Finland welcomes imagination: An interview with Imgne® Founder and CEO Chris Gilbey


Photo: (left) Jaakko Kaidesoja (MD of Imgne's Finnish subsidiary) and Imgne CEO Chris Gilbey OAM in Jyväskylä, Finland.

Founded in 2014, Imagine Intelligent Materials or Imgne has enjoyed commercial success in Australia and recently chose Helsinki to establish their European headquarters. The company is the first in the world to develop conductive geosynthetic materials using functionalised graphene. Imgne sensory technologies harness the conductivity of graphene to capture real-time and measurable data from the very materials things are made from.

The trial of a single piece of Imgne® X3 has enabled leak detections for an area of over 10,000 square meters at a site in Queensland, Australia. We interviewed Imgne Founder and CEO, Mr. Chris Gilbey OAM to learn more about what was behind the move Finland and how Imgne is realising the potential of this revolutionary material, graphene.

1.      Congratulations on establishing your European headquarters for Imagine in Helsinki, we are very interested to know why you selected Finland?

There is a combination of accident and design in our decision making.

One my old friends and an early investor in Imagine (and now a non-executive director) was an executive with Nokia. He now lives in California but is still very connected to people from Nokia. And when Imagine was in the process of starting up, I hired several ex-Nokia people to do work for us - engineering prototypes and branding among other things... I was not unfamiliar with Nokia and the excellence of the people who worked there and the way that they collaborate.

There's another thing... Finnish universities have a reputation for turning out the best signal processing engineers anywhere in the world. I have a belief that if you want to build a business based on excellence, you are better off starting with excellence!

On top of that I went to Slush last year and while there I met people who I just resonated with tremendously, and who, when they saw what we were doing became so keen for us to come to Finland that I had to pay attention. One of them in particular, Janne Kari, yet another ex-Nokia guy, kept asking me to let him set up a roadshow tour to meet potential customers in Finland. He was very persuasive, and not alone by the way... So I went to Finland in March and met with heads of R&D and strategy for a number of Finnish companies and the responses I were amazing. I seemed like we were at the right time, right place, right opportunity.

In the meantime, back in Australia, in my other role as Chairman of the Australian Graphene Industry Association, I was having discussions with the Department of Economic Development in Victoria. On the back of my experience at Slush I had already initiated discussions to try to encourage greater engagement between Victoria and Finland in the area of Advanced Manufacturing. The rationale to me is pretty straightforward. The Victorian and Finnish economies are very similar in many respects - same population, same per capita GDP, very similar culture... Of course the seasons are reversed, and the weather is totally different... But I believe it's often easier, particularly for early stage companies, to work initially with strategic partners with similar needs on the way to conquering global markets, rather than to try to attack them head on.

And there is one more thing.... Finns, I have discovered, have huge pride and passion about their country, regardless of where they live. They want to help people like us to succeed. One of our new hires, also a Finn, also ex-Nokia, who is our new VP of Engineering, said to me recently, "Finns believe that they lead the world in innovation. So don't do anything that would cause them to think otherwise. Just work with them to re-inforce that belief, and it will happen and we will succeed".

How could I not love working in a country with that attitude!

2.      The world renowned start-up and tech event, Slush, was held in Helsinki late last year. We understand Imagine was in attendance, could you discuss this experience?

The experience of Slush...

Slush was amazing... I have told a lot of people about Slush since last December. It is a brilliant event. It's a "un-conference" for entrepreneurs and VCs - and an eye-opener for anyone who puts on or attends conferences anywhere. I met some great people, saw a lot of innovative companies and will be back... and, again, it created yet another interesting point of reference for doing business in Finland.

3.      Tell us why graphene is described as a so-called 'super material' that will revolutionise every industry in the world?

Graphene is described as a super material by others, much more worthy and expert than me. Graphene is absolutely a material that can only be described in superlatives: the world's first two dimensional material, stronger than steel, harder than diamond, impervious to all gases, the most electrically and thermally conductive. It is all these things, but... it is very hard to manufacture at scale, and, therefore, to commercialize.

It is also a material that has potential to be included into composite materials and lend them these qualities, when only present in tiny proportions... That is something that is truly exciting.

The area that we focus on at Imagine is graphene's electrical conductivity. Graphene is extremely sensitive to change and we have been able to develop ways to create sensing surfaces at large scale that can monitor and measure water leaks and changes in stress and pressure. These have application in developing smart buildings, smart roads, smart tailings dams and numerous other applications. We also strive to do these things more economically that how it has previously been done.

4.      To realise this potential, how is Imagine identifying solutions being demanded by global supply chains?

This is an extremely interesting question. We operate at several different levels of the supply chain. So we get introduced often by people who are interested in helping innovation driven companies - Invest in Finland has been of incredible value. We also tend to be invited to participate in start-up/early stage incubators, like Plug and Play. Just working through these channels has been a game changer for us recently. We have been introduced to companies in various market verticals, and often to companies that are in the top 10 in their market vertical, globally. Once we get the first conversation started, we find out whether there is potential for engagement.... We keep on learning what the needs in the market are. And so far, we have found plenty of applications to keep us extremely busy.

5.      Imagine has achieved success in Australia with products that improve safety and increase productivity, but where to next for the company? What graphene enabled technologies are you considering for development?

We are still very early in the development of the company. We are really building a company that is focused on data. Graphene is a useful and relatively unique way of getting there. We look for places to operate where large physical scale is the challenge - mining, roads, construction, automotive…

Imgne® IoT Sensor Board

6.      Imagine continues to collaborate with the CSIRO in Australia, so what research and development goals do you wish to accomplish with Finland's equivalent VTT?

I can't speak about VTT's objectives... However, there is brilliant and ground-breaking research going on at VTT, and they are very commercially focused. We are too, and we have the capacity to contribute into the mix the ability to deliver graphene, at scale... And we have one additional attribute that I believe makes us a unique partner for them. That is that we are able to provide certification of the materials we make. When you work with new materials I believe having the ability to provide certification is critical to providing confidence to global supply chains. I am not aware of any other graphene company being able to do this.

And, by the way, this is one of the things that I hope we will be able to work with VTT on - developing a capacity in partnership with VTT - to deliver a broad based certification of graphene materials beyond Imagine. We have discussions in place with several research institutes globally on this topic, and it is just starting to be understood by industry.

7.      How is Imagine responding to the challenges and opportunities attributed to the commercialisation of the graphene industry?

There are a lot of challenges - that is for sure. And I am not sure that we can really describe what exists currently as an industry. What I believe is this: Graphene research is taking place in most of the developed world. But commercialization is lagging. The reason for this is that a lot of research into graphene and its applications, in my view, takes place outside of the realities of global supply chains and manufacturing. We bring to what we do, an industrial / manufacturing focused discipline. We try to look at everything through the lens of how commercial businesses operate at scale. Decisions about factory management, supply chains, capex versus opex, and risk - these are all critical components of commercial activity.

We try to think of what our customers' needs are, and our customers tend to be Fortune 500 sized businesses. The approach that we take has to be consistent with their world view if we are going to succeed.

So for us it's about: replicability of materials, consistency of supply, supply chain logistics, affordability...

It's working pretty well, so far!

Author: Jonathon Fogarty is the Information Officer at the Embassy of Finland.  
Photo: Imagine Intelligent Materials© 

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