Graphene / A runaway success

Words by Rowena Roberts

Image by inov-8

The world’s first graphene sports shoes have hit the global market thanks to a unique collaboration between the University and north-west SME inov-8.

Graphene has the potential to change our lives in so many ways. Water filtration, aviation and consumer electronics are among the many applications that are exciting scientists, product developers and the public the world over. Now, athletic equipment can be added to this list.

Working with inov-8, a small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) based in the north-west of England, The University of Manchester has helped to develop the world’s first graphene sports shoes.

The project has set the bar high, resulting in not only a world-leading product, but also a highly effective partnership that is boosting the University’s commercial reputation – and that of a fellow northern brand.


Birth of the G-SERIES

In 2016 a team headed by Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan at Manchester’s National Graphene Institute (NGI) published a paper revealing how the mechanical properties of rubber could be dramatically improved by adding graphene to it.

The story grabbed the attention of the press – and, subsequently, of Ian Bailey, CEO at Cumbria-based sports brand inov-8, who quickly picked up the phone and called Dr Vijayaraghavan to discuss the possibility of collaboration.

Following one meeting and two successful funding applications to Manchester’s Impact Accelerator Fund and the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme (funded respectively by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK), plans to develop the G-SERIES – new running and fitness shoes with graphene infused soles – were set in motion in early 2017.

Northern innovation

“Everything we do is about innovation and grip,” says Michael Price, inov-8’s Product and Marketing Director. “We want to be the reference brand – the best brand for committed sportspeople in running and fitness.”

Such sportspeople use their shoes in tough conditions: ultra-marathons, running up and down fells, and so on. Grip is therefore a vital part of the shoe’s performance, but high-grip rubber is soft and can wear down more quickly.

NGI scientists worked closely with inov-8’s factory and field testers to tackle this trade-off, infusing rubber with graphene to create an innovative composite that made the outsoles of the G-SERIES 50% stronger, 50% more elastic and 50% harder wearing.

Available in 250 retailers across 26 countries, the new running and fitness shoes are already proving hugely popular.

“We saw the best pre-orders we’ve ever had on any shoes for the G-SERIES – and the TERRAULTRA G 260 model sold out one month after launch,” reveals Michael.

“Feedback from our athletes says that the improvements in grip and durability really make a difference to performance.”

The need for speed

With 28 years’ experience in the sports industry, including at global brands such as Adidas, Slazenger and Asics, Michael knows how important it is to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Speed was therefore a key benefit of the project for him – not only in terms of the outcomes for runners, but also in the product’s rapid transition from idea to delivery.

“For a sports brand to go through the entire development process and get a brand-new product to market in 18 months is very fast; it usually takes at least three years,” Michael explains. “I think this is unique to inov-8 and the University. We’ve formed a very strong partnership and worked very quickly together.”

For Dr Vijayaraghavan, it was the combination of Manchester’s quality of science and support with inov-8’s status as a forward thinking SME that resulted in this fast-paced outcome.

“The science base of graphene at Manchester is the best anywhere by a long way. The University has really invested in commercialisation,” he says.

“Plus, as a fairly small company, inov-8 is very agile and open. We were able to work directly with their factory from a very early stage, trying out compounds on a pilot scale quickly and effectively.”

Future developments

The inov-8 KTP runs until 2020 – but Michael is keen for the relationship to continue further.

“This will hopefully become a long-term partnership,” he says. “We’re now part of the Northern Powerhouse and that’s great for us.

“We’re already looking at the next innovation. Graphene is super-light and super-strong, so we can reduce product weight while maintaining strong performance. There’s also process innovation; how we create the composites. We’re leading the way and will continue to push our leadership position. It’s very exciting.”

With three KTPs and two spin-outs on the go, Dr Vijayaraghavan’s team is certainly kept busy – but he is similarly eager for such projects to continue.

“The future economy of the north-west – indeed, of the whole country – will depend on innovation,” he says. “We need to grow the existing manufacturing and R&D base, and create new opportunities. That comes from innovative products and materials like graphene.

“For a relatively small company like inov-8 to be able to work with us and generate this impact is exactly what they – and we as a north-west university – need to be doing.”

The benefits of KTPs work both ways, of course.

“We get cutting-edge science and technology, while the University people we work with get strong commercial experience that will help them in other projects,” Michael explains. “I hope our success encourages other companies to work with UK universities on KTPs. It’s good for UK PLC.”

The road test

Outdoor journalist and trail runner Damian Hall ran the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc at the end of August. This is the world’s biggest trail running race: 105 miles (169km) in distance, including 10km of ascent, the course circumnavigates Europe’s highest peak.

Out of 2,300 runners, Damian came fifth: the best performance by a British male in the race since 2010. He ran the entire race in a pair of the TERRAULTRA G 260 shoes.

“I’m running with more confidence than before,” Damian told us. “I no longer wonder if my shoe will grip the terrain. I just assume it will – which is liberating.”


More Manchester innovation

Manchester was the biggest mover in the 2018 Reuters top 100 most innovative universities in the world, with judges highlighting its work in graphene as a main factor. This will soon be bolstered by the University’s second graphene facility, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC). Due to open in December 2018, the GEIC – complemented by the NGI – will help diverse commercial partners to rapidly prototype and develop new graphene products, accelerating their route to market. 

Find out more about the University’s engagement with business.

Graphene is an advanced material and one of our University’s research beacons.

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