While the chemical industry is famed for its innovation, academics and business leaders are questioning the effectiveness of the research being conducted.

Are chemical companies truly innovative, or is it just that the larger players have the money available to bring new chemical products and processes to market?

Analysis conducted in the year 2000 by the Council for Chemical Research (CCR) found that chemical industry innovation was actually decreasing. Specifically, a study of the US patent database by Fran Narin and his colleagues at CHI Research found that, “During the 1980s, the technology cycle time, a measure of the age of the earlier patents cited in a current patent, slowed significantly in the chemical sciences. During the 1990s, it remained flat—a clear indication of the slowdown in the speed at which the industry is innovating.”

Further research has looked at ways to improve innovation in chemical companies and across the sector as a whole. Because if the industry is spending USD 51 billion in R&D each year, then it needs to know if it is getting good value or money.

This analysis found three key goals to improve chemical industry innovation: market-driven research, high-throughput research, and enhancing global innovation.

Market-Driven Research

Innovation is driven by need, but finding out what is needed is not that simple. As Sir Henry Tizzard, the late physicist and scientific advisor to Winston Churchill, noted, “The secret of science is to ask the right questions, and it is the choice of the problem more than anything else that makes the man of genius in the scientific world.”

In the world of business, the best way to find the right question is to ask the market – hence the concept of market-driven research.

Identifying unmet needs in the marketplace is key to delivering first rate returns on investment. This is because true research is more than just adapting a chemical product to a new purpose, for example applying a chemical formula for a coating and converting it for use in the paper industry.

Instead, markets can identify significant unmet needs which require new materials or chemical processes. Finding the right market opportunity more than anything else drives the speed of innovation.

High-Throughput Research

The key to achieving high-throughput research is ensuring that clear goals and objectives are established and understood by all involved. Without this aspect, all research projects suffer the chance of performing directionless innovation.

As the age-old adage notes, “When you can go fast, you’d better be sure you are going in the right direction.”

High-throughput research has the ability to affect R&D productivity and concerns the ‘how’ of research rather than the actual subject matter.

As Richard M. Gross, Corporate Vice President of R&D for the Dow Chemical Company explains, “The promise of high-throughput research is widely known, and Dow finds it to be a reality. For instance, in the case of a polyolefin catalyst process optimization, over 1,000 high-throughput experiments were run in 6 weeks. There were eight structurally diverse hits, the total time from the first designed experiment to pilot plant runs was less than 5 months, and the cost of the catalyst package was reduced by greater than 75 percent. Dow has additional examples illustrating a 10-fold decrease in cycle time, 3- to 4-fold decrease in personnel costs, and a significant reduction in the scale of reactants used and waste generated.”

“The power is there,” he concludes, “but prepared minds need to be thoughtful when setting the research direction before they begin. Without planning, much data can be generated without any knowledge gain.”

Clearly research can be beneficial, but everyone involved needs to ask why they are doing what they are doing.

Enhancing Global Innovation

Successful innovation in a global world requires enhanced global organisations. This is a concept quite different from a global company, which refers to a geographical location, as a global organisation defines a method of working.

This line of thinking is based on analysis of how research work, which found that location made an exceptional difference to productivity.

This is evidenced in Katenbach and Smith’s 1993 book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, which noted how collaboration between colleagues (a key part of innovation) dropped off rapidly as co-workers moved their work stations further and further apart over the first 30 metres or so.

Once a colleague moved into another room, the rate of collaboration was only 20% of two workers operating side-by-side. But further distances beyond a different room made little difference. Modern communication keeping two people in touch at the same level if they are a street away or an ocean away.

For this reason, chemical companies wanting to innovate must keep a free flow of information and shared data wherever in the world staff are working.

As Gross notes, “At Dow we have standardized our workstations globally. I can go to any of the 50,000 workstations around the world and immediately get to my personalized desktop. The use of NetMeeting, remote network control of experiments, and the sharing of complex spectra and other data globally are standard at Dow, as they are across the chemical industry. All of this has had a large impact on the rate of collaboration.”

Although teams typically have a set structure, successful collaboration among co-workers is a powerful tool for innovation. Proficient communication skills are frequently linked to strong teamwork, which in turn is connected to the capacity and willingness to openly exchange knowledge.

All crucial steps to innovation and the race to be first to market with a new chemical product that can reap the greatest rewards.

Photo credit: Dylan Gillis on Unsplash, National Cancer Institute, Marcin Jozwiak, Matt Ridley, & Viktor Kiryanov