(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series spotlighting one of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region’s serial entrepreneurs. Part 1 provides an update on the progress that Vig Sherrill and the team at General Graphene are making. The second part will focus on his journey through seven start-ups and the factors that make this an ideal place to grow a tech-based start-up.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We are now over the radar,” Vig Sherrill says with a great deal of pride in describing how General Graphene has emerged from a mostly semi-stealth mode since its founding more than seven years ago.
It was 2014 when the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of General Graphene first introduced us to the very expensive but revolutionary material. As he described in this teknovation.biz article, graphene has amazing properties such as being 10 times as strong as diamonds, up to 200 times stronger than steel, electron mobility more than 1000 times than that of copper, and the most flexible substance ever measured. The challenge: reducing the production costs that would allow it to be widely used in a variety of products.
As he and the team at General Graphene have methodically worked to address the cost challenge, Sherrill chose to largely stay under the radar, focusing his energy on proving the vision that he had for the company and the corresponding technology that would be required to produce graphene at a much lower cost.
There were a few announcements along the way. For example, I moderated a panel at the inaugural “Graphene Innovation Summit & ExpoTM” in late 2017 in Nashville that featured Sherrill and Eric Dobson, CEO of Angel Capital Group (ACG), now known as Sheltowee. As noted in this teknovation.biz article from two years earlier, ACG led an $8.7 million seed investment round for General Graphene.
Recently, Sherrill gave us a tour of his facility in West Knoxville that houses versions of the manufacturing equipment that General Graphene has developed over the years. He says that the second generation machine “proved scalability and the ability to operate in an open atmosphere. It still works and is still used for testing new materials.”
Version 3.0, which came after version 2.5, can produce 400 millimeters a minute. In a recent 12-hour period, the company produced more than 50 square meters of graphene which Sherrill guesses is about one-half of the annual commercial world production of sheet-based graphene.
“We’re on a totally different playing field today,” he says with the sense of pride that a parent feels about the accomplishments of a son or daughter. “We wanted to get to 100 square meters a day with our pre-production system, and we have achieved that goal.”
As noted above, graphene is extremely expensive. One square meter can sell for between $10,000 and $20,000. That makes it extremely limited in terms of usage. “Our goal has been to take the cost down by three orders of magnitude,” Sherrill says. “We have the ability to make all types of graphene. All we require is electricity and air, and we can pretty much install a production line anywhere.”
Another advantage of the technology that General Graphene has perfected is the fact that the production line is modular, a feature that will allow it to add capacity when needed.
With graphene having been so expensive to make before General Graphene’s technology was developed, the market demand is not where it will be in the future. Sherrill characterizes it this way: “We are at the baby step level in using graphene,” adding that future market opportunities range from biofilms to batteries, biochips, connectors, touchscreens, and biofuels.
He compares General Graphene’s strategy to the Aluminum Company of America. It doesn’t produce the final consumer product like the Ford F-150, but rather the aluminum that goes into the vehicle. As such, growing market demand involves General Graphene’s scientists working with those in partner companies to understand how graphene can be effectively used as a replacement for other materials.
“COVID-19 has hurt us some,” Sherrill says. “We’re starting to get the message out about our progress, and we’re focused on finding strategic partners. This facility will be engineering R&D. The next one, probably in a year, will be pure manufacturing.”
NEXT: With seven start-ups under his belt, why in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region?