Monday, January 09, 2012

What You Want May not be What You Need

Mark Rosenzweig has an commentary in the latest issue of Chemical Processing Magazine, entitled "There is a New Buzz on Campus" which discusses Dow Chemical's source of $25 million to a select group of American universities. The focus of the money is to finance a return to traditional research areas, rather than focus on the latest trends. To quote Dow:
"In the last two decades, there has been a shift in the U.S. academia from a focus on traditional skills of chemistry, materials science and chemical engineering toward bio-related areas. This shift can be primarily attributed to the greater availability of funding from both government and the private sector. The net impact is less research is being done in the fields that are less trendy, but key to the development of the industry as a whole, like catalysis, polymers, materials science and separations."
There is even a quote from William Banholzer, the Chief Technology Office of Dow (who has been in my crosshairs before for saying that all the polymers that can be invented have been invented):
"This unique and industry-leading investment will support breakthrough technologies and increase collaboration between Dow and leading universities, while helping to develop America's future pipeline of Ph.D.-level talent," notes William F. Banholzer, the company's chief technology officer and executive vice president of ventures, new business development and licensing. "It is vital that we support academic research to ensure universities can continue the tradition of excellence in chemical engineering, chemistry and materials science to help address the needs of the industry and our country."
Research grants always come with strings attached, some more obvious than others - it a variation of that old adage that whoever pays the piper requests the tune. Government funded research is increasing under public scrutiny, and so researchers are having to provide ever more information about the potential payoffs of their efforts - hence much of the hype that a new breakthrough will cure cancer AND reduce petroleum imports AND make your kids smarter. Dow's money will be no different - it's just that the tune will be changed. Dow is expecting these efforts to help their business which is based exclusively on large volume products with smaller margins [*], and the research will need that focus as well in order to be a "collaboration between Dow and leading universities". That's all fine and nice - I don't have a quibble with it, as that as how they have chosen to run their business, and researchers are free to apply for the money or not. No one is being forced to do anything.

But as I noted in my earlier blog post, Dow is clearly looking for large volume products that will be accepted in the marketplace quickly. Without these constraints, I find it quite surprising that Dow would be unable to take advantage of all the "trendy" research being generated these days. They specifically call out "bio" research as being so trendy (overlooking nanotechnology). Keep in mind that Dow was initially a joint-developer (with Cargill) of the polylactic acid Natureworks effort, a "bio"polymer if there ever was one, but sold out pretty early on - a move that in hindsight looks to have been a poor choice given the tremendous success of Natureworks.

Maybe Dow will be rewarded in this case with what they seek, but I have serious doubts that anything will be produced that they will want to invest further so as to have a large enough scale product quick enough to keep them happy.

[*] This is why Banholzer was so critical of any new polymers being invented. As far as Dow is concerned - looking for large volume materials - they have been. Or as was noted in the earlier blog post, large enough volume quickly enough.

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