Our search for Australia’s most innovative companies – how PPK went from mining to cutting edge manufacturing

@AuManufacturing is searching for Australia’s 50 most innovative manufacturers, and today we feature our latest nominee for recognition, technology investment powerhouse PPK Group. Here, Peter Roberts interviews co-founder and Executive Chairman, Robin Levison.

Robin Levison is an unlikely entrepreneur focussing on commercialising university research in the advanced manufacturing of totally new materials.

His background is that a man whose first job at Merrill Lynch disappointed his coal miner father – a man who tragically passed away from silicosis.

And his greatest success came in growing a manufacturer of underground mining equipment during Australia’s resources boom, Industrea, from a valuation of around $3 million to the $850 million valuation achieved when sold to global giant GE in 2012.

Together with two co-founders, they surveyed the scene and according to Levison: “It became fairly clear to us four or five years ago that everything to do with coal was going to be in decline.

“I started to see the future, even though I wasn’t driving an electric vehicle, in a move towards decarbonisation, vehicle electrification and our involvement in everything from solar to batteries and EVs.

“…What did we do, we transitioned PPK Group (his new company) from being a mining services business to what I would call a university technology incubation and commercialisation business.”

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Now, having demerged the mining equipment business, PPK Group while not itself a manufacturer, has parlayed its capabilities in analysing and investing in new businesses into a manufacturing investment portfolio ranging from BNNT Technology, White Graphene and Li-S Energy to Craig International Ballistics and Advanced Mobility Analytics Group.

While the latter was born of University of Queensland Technology, the portfolio is centred around technologies from the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University, Geelong, utilising boron nitride nanotubes (BNNT), which have similar properties to carbon fibre nanotubes.

What began as laboratory work has evolved to the stage where BNNT Technology can manufacture in commercial volumes – its largest-ever sale is 250 grams – and is commercialising numerous uses from lithium sulphur batteries to thermal packaging, 3D metal printing, ceramics and reinforced polymers.

“It looked to us that of we could take the laboratory scale manufacturing which had been successful in producing greater than 95 percent purity BNNTs, and if we could scale that up…and become the lowest cost, highest purity manufacturer it would be a success.”

This led to the group’s investment in Li-S Energy, which is commercialising lithium sulphur batteries which have a specific energy capacity almost three times that of a conventional lithium sulphur battery.

Levison said: “At Deakin these (the batteries) had been undergoing R&D for 10 years and had been mildly successful, but not successful enough for them to continue.

“We set up a new co and we funded the risky part of the development, to take that to fruition.”

In the batteries, BNNTs and a new nano-composite called Li‑nanomesh help reduce the formation of dendrites, reducing short-circuit risks and capacity loss.

In April Li-S Energy announced the development its first 20 layer battery cells utilising its third generation semi-solid state lithium sulphur chemistry, and in March PPK acquired a material interest in Australia’s largest privately owned battery manufacturer PowerPlus Energy.

The synergies between a novel technology and a battery manufacturer are obvious. BNNT Technology has also signed its first defence sector collaboration agreement with survivability systems specialist TenCate Advanced Armor.

Several of PPK’s businesses have been able to raise cash from investors, in the process returning cash to PPK’s investors, with Li-S Energy having a hugely successful listing propelling PPK Group’s shares to $21.95 a year ago.

Li-S Energy raised $34 million in an initial public offering (IPO), while another PPK business White Graphene which is commercialising boron nitride nanosheets a single molecule thick and BNNT itself have raised their own funds.

Despite these successes PPK Group nonetheless has been savaged by the sharp falls in technology stocks worldwide in the past year, though its fall to as low as $1.60 on the ASX has been more than most.

“Investors are still way ahead (on their investment) – we have proven the model does work.”

Levison is cognisant that today’s capital raising environment is much more risk averse than before, however he remains bullish about BNNTs and the potential for Australian battery manufacturing support from the federal government’s National Reconstruction Fund.

“”We have a lot of shots on the goal – we only need one or two of them to hit the mark to be a success.”

Further reading:

Picture: Li-S Energy/Robin Levison

Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers is a new campaign by @AuManufacturing. It has been made possible by the generous support of  MYOBSMC Corporation Australia, and Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions. Be sure to check back at this website for regular updates  including profiles of nominees and other information.

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