A Prescription for Chem Industry R&D



Last month, Chemical Processing took a look at the not-so-rosy state of chemical industry research and development (R&D).

According to a U.S. Technology Administration report, the ability of the U.S. chemical industry to maintain its technological edge will be critical to future competitiveness.1 "To do so," states the report, "it must continue and increase already high levels of investment in R&D and new plants and equipment."

What actions can industry take to improve the situation?

Join forces

Two "heads" can be better ," and more cost-effective ," than one. A number of chemical companies are realizing R&D breakthroughs by tapping into the expertise of other firms.

DuPont, Wilmington, Del., and Genencor International, Palo Alto, Calif., recently announced the achievement of "major technical milestones" in the development of a microbe that is used in a fermentation process to convert glucose into 1,3 propanediol (PDO). PDO is a monomer used to make DuPont's Sorona 3GT polymer.

Midland, Mich.-based Dow Corning Corp. and NeoPhotonics Corp., Fremont, Calif., are teaming up to develop photonic crystal technology and components for potential use in optical telecommunications devices and more. The strategic alliance combines Dow Corning's experience in silicon-based materials technology and solutions with NeoPhotonics' know-how in nanomaterials and device technologies.

"Importing new ideas is a good way to multiply the building blocks of innovation," according to a recent Harvard Business Review report.2 "It should come as no surprise that companies that collaborate with outsiders on their R&D reap a higher percentage of their total sales from new products than companies that don't collaborate," states the report.

Of course, this type of "open-market" innovation involves a number of risks ," most of them related to information sharing. "Generally, the greatest danger lies not in the transfer of the innovation," says the report, "but in the structure of the deal."

Work with government

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Industrial Technology, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are just a few of the U.S. government agencies with funding programs in place to support chemical industry R&D efforts. However, some experts believe this funding should be increased ," and even redirected ," to encourage future R&D efforts.

"The government has demonstrated the effectiveness of supporting R&D in the bio, defense and space industries," maintains Brian Southern, president and chief technology officer for Baltimore-based Accelics, a provider of computational applications and tools to accelerate chemical, pharmaceutical and other R&D and discovery processes. "The chemical industry needs [a similar] influx of support that can be used to support long-term research on new chemical entities." This support could best be realized through NIST, NSF and specific economic development avenues, he adds.

"For things that are outside of the industry in terms of new technology ," such as alternative energy sources ," that's where government can play a big role," contends Dr. Michael Wong, a chemical engineering faculty member at Rice University in Houston. "They can say: Here's a pot of money, and here's a project that we think should benefit the world, the United States, and potentially you guys ," industry folks."

Dr. Terry Collins, Thomas Lord professor of chemistry and director of the Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, believes federal funding mechanisms ," especially in the sustainability area ," must go beyond the "status quo." According to Collins, funding "should be far more focused on promoting creative, high-risk research than on measuring productivity." Important objectives, he maintains, should be the development of efficient, inexpensive, nonpolluting technologies to convert solar energy to electrical or chemical energy; the creation of replacements for polluting technologies; and the development of alternative feedstocks from renewable resources.

Partner with academia

Five or ten years ago, the chemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies were the ones performing the cutting-edge research, while academia lagged behind. With the exception of the pharmaceutical sector, it appears the tide has turned. Those companies forming R&D partnerships with universities, therefore, might find themselves at a competitive advantage.

Of course, industry is likely to meet a few obstacles on the road to technology transfer.

"The current university environment is difficult, at best, when it comes to tech transfer," says Accelics' Southern. "They take way too much time to work with outside companies, and their goal of publication is contradictory to the intellectual property the chemical company is looking for."

Programs such as NSF's GOALI (Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry) can help bring industry and university collaborators together, notes Rice University's Wong, boosting the potential for project success. Industry also can integrate university-developed technology and process advances if it hires the people involved with their development, he adds.

Additional resources

The Chemical Industry Vision2020 technology partnership (www.chemicalv ision2020.org), an industry-led initiative launched in 1996, provides yet another R&D option ," one that promotes collaborations among industry, national laboratories and academia. In addition, chemical manufacturers now can choose from a number of R&D-related software tools that could slash the time ," and costs ," associated with traditional R&D efforts.

1 Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Industry Faces the 21st Century ," The Chemical Industry, U.S. Technology Administration, 1996.

2 Rigby, D. and C. Zook. "Open-Market Innovation," Harvard Business Review, 2002.

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