They had extracted flakes of graphene just one atom thick from a piece of graphite using regular adhesive tape.
Graphene Frontiers has found a way to make graphene inexpensively and efficiently in sizes and with detection technology that enable its application to large-scale problems, Patterson said.
The priority is medical diagnostics - with a graphene-based biosensor platform piece one-tenth the size of a postage stamp - that will reduce time-consuming lab processes to automated systems with unprecedented speed and sensitivity.
"Imagine that scenario where you walk into your doctor and five minutes later you know what's wrong," he said.
And that diagnosis won't involve the extraction of tubes of blood, just a drop that could be tested for dozens of things at once.
"What we're doing is absolutely at the cutting edge, bleeding edge," Patterson said.
Another future application he foresees: first-responders and soldiers with wearable graphene chips that can quickly and accurately detect the presence of harmful environmental conditions.
The company of six full-time employees, based at the Science Center, had its first sales in 2012 and is selling sample material for research and development as an early revenue stream. It also is working on joint-development agreements with partners in life-sciences research and diagnostics.
It has amassed $2 million in private investment and $1 million in grants, including $744,600 from the National Science Foundation in September to advance a new manufacturing technique that would enable large-scale production of graphene.
Patterson, 37, calls Graphene Frontier "a great Philadelphia story" because of a deep local effort behind it, including a $500,000 investment from several classmates in his Wharton Executive MBA class.
A serial entrepreneur and a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in the history of science, Patterson enrolled in Wharton in 2011 while working at Bank of America managing global-delivery programs. He learned of graphene work at the University of Pennsylvania, and "immediately I fell in love with the technology."
He gave his notice at Bank of America in fall 2011, and Graphene Frontiers became a spinout under the university's UPstart program, with Patterson at the helm.
Most of what is now being done at the company is premised on work done in 2010 in the lab of A.T. Charlie Johnson, a physics professor at Penn and director of the school's Nano/Bio Interface Center, Patterson said. Johnson and a researcher had discovered how to make large-area pieces of graphene - a square inch, big by the flake standard.
The initial idea was simply to make graphene. But with its cost so inexpensive, nearing pennies per square inch, it became apparent "we have to sell a heck of a lot of square inches to make money," Patterson said.
Thus the diagnostics turn. The business model is to sell the chips and license the technology to diagnostic companies.
Dustin Brisson, an associate professor in Penn's biology department, is working with Graphene Frontier to come up with an application that would detect Lyme disease without the false positives and negatives of other antibody-based tests, and without the delay of cultures.
"The hope is that it's something that can be done in the doctor's office as you wait," Brisson said. "You would get your results in an hour, and it would be accurate."
For Lyme sufferers, for whom delays in treatment only add to the misery, "this is a real savior," Brisson said.
Ken Margulies, a professor of medicine and director of heart failure and transplant research at Penn, sees promise for detection of heart disease or injury - "where time matters, where you want to make the right diagnosis quickly."