Sellotape and the President of China

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Parking the car on a drizzly campus morning I emerged from the multi-storey to encounter the massed ranks of Greater Manchester’s finest. To my right, police officers in riot gear were clambering out of armoured vans. To my left, on the roof of Graduate Prospects HQ, masked snipers were adjusting telescopic sights.

Either something major was on the cards or the launch party for this year’s ‘What do graduates do?’ had got seriously out of hand.

A burly policeman stopped me in my tracks, poking a suspicious finger in the direction of my plastic carrier bag.

“Excuse me, sir. What’s in the bag?”

“It’s my sandwiches, officer.”

He held the bag to his ear.

“It’s tickin.’”

“No it’s not. It’s turkey.”

Only then did the penny drop. The police vans, the cordoned-off roads, the sharpshooters on Mike Hill’s roof – this was the day that the president of China was visiting the University.

You can’t have missed the coverage. President Xi Jinping was arriving in Manchester to have a personal tour of the University’s NGC – a super high-tech construction home to the most important innovation of the 21st century – selfie stick included.

Officially, it’s known as a two-dimensional, atom-scale carbon allotrope formed in a hexagonal lattice. Everyone else calls it graphene.

Great things are expected of graphene – hence why the president of China took a detour up the M6 to have his photo taken with the stuff.  For not only is it the best ever conductor of electricity, it’s 600 times stronger than steel, incredibly light, and ridiculously versatile. Experts predict that graphene will transform everything from mobile phones to medical science. 

But forget the hype. For me, all you need to know about graphene is contained in the following factoid:

When fully fuelled, an aeroplane constructed entirely of graphene would be twice as heavy as it was when it had no fuel. In other words, the fuel would be twice as heavy as the graphene-built aeroplane.

Brian Cox told me that, so it must be right.

Graphene was discovered by two Manchester physicists who drew a line on piece of paper with a pencil, stuck strips of Sellotape over it, and then repeatedly tore them off again.

At first, they got flakes consisting of many layers of graphene. As the process was repeated, the flakes got thinner and thinner. Eventually they put two and two together and there it was.

And this, colleagues, is why I don’t have a Nobel Prize. You want to see the state of the Sellotape in our house. It takes hours just to find the end of the roll.

The point, however, is this. Our physicists didn’t ‘discover’ graphene that day. Instead, they built on research that had been going on in their field since the 1950s. The breakthrough was theirs, but as with everything in science, it was very much a team event.

If this surprises you, it shouldn’t. Innovation rarely happens out of the blue. It takes incremental refinement, miniscule changes, and microscopically small changes. And rarely do innovators have those Eureka moments so beloved by the ancient Greeks. Most of them toil away for years on minor projects that rarely see the light of day.

Those that are successful, however, have three killer ingredients.

First, they meet a real-life need – something that generations of people have been stumped by. Think about the bag-less vacuum cleaner or those vibrating toothbrushes that come ready-equipped with inbuilt batteries.

Second, the innovators don’t hang about waiting for someone to give them permission – they just get on with it and take a chance. As all innovators know instinctively, it’s better to apologise than to ask permission.

And finally, innovators begin at home. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their first circuit boards not in a plush electronics workshop but in their garage – the same place where the great Anita Roddick mixed her first peppermint foot-balm.

 Colleagues, forget expensive European-funded entrepreneurial ‘incubators’. You and I know that the true innovators of the 21st century don’t need fancy locations with air conditioning and watercoolers. Where did Disney, Amazon, Mattel, Harley Davidson, Google and Lotus Cars start off? That’s right: in someone’s garage.

So the next time you find yourself in a garage, think of the amazing innovations and Fortune 100 companies that await you.

If only you were able to find the end of that roll of Sellotape.  

This article first appeared in Graduate Recruiter magazine, December 2015