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Manchester graphene start-up wins Royal Society prize

Former Manchester Ph.D. student Antonios Oikonomou has already won £50,000 through the Eli & Britt Harari competition to develop Eksagon

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Innovative energy start-up Eksagon, started by former Manchester Ph.D. student Antonios Oikonomou, took second prize in the energy & environment category of the Emerging Technologies Competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Eksagon Group went up against 40 shortlisted entrants, and came second in its category to the University of Liverpool, who proposed a technology to remove cancer-causing formaldehyde from the air. The other categories of the competition were Health & Wellbeing, Food & Water, and Materials and judges included powerful and influential representatives from companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble.

Eksagon are attempting to use the unique properties of 2D wonder-material graphene to boost the efficiency of energy systems enormously. The technology it is developing is used in previously cost-ineffective fuel cells, particularly methanol fuel cells, which can be up to ten times more efficient than standard battery power, thus potentially leading to much more reliable and long-lasting power sources at affordable costs.

As well as the prestige of the prize they also receive business support, training, media support, and £3,000.

In 2014 Oikonomou, who was studying towards a Ph.D. in graphene, won the Eli & Britt Harari Graphene Enterprise competition in 2014 after developing Graphene and Related Materials Characterisation and Standardisation Services (GCSS), an organisation to standardise and characterise graphene production to improve the quality of the end-product for developers. He received £50,000 of funding for this project.

It became clear soon after that this was a project better suited to an established institution such as the National Graphene Institute, to which the initiative was passed. Antonios instead revised his business plan, and, after identifying graphene’s potential in the field of energy systems, founded Eksagon in May 2015.

“Current technologies [in fuel cells] are hampered by low performance due to inherent limitations and the high cost of the materials used. Our challenge now is to develop 2D materials-enhanced cells that are more efficient, powerful and sustainable sources of energy”, said Oikonomou.

As well as his Emerging Technologies Prize and Eli & Britt Harari Graphene Prize, he has also received a Smart Award from Innovate UK.

He has been working closely in the development of Eksagon Group with Alliance Manchester Business School and the Manchester Enterprise Centre (MEC), with whom he completed the Innovation & Commercialisation of Research course while studying for his Ph.D.

“As my background is in science and engineering, I only had a basic understanding of some of these concepts and approaches to commercialisation,” he said. “The course really helped to move my understanding to the next level, as it shows you step-by-step how to transform your idea into a viable and sustainable business.

“Staff at Manchester Enterprise Centre are always available to help, and give advice when you need it. I was able to approach them for guidance throughout the application process, and they helped me to understand which areas were important to focus on.

“Furthermore, they were fully supportive throughout the revision of the business plan, and helped me to polish it and incorporate the right language and terminology.”

Graphene was discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who each received Nobel Prizes for their discovery and further development. It has widespread potential uses due do its incredible strength—100 times stronger than the strongest steel—and other unique properties.

The winners of 2016’s Eli & Britt Harari Award will be announced soon.