Strong working research teams are the driving trends for a proactive, forward-looking approach to R&D.
Every year, in conjunction with the R&D 100 Awards Banquet, R&D Magazine’s editors convene a panel of R&D leaders to discuss the current issues confronting their organization’s R&D programs, staff and administration. This year’s panel was held on November 7, 2014, at the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nev., and included three R&D managers from industry and one each from government and academic organizations. Two of the industry R&D managers were from Japan and Switzerland.
Of course, all of our panelists are deeply involved in their organization’s R&D efforts and all of their organizations are strong supporters of R&D. All five of the representative organizations were winners of 2014 R&D 100 Awards and were recognized for their innovations later on in the day. Their organizations’ individual R&D efforts, however, have different scales and different objectives. Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Iain Mylchreest, VP/R&D Chromatography/MS, for example, noted “we’re very diverse in our portfolio of technologies and as we’ve grown through acquisitions we have a significant base of technology around the world.
“We recently created an incubation R&D funding system for speculative types of R&D to enable our different businesses with similar technologies work together. This funding mechanism is meant to encourage and incubate new ideas for the organization. We also have distributed centers of excellence around certain technologies that are distributed globally.”
Mitsubishi’s Masahiro Fujita, GM Advanced Technology R&D, notes, like other companies, his organization conducts short-, mid- and long-term research programs with about half of the funding for these programs coming from corporate sources and the other half coming from the individual business units. “Our product development work is performed by the individual business units, which are often more urgent [to support business growth],” he says. It’s important, however, to keep the proper balance among the short-, mid- and long-term aspects.
Simon Labov, Director of the Radiation Detection Center at the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, notes that his laboratory’s primary charter is research, not specific marketable products like the other business R&D entities. “We have a lot of sponsored research that are funded by various government organizations for specific goals,” he says. “We also have some internal reinvestment where the research enhances the lab’s mission and things that are important to the nation—it’s a balancing act.”
Along with corporate and government research, the third part of the R&D environment includes academic research. Karen Burg, VP for Research at Kansas State Univ., notes her school’s primary goal is to educate students. “But, approximately 25% of the total expenditures by the school are invested in research,” she says. “That includes monies from the federal government and the state. Part of my job is helping people connect with each other and not having them stay in a particular silo.”
When asked about what key technologies their organizations focus on that allow them to meet their research mission goals, our R&D panel, of course, focused mostly on the specific technologies they’re directly involved with and which won an R&D 100 award for them as well. Dow Chemical Company’s Associate R&D Director Andreas Lutz, for example, noted his design team focuses on adhesive technologies for automotive applications—their award-winning structural adhesive for lightweight vehicle construction significantly reduces fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. “We provide solutions that enable the development of lightweight vehicle designs to cut fuel consumption and emissions, which is more regulated by governments. And because our customers are innovative and constantly looking to implement new designs, they partner with us.”
Of course, most organizations rely on the deep knowledge base their employees have to meet their research mission goals. Fujita notes the Mitsubishi conglomerate has many key technologies, including power electronics, motors and control systems. “We have a very deep knowledge about these key technologies and have been curating patents and know-how continuously for many years. Our deep knowledge in these areas is our most important asset; and we can make our products better and more competitive with these assets.”
Kansas State Univ.’s Burg strongly agrees with this aspect. “Our personnel and atmosphere drive development of the technologies that emerge, and often at a great rate,” says Burg. “On one side, we have a collection of really intelligent individuals who have amazingly creative ideas. On the other side is the campus environment where they can pursue those ideas. If they decide on a whim that they want to pursue the craziest idea in the world, they’re welcome to do it—assuming it’s safe and within the bounds of the law. That’s the asset that drives the development of new technologies. That’s also the challenge that we, as administrators, have in connecting those individuals with industry.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific has three pillars—healthier, cleaner and safer—that drive the focus of their technologies, according to Mylchreest. “We focus all the way from food safety to environmental screening,” he says. “Those are safety issues right now. We’re also looking at genomics, proteomics, clinical diagnostics and molecular biology to be able to understand health care and diseases. All of these drive our fundamental backbone of what we have to have in terms of capabilities.
“We have a very broad base of capabilities in the Thermo organization; all the way from electronics and mechanical engineering, but things like cloud computing have become of huge importance to just handle the amount of data we produce.”
Mylchreest touches on a key aspect of current R&D endeavors, be they industrial, government or academic. And that aspect is the breadth of disciplines it now takes to drive new technologies and the development of advanced technological products. As basically an analytical instrumentation company, Mylchreest’s organization has physicists, biologists, chemists, engineers and software developers who work collectively and in outside partnerships as well to develop their new products. “A lot about these efforts is about getting faster time to results and faster times to outcomes and diagnoses,” he says.
A lot of Mylchreest’s underlying technologies are focused on these goals (faster times to results and diagnoses). Finding the technologies to aid in these areas is the overall goal, “and they may not be the technologies that you think of today,” he continues. “They may be more orthogonal than they are today. Some of these can stretch goal programs and we need a very broad technology footprint to address these markets.”
The level of R&D investments can vary dramatically from company to company and industry to industry. Automotive companies, for example, invest a much smaller level of R&D (as a percent of revenue) than pharmaceutical companies. “But, if you look at the successful companies and compare how much they invest in R&D, you’ll see that the more successful companies also invest more in R&D than the less successful companies,” says Dow Chemical’s Lutz. “Often, people may laugh at you and state that the large amount of R&D investments are too high a risk to take. BMW, for example, has invested a lot of R&D resources in the development of their composite electric vehicle platform.” Dow has followed the BMW development with their own internal development of better performing adhesives for composite automotive vehicles.
In the government research sector, the largest fraction of what they do is research, from basic research to applied research—sponsored research devoted to specific programs that are mostly based on the core missions of the laboratory. “We’re fortunate that on top of all this R&D, we’re authorized to take 6% of our budget and use that for completely discretionary R&D,” says the Livermore Lab’s Labov. “This laboratory-directed R&D is used internally in different ways, which is driven by the scientists and engineers themselves. They are then judged across the laboratory. Another part of that directed R&D has some management direction to address critical issues and needs to build up the laboratory’s capabilities.”
The third part of the government laboratory’s directed R&D investments are on strategic initiatives where the research managers believe there will be a big jump in overall capabilities. “And while this is only 6% of our overall budget, if they’re successful, we can go back to the sponsors (government agencies) and bring it back as sponsored research,” says Labov. These directed programs have been largely successful as they always increase the laboratory’s core capabilities and better address the sponsor’s needs.
At Kansas State Univ., about a quarter of their total expenditures are spent on R&D programs, according to Burg. “These investments are primarily from sponsored programs and we’d like to think that we’ll be increasing that number by bringing in more sponsored programs,” she says. But Burg notes that there’s diminished federal support for academic R&D. “It’s a much different landscape than it was even five or 10 years ago,” she adds. “We also have diminished state support for public institutions, and we’re faced with the questions on how will this change in the future? I think that our methods are going to have to change. As a university, we have to be more vocal and we need to communicate better in language to individuals in the community to get them to understand the connection between higher education, technology development and the connection to the household those individuals live in. To this point, we have not made that connection clear, because our funding sources are now less than they used to be.”
On the positive side, Burg notes their work to involve corporate partners with students for research projects has resulted in quick responses for simple technology needs. This is a win-win situation as the students are becoming more deeply involved in real-world research projects, even for first year undergraduate students.
Another positive aspect of this situation is real-world research programs are becoming increasingly complex and requiring a number of different disciplines—a far different world than the single investigator model of the past. Solutions to this will involve a broader range of disciplines and possibly even a broader range of corporate sponsors. “The multidisciplinarity of it is a very healthy way of addressing problems,” says Burg.
More in the industrial side, Thermo Fisher Scientific is well-funded in their R&D work due to the company’s size, their global reach and successes, according to Mylchreest. Feeding the product pipeline still has to be balanced though, which is a function of the individual product maturity and innovation cycles. “We’re projecting all the time where our R&D funding needs to be and watching the trends,” he says. “We balance between incubation funding, in terms of far-out ideas that come to fruition in five to ten years versus directed and applied research, which we know where we’re going but it’s going to take some work to solve the problems.” Relative to the innovation part of Thermo Fisher Scientific, the growth parts get more funding, but they continue to invest in advanced technologies where they believe the industry is going to be in four or five years.
Grand technological challenges are ambitious, but believably achievable goals that harness science, technology and innovation to solve important national or global problems and have the ability to capture the public’s imagination. Our panel was queried on what challenges their organizations faced and how they were addressing them.
“One of these grand challenges is global food systems,” says Burg. “At Kansas State, we have a heavy focus on agriculture and on food, in particular. At a university, you can’t command from on high that these are specific things that people are going to work on today. Rather, the approach is that you have a campus-wide conversation that will end up in putting tools in place to allow people to connect with one another, providing the resources and tools to be able to work on these grand challenge programs. You have themes in a university environment, which is very different from a corporate environment.”
These “conversations” often include a calendar of events that pique the students’ and staffs’ interests. The institution also often has access to seed funding for these grand challenge programs, and possibly even corporate sponsors to get the programs going faster.
Government laboratories, on the other hand, already have significant experience in large projects, such as grand challenges. They also have a wide range of technological capabilities and spend a lot of energy on strategic planning—all the basic building blocks for solving grand challenges. Livermore’s Labov talked about one of his favorites—fusion energy to provide clean, safe, carbon-free energy sources. “Fusion energy is not trivial,” he says. “It’s been investigated for many years, but we have a unique capability in that area and we’re looking toward how we can use it.” Labov is referring to the Livermore Lab’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), which focuses multiple high-power laser beams on a boule of hydrogen fuel that then fuses the hydrogen nuclei and subsequently releases enormous amounts of energy—more than the energy required to power the large laser beams.
Dow Chemical’s Lutz has a more immediate grand challenge his organization is working on—providing people educated in chemistry. “Fewer and fewer people study chemistry and we need to fill that pool constantly,” he says. This challenge has an obvious Dow Chemical goal and one the company is willing to underwrite—that of providing a source of future employees in an era of declining student interest in chemistry and chemistry-related topics.
As noted earlier, the building of technology partnerships has become a critical aspect for growing R&D programs. Lutz notes the first partnership Dow recognizes is the relationship to its customers. Both Dow and its customers are very innovative, and the relationship builds a base for creating new products. “Both bring their expertise, their innovation to create new products,” he says.
Federal government research laboratories know well the value of partnerships; and their customers know it just as well. “We had one partner,” says Livermore’s Labov, “who wouldn’t fund anything that wasn’t part of a joint venture. Another partner took a large fraction of their R&D portfolio and stated that these are going to be advanced technology demonstrations that are led by industry. And still another partner that took all of their academic funding stated that they wanted those to be part of a consortia.”
All of these consortia include some laboratory participation, which is a growing trend, according to Labov. Basic science research has been a growing trend as well, especially with academia as more and more industrial laboratories choose to curtail their own basic research programs in favor of sponsoring the much more efficient, productive and technologically successful academic approach to basic research. “We have strong student programs at our lab that involve work in very early-stage research (basic research). And, of course, we recruit a lot of new scientists and post-docs from academia—a very important partnership.”
Mitsubishi’s Fujita notes his organization performs in-house research for core technologies, but “we also promote cooperation with universities to get new ideas or use their technologies, which we don’t have, to speed up our R&D. The number of our collaborations with universities has doubled over the past five years, and we want to increase the number of those collaborations going forward, especially with foreign universities (non-Japanese).”
Kansas State’s Burg notes her university has been actively increasing their level and number of collaborations. “We have every form and type of collaboration—across campus, industrial, government, global, non-U.S. and other academia in consortia. The underlying rationale for these is, again, the diminishing resources or shifting resources and the need to refocus our financial resources in specific new directions.”
“Partnerships are really critical to our R&D,” says Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Mylchreest. “Without those, you don’t get access to a lot of basic science, so we have a lot of programs that run inside our organization that include technology partnerships, early access programs and visiting scientist programs—all are active ways to drive new ideas into the Thermo organization.”