An interview with Imagine Intelligent Materials’ Chris Gilbey

Chris Gilbey co-founded and is executive chairman of Imagine Intelligent Materials Ltd, a company that has developed large-scale surface sensing using graphene – “the industrial equivalent of skin.” 

Graphene is a recently discovered material made from honeycomb sheets of carbon just one atom thick, and it may be the lightest, strongest, thinnest, best heat- and electricity- conducting material ever discovered.

Imagine was the first commercial producer of graphene in Australia and has been manufacturing conductive coatings for textiles since 2016.

Chris is chairman of the Australian Graphene Industry Association (AGIA) and prior to Imagine, he was entrepreneur in residence at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Electromaterials Science, responsible for developing commercialisation strategy. There he spun out Aquahydrex, a low-cost water-splitting hydrogen production technology.

Before that, Chris was CEO of Lake Technology Limited, a digital signals processing company, which he sold to Dolby Laboratories. He then became global marketing consultant to Dolby, helping increase its licensing revenues ahead of listing on the NYSE. 

And his earlier career was spent in the music industry, shaping the careers of globally renowned acts such as AC/DC, InXs, Keith Urban, Tommy Emmanuel, The Church, and The Saints and managing the publishing catalogues of The Beatles and Elvis Presley in Australia.

He was co-founder of a music industry charity, The Golden Stave, and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1992. 

Chris and I have been friends for 10 years, and oddly, long before we made each other’s acquaintance, by previously unknown and total coincidence, we worked on the same musical acts at opposite ends of the planet. While, although also London-born, he was already in Australia, I worked in the London press office of WEA Records at the beginning of AC/DC’s career, and subsequently as a press officer at RCA Records for The Church and InXs.

What was it that made the idea of internet social literacy interesting to you?

Way back in the dark ages, before Facebook, there was no concept of social networks per se.

And that was even though academics had started writing about, and doing research on the concept of large networks existing, and how those networks acting together could create significant waves of change. 

And there was one in particular guy at the Royal College of Arts, Paul Ormerod,  a deep thinker about this early on who published something. 

There’s a kind of convergence here, if I think of several vectors, and social networks is one. 

The thing that has happened, where now people don’t read a manual, there is no room for a technical manual to support to support software, or pretty much anything, even the hardware of any car. There is an expectation by people now that everything should be instant and should be intuitive. 

And that, to me, is a kind of parallel converging vector to social network literacy. So social networks, we have become aware of have invaded our lives, and we willingly to a large extent accepted them. And as a result, we become literate about them. 

But there are, there are all these other aspects of the way that we have allowed ourselves to become socially re-engineered to, and to expect things differently. 

So there’s that aspect of behavioural economics.

I was talking to a guy I know who was at a lunch with the chairman of Telstra, who apparently talked about a product release Telstra had and was frustrated by the lack of take-up. He said, we built this product, we’ve engineered it to the needs of people and they’re not bloody or buying it, or downloading it, or whatever. 

This guy is with a very large, Japanese multinational company, and he said, these days, it’s all about the consumer, whether you engineer something that you want, it’s all about whether the demand is there from the consumer. 

And I think there’s also a component of this social network literacy. I think this is about us entering an era where the consumer is all powerful. And, they have become substantially literate with using these social networks, and whether or not that’s to the benefit of humanity, or the planet, I think, is in debate. 

What we’ve got now is this ability for people to hide behind this screen, and not necessarily to have eye contact with the other party, face contact, not even voice contact, but they can make comments now. 

And that’s one of the reasons why you get the trolling that takes place, and then this huge amount of ugliness that exists online now. 

And the way of course, speaking of the obvious, that way, people are becoming more and more polarised, is of course, epitomised by the US president, and the way he keeps on throwing, you know, metaphorical hand grenades out into the crowds to elicit negative and positive responses that are highly polarised. 

And some people occupy themselves that all of those things, rather than actually getting on with the detail and figuring out what truly is happening. 

So this has meant that we now have pretty much all of life now taking place at the surface. And the one thing we know about the surface is that’s where shit floats.

Deloitte’s Robert Hillard told me he felt that what is frustrating to customers is when collectively they know more about the product or service of an organisation than people who represent the organisation.

Do the people who represent a product or a business actually have an ability to really understand it will resonate with the customer’s problem? All products that are sold, axiomatically, need to solve a problem.

The end user has a very close, if not necessarily clear, need to solve a problem and a need to reduce pain. And if the person who is representing that product is not able to tap into and understand what that pain is, how do they truly provide decent service? 

And you know, you think about the times you go into a shop. I’m just thinking about going to a retailer and somebody comes up, and this happens to be in New York going to a particular store, and they just over-service the buggery out of you. 

But, you know, if somebody comes up to you, as just as you walked into a store, says, how can I help you, and you’re in there to, kind of, browse, and kind of semi-conscious of I gotta get a shirt, or I’m going to get a jacket. 

But, before you go to look at the jacket, you just want to have a look around and see if this store actually has fashions that suit you. You don’t want to just to be shown jackets yet, you want to get a feel. So you can find yourself getting over-serviced. 

And then of course, there’s the other times when you’re looking to buy a particular thing, and then there’s nobody to serve you. 

Businesses need to learn to understand their customers

I don’t think it’s just about social network literacy, but I think that may be the symptom, as I think there is a real need to get domain expertise for a company to be able to understand what is the specific expertise that needs to be present in this business in order to sufficiently understand the need, so as to develop that solution. 

And how companies and, of course, startup companies, I think, almost by definition, have to be nimble, and versatile and all of those other adjectives that show their ability to be responsive. 

Companies that have legacy businesses have inbuilt cultures that are very hard and impossible to shift once it’s established. So how do companies respond to these needs? 

There is a way to do it. And a lot of the really well managed companies that I find myself dealing with have – whether they state this as one of their capabilities and qualities – I think some of these companies have an ability to understand that they are not going to develop the solution in house, and that the way for them to do it is they have to bring the technology in from the outside. 

When I say technology, it could be any kind of solution, but they need to bring it in from the outside. 

And the best run companies also understand that you that if you acquire and bring that external solution into the existing culture, the probability is your existing legacy culture will swamp the incoming material and kill it off. All that made it great will be killed. 

I think the big companies that are well run understand that the best way to operate is to find a way for that true innovation, the kind of classic Peter Drucker innovation of definition, is it has to remain outside of the mothership in order for it to thrive. And the mothership’s role then is to provide a soft touch, together with money and access to customers. 

And the company that has done this, to my mind most extraordinarily well, and whether or not I like the company is neither here nor there, but it has bloody well nailed it, is Nestle. 

When Nestle brought in Nespresso, the history of that is just bloody extraordinary. 

In the mid-90s, five people within the company got this concept that they needed to arrest the problem with the decline of instant coffee sales, because of the trend developing towards real coffee. They came up with the idea that if they were going to enter the real coffee market, and they had to find a way of creating the perfect cup of coffee every time.

And they, as far as I recall, between the mid-90s and now have spent about a half a billion dollars building the brand, and building the devices and the methodology. And they now have 50 per cent of the global coffee market. 

And, I think it was early this year, or last year, they paid, as far as I recall, $US8 billion to Starbucks to buy the right to use the Starbucks brand in coffee products that would go on to American supermarket shelves. And that’s huge. 

And you’ve got to give it to these guys. What an extraordinary success story, and in the articles I’ve read about that is that the reason that was successful was because it existed as a business unit outside of the company. And it reported in at a very high level, but was given absolute free rein to to evolve itself.

How can companies use this resource, which is the social internet, to become learning organisations? 

My view is that we are at the nexus point in so many things. So many of the familiar rocks that we unwittingly build our belief systems on and the way we do things are being shaken to the core right now. And yet, perhaps for other reasons, people are not willing to embrace risk. Nobody wants to take undue risk. We all want to be able to operate with some level of certainty. 

I was recently on a plane and got talking to a guy and I said to him, there’s so much uncertainty in the world, and I actually think it’s a problem. 

This is a guy who’s very wealthy, who runs a quite large manufacturing company in Australia, and is a big investor. And he said, there’s no money to be made in certainty, we want uncertainty, that’s where the money is. 

And I thought, my god, you gotta have balls of steel, and you’ve got to have true insights. If you can look at what’s happening now and go, here’s something that I can use to my advantage, and have enough personal strength that you can say, I’m going to go in this direction, and this is sufficiently risky to me to be able to place a big bet … I don’t think a lot of people out there feel that.

And, I think the thing that companies need is an ability to learn and change because…

Every company must learn to become an information company

Look at Amazon, that what they do, and what they’ve done. As some book company, it’s an information company, right? They have more information about customers than anybody else, and that is the reason that makes them a valuable business.

On investing in insight and vision

I do absolutely the wrong thing in every respect. And because for me, first up, I’m not an investor in big companies. My whole rationale has been about startups and businesses that have absolutely ridiculous levels of risk associated with them. 

I’m a kind of momentum investor, if you like. I think that if it’s the right people with the right idea, and that’s what I’m interested in, and these people have some insights into a space for which they have the technical capabilities and the know-how… 

It’s a whole bunch of things, and you can’t know all of the answers. 

What you hope is that those people you put your faith in and your money behind, that those people really do know what’s required and are prepared to take the actions and not just talk. 

So, for me it’s about was about how big is the vision? And how, how will the execution work? 

One of the things I think, for businesses in Australia in my area of interest, in startups and early stage technology companies, one of the things that is hugely lacking here, is an understanding that we exist in a global market, and there is no national marketplace anymore, there is only a global marketplace. 

If you’re building a business, you’re building it to be a global business. Alternatively, you’re just trying to create a small business that replicates something somebody else is doing in order to create a wedge play that you can make money out of because you flip it to whoever the global business is that’s entering the country.

All of that gets down, in many respects, to learning. Because I think learning, learning can be broken into a number of subsets, too. 

So when we talk about learning, and business, you’ve got the need, just in a very simple terms, for management to learn, and adapt to extremely dynamic market conditions that are changing moment to moment. 

You need to have the workforce continuing to learn so that they can change and adapt and grow into these new things. 

And then, you get into the far more interesting area, which is machine learning, and how much will machine learning impact the way that businesses are developed to grow? 

I see something slightly different in social network learning, and if you like, engagement is about this conscious engagement of individuals with each other across networks. 

And then the machine learning is about the system itself, and its ability to learn and generate insights, and potentially predictive analytics. 

And then you have the ability for those to converge together, where you’ve got data that’s being extracted from a device and is utilised to create new insights, plus the way that humans interact with it. 

Very soon, machine learning will start to derive insights that humans don’t program, because the machines will program themselves to generate data and, and insight that humans haven’t thought of.

And what we’ve also got to consider within this is to make it as even more of a total fruitcake is that everything that there is within the next few years will be a sensing object – everything – there is not one thing that will not sense [the universe in which it operates.]

And, of course, everybody, I think, recognises that sensors are being deployed all over the place. But what’s also happening is that sensing capabilities are starting to be developed as an aftermarket product that can be put into everything that already exists and has been installed. 

So it’s not just about the new building, or the new vehicle. This is about adapting those pre-existing ones to be sensing, and that that starts to get very interesting.

And so the things I talk about to Anita Kocsis at Design Factory Melbourne about is what happens when you can go and use that kind of design thinking not just to design this end environment, but you do it, where you start at the molecular level, and you design the molecular structure of the materials you use, in order to build a building, or a component within that building, in order for that to be optimally realised, you know. Think that you do this at the molecular level. What happens then, what happens when you do this? That’s what we can do now.

We must invoke networked learning at the speed of thought

The essence I think of what you’re talking about, and social network learning is it is utterly dynamic and fluid and it is moving at the speed of human thought. And what companies really need to understand is that they need to act and respond at the speed of human thought.

That is hugely challenging for legacy businesses, because they have processes in place, which are quite logical, because they help de-risk things. 

But you’ve got to find ways to do that, because otherwise the shareholders will not forgive you. But they will not forgive you if you drive the truck over a cliff, either. 

Either way, you drive it over a cliff, because you didn’t respond to the market. You drive it over a cliff because you sat there waiting to get more information. 

Right now, we’re faced with the potential for the entire planet and the species on the planet, including us, to all die. We’ve got a president of Brazil, who is, if it’s possible, as ego-maniacal as Donald Trump, and wants to deny getting money from the Europeans to fight the fires, which he caused to be started in the first place because he wants to clear the jungle and turn it into a fucking cattle ranch. 

So, you know, how do we deal with these things? You can understand that the guy wants to create more economic gains for the country, so that he can have his hand in the cookie jar and make a load of money. 

You know, there’s a lot of enlightened people. Now there are a lot of people like that they’re out there, that are the Trumpists, and there are a lot of people who are just like deer in the headlights, and not doing anything, like the Democrats in America. 

And then there are a bunch of people who are smart people who are trying to figure out how to actually do things that could enable the planet to survive and thrive. 

I don’t know how the human race is actually going to be to get out of this mess at the moment. 

The social media is dumbing things down, but our universities won’t save us

One of the things that worries the bejesus out of me, to the extent of worrying, I mean, I worry because I have grandchildren that I would like to see or have the sense that they’re going to grow up and have happy lives. 

But I look around and I go, one of the biggest problems that we have now is that the socially networked, meta mind that that we have now has created, in many respects, a dumbing down of the world. 

How can this be? Well, of course it can be because that cultural tsunami of dumbness that comes with us relying on and being entertained by dumb media.

And universities, being revenue producing businesses rather than businesses that produce enlightened students, talk about producing students that are able to think deeply about things. 

Some may come out thinking deeply. But the true nature of the university system in this country, and elsewhere, for that matter is that they are money making machines. 

You know, when they say that, in Australia, the third biggest export in this country is education, you’ve got to say to yourself, the fact that it’s even being measured is problematic. 

That’s really the problem that we’re measuring teaching as an industry. It’s wrong. It is so utterly wrong.

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