Bea Perks reports on a company developing printable circuits, where any setbacks are viewed as positive learning experiences

Bea Perks reports on a company developing printable circuits, where any setbacks are viewed as positive learning experiences


Steve Kelly Chief executive, SmartKem Limited

SmartKem is a high tech materials company specialising in flexible electronics technology, which was set up in 2009 by Steve Kelly. ’I saw a gap in the market for high-performance organic semiconductor materials for printable electronics,’ says Kelly, who has a track record for materials-science start ups. 

Previously, Kelly ran a materials company called Datalase, which produced a pigment that changes colour when irradiated by a CO2 infrared laser. Before that, he was chief technology officer at US-based ink technology company, Kromacorp.

SmartKem is on the Optic Technium campus in North Wales, which was set up for organisations entering the opto-electronics market. ’The Welsh government has proven to be very supportive of R&D start-ups and has a strong grant and support culture,’ says Kelly. ’Printed electronics has been one of the key sectors identified by the Welsh government for investment.’

In at the deep end 

Kelly certainly chose a challenging time to launch the company, but he now says that successfully raising venture capital funding during the financial meltdown in 2008-2009 was a particular high point in the company’s history. 

The company is developing a new technology platform focusing on high performance and high value organic semi-conducting materials that can be ’printed’ to form electronic circuits on lightweight, rugged and low cost polymer films. ’SmartKem’s main objective is to become recognised as a global leader in its field,’ says Kelly, ’and see its materials used in future applications such as portable computers the thickness of a credit card and ultra-thin TVs that can be rolled up like a newspaper.’ SmartKem was a recent winner of the inaugural Oxford Venturefest gold award for British technology innovation of the year.  

Kelly says that although there’s no direct correlation between his qualifications and the world of business start ups that he’s found himself in, ’I don’t think I would have reached this point without an academic grounding in applied technology.’ Kelly was awarded a diploma in polymer science and technology from Manchester Polytechnic in 1984. ’I suppose you could say I have made a business out of taking good laboratory ideas and finding product applications for them.’ 

SmartKem’s chief scientist, Russell Griffiths, graduated with a BSc in chemistry from the University of Durham in 1996, and stayed on at Durham to complete a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry, studying organo-silicon reactive intermediates. Although there is little cross-over in terms of technology, says Griffiths, the ’mechanics’ of how you perform a research role (literature reviews, writing reports, presenting data) are learnt as a PhD student. ’As a chemist, you have to be adaptable in terms of the work required on any specific project,’ says Griffiths, ’the work in my PhD was quite varied, so gave a good grounding in a wide variety of techniques that have proved useful in both this and previous roles.’ 


Positive learning experiences 

Griffiths, being one of a team of only six staff (including four PhD scientists), has a broad range of tasks, ranging from performing experiments in the lab while supervising other lab staff, identifying and procuring equipment and providing technical data for customers. ’As a small company, it’s great to be able to do a wide variety of things that you would be unlikely to get exposure to in a large employer,’ he says, pointing to such examples as setting up accounts with suppliers and obtaining quotes for equipment. 

Griffiths has worked for several companies - from large multinationals to small start ups - involved in both speciality and pharmaceutical chemicals. ’The good thing about working for SmartKem is to be directly involved with how the company runs.’ 

Things are certainly on the up at SmartKem, with staff numbers set to increase from six currently to 10 later this year. Asked if there have been any low points in SmartKem’s first few years, chief executive Kelly is firmly of the glass-half-full persuasion: ’Even the setbacks are positive learning opportunities for early stage businesses like SmartKem!’ he says.