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Ora Graphene Audio Inc. is a company endeavoring to unbind sound from its current limitations through cutting edge materials science. As with many great discoveries, GrapheneQ – Ora’s revolutionary new audio transducer material – was the result of a confluence of two disparate fields, Chemistry and Audio.
At the engineering labs of Prof. Thomas Szkopek at McGill University, Ora co-founder Dr, Robert-Eric Gaskell and his brother Dr. Peter Gaskell headed research into how the properties of graphene oxide could be tuned to create the ideal conditions for professional, high-quality sound. Audio that is clear of distortion across the entire band of human hearing demands that a transducer material be unrelentingly stiff. However, to simultaneously be efficient enough to produce loud volumes in even the smallest form factors, it also needs to be exceedingly light. Until GrapheneQ, these conditions could only be achieved by extremely exotic materials such as beryllium and CVD diamond, materials that costs thousands of dollars to make.
Shortly after producing the first prototype of an audio transducer based on Graphene Oxide technology, Robert joined TandemLaunch, an incubator that specializes in creating spin-outs based on university research, as an entrepreneur-in-residence. It was at TandemLaunch where he assembled a founding team around his idea. After an investment of $750,000 to build Ora, the team started on their path to bring professional quality audio to every device. Before they could achieve that goal, they had to face a challenge that had yet to be overcome by anyone, manufacturing speaker-grade graphene oxide membranes at scale.
Graphene has captured the imagination of scientists and society alike since the discovery of how to extract it from graphite in 2004 by Prof. Andre Geim and Prof. Kostya Novoselov at the University of Manchester. Revolutions in sensing, energy storage and energy harvesting are only a few of the multitude of promises that have put graphene at ‘wonder material’ status. Time and time again, however, these promises have been crippled by the merciless realities of manufacturing. If Ora was going to succeed where other commercial endeavors of graphene had failed, they would have to put manufacturability at the forefront. The team sought solutions in the manner they knew best, from the realm of academia. The search led them south across the border to Northwestern University, where they found the research of Prof. SonBinh Nguyen.
Prof. Nguyen’s research group carries many of the same qualities that lend themselves to innovative discovery, first and foremost, a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach connecting disparate fields and discovering knowledge at the interface. In his investigations into the surface chemistry of graphene nanocomposites, Prof. Nguyen had identified a way to manufacture graphene sheets in a simple process that could be easily scaled to an industrial setting. It was in this approach that Ora found the solution to their challenge of manufacturing, they were now free to focus on tuning GrapheneQ into the ideal material for professional-quality audio for the mass consumer market.
Ora is a story of the endless opportunities that can be found through collaboration. Ora’s cure for lackluster audio is a collaboration of materials scientists and mechanical engineers, it’s unique solution to the challenges of graphene manufacturing a collaboration across international borders, and so this article ends with an acknowledgement of the academic minds at McGill University and Northwestern University, Professors SonBinh Nguyen and Thomas Szkopek, whose collaboration has enabled Ora to turn graphene audio into reality.