filtration with our carbons, as this method can remove a wider range of problem molecules.
Have you considered the possible toxicity of these carbon materials either for people or the environment?
There are no toxic implications of our materials because we are not working with nanoparticles. The toxic problems of nanomaterials only come in at a very small scale and our final product is macro. Moreover, carbon is not inherently toxic, the only risk you get when working with carbon is that if it is in a very fine dust form it can get into the lungs, but we don’t work at that scale.
In what stage of business development are you at the moment?
From the R&D side, we are reasonably well established while from the marketing and sales side via the spin out it’s just beginning to evolve.
What is the most important thing that you have learned about taking an innovation to the market?
Experience has taught us that research and development does not comfortably coexist with manufacturing and sales as the two areas require very different skills and goals. In particular the shorter term priorities of sales and marketing tend to overpower the longer term goals of the R&D projects. We have now realized that this can be overcome by establishing a free standing sales company leaving MAST to concentrate on R&D. It also enables MAST to offer ongoing technical support and access to new biomedical opportunities giving us a continuing conduit to the market.
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