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Volume 89 Issue 45 | pp. 47-48
Issue Date: November 7, 2011

Cover Stories: It’s Still A Struggle

Jump-Starting Job Growth

Innovation, entrepreneurship can boost careers for chemists, ACS task force reports
Department: Career & Employment
Keywords: Innovation, entrepreneurs, applied research, ACS, graduate education, employment
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COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
The Verigene System, a benchtop molecular diagnostics workstation, is among the technologies commercialized from research in Mirkin’s lab.
Credit: Courtesy of Chad Mirkin
The Verigene System, a benchtop molecular diagnostics workstation that utilizes patented gold nanoparticle technology to detect nucleic acid and protein targets of interest for a variety of applications, are among the technologies developed and commercialized by NanoInk and NanoSphere, two start-up companies that were spun-out of research projects initiated in Prof. Chad Mirkin’s laboratory at Northwestern University.
 
COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
The Verigene System, a benchtop molecular diagnostics workstation, is among the technologies commercialized from research in Mirkin’s lab.
Credit: Courtesy of Chad Mirkin
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ULTRASENSITIVE
The Fido explosives detector is based on conjugated polymers developed in Swager’s lab.
Credit: Copyright FLIR Systems
A handheld Fido explosives detector is the most sensitive available, capable of detecting low-volatility explosives. The technology is based on conjugated polymers, known as Amplified Fluorescent Polymers,  developed in Tim Swager’s laboratory at MIT.
 
ULTRASENSITIVE
The Fido explosives detector is based on conjugated polymers developed in Swager’s lab.
Credit: Copyright FLIR Systems

As politicians of every stripe race to present workable ideas to create more U.S. jobs and revive the economy, a 10-member blue-ribbon task force of the American Chemical Society has put forth an action-oriented plan to aid chemists (C&EN, Sept. 5, page 14). By harnessing the energy of entrepreneurship and innovation, ACS hopes the recommendations in the report will put chemists back to work and rev the engines of job creation in the chemical and related industries.

Along with entrepreneurship and innovation, “this report recommends policy changes that, if enacted, will help create jobs,” says ACS Immediate Past-President Joseph S. Francisco, who appointed the task force during his term in 2010. “And with those new jobs comes increased revenue for this nation,” he adds.

The report, “Innovation, Chemistry, and Jobs: Meeting the Challenges of Tomorrow,” is already being implemented through a variety of efforts at ACS. It aims primarily at rebooting the chemical industry and its long history of innovation in the U.S.

“The chemical enterprise is one of our nation’s most valuable economic sectors and holds the keys to solving some of our most pressing challenges in areas of food quality, energy self-sufficiency, health care, and environmental sustainability,” says ACS Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Madeleine Jacobs. “This report addresses one important aspect of that enterprise—entrepreneurship—and builds on the fact that ACS already has a number of programs to help entrepreneurs, through webinars and a variety of ACS divisions and committees.”

The report includes four recommendations for ACS:

Develop a single organizational unit to offer help to entrepreneurs.

Increase advocacy of policies at the federal and state levels to improve the business environment for entrepreneurs and start-up companies.

Work with academic institutions and other organizations to promote career pathways and educational opportunities that include entrepreneurs.

Increase public awareness of the value of early-stage entrepreneurship.

“These are actionable recommendations,” says task force member Pat N. Confalone, vice president for global R&D at DuPont Crop Protection. “We didn’t want a report that sat on a shelf.”

The report also details some of the depressing statistics that are part of today’s jobs picture for the chemical enterprise. “Since 2008, nearly 25,000 jobs—including thousands in research and development—have been lost in chemical manufacturing companies in the United States, and layoffs continue,” it states. “For the past 20 years, a clear job loss trend is evident in Bureau of Labor Statistics data that suggests the loss of approximately 300,000 full-time chemist jobs in the U.S.”

With that context in mind, the general economic climate helped frame the work of the task force and its report, says task force chair George M. Whitesides, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University and an entrepreneur who has started many companies. He says Francisco has correctly pointed out that while jobs in the U.S. chemical enterprise have been evaporating, the need for chemical innovation has never been greater. Societal needs that will call on chemistry for solutions include green chemistry, renewable and sustainable energy, food security, and water treatment and availability, to name just a few, Whitesides says.

According to the report: “The chemical industry has not been as active in generating startups as some other industries (for example, pharmaceuticals—especially biopharmaceuticals—and software). Since large new classes of products must start somewhere, the development of an active culture of startups would seem to be beneficial, both to society and to the chemical profession: it would generate options for large-scale industrial development; it would employ innovative scientists and engineers; it would draw smart students and potential entrepreneurs into innovative chemistry.”

However, “big companies won’t take anything on until it’s a product,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Timothy M. Swager, also a member of the task force.

And many large companies are limiting expensive R&D, thereby restraining job creation, Whitesides adds. “So how do you take the good ideas from universities, from research laboratories, and get them recognizable by large companies?” he asks. What has worked historically, he says, is for small start-up firms to license new technologies and take them to the next stage of development, at which point they might garner the attention of larger firms. This basic setup has worked in Europe, and it has served both life sciences and pharmaceutical firms well, he says. “The larger companies go out and buy the technology they need to expand their product lines, thus creating opportunity for those with an entrepreneurial spirit who are also steeped in the science.”

The ACS task force took a good look at chemistry graduate schools, Whitesides continues. The panel members argue that graduate education should be broadened to include aspects of entrepreneurship in the curriculum. They also believe that academic chemists should have more respect for scientists who use advanced degrees in science to pursue career paths other than academic research. “It is of benefit for a student to learn something about business as opposed to taking a fourth course on synthetic methods,” Whitesides says.

Swager agrees that entrepreneurship should be incorporated in the curriculum in graduate chemistry education. And he tries to do just that—his laboratory has been the source of his own highly successful entrepreneurial efforts with innovative chemical sensor technology.

But some people say a note of caution should accompany this argument. Chemist Larry R. Faulkner, president of the Houston Endowment and a former president of the University of Texas, Austin, says the report is responsive to issues that are on people’s minds, including students, but the goals of graduate education should not be sidelined.

In encouraging innovation, Faulkner says, educators should “try to maintain a reasonably balanced approach. There are only so many hours in a day. You must give something up for students if the approach is to introduce new experiences.”

The targets of the report, says Northwestern University chemistry professor and task force member Chad A. Mirkin, “are people with an entrepreneurial flair.” Mirkin himself has enjoyed great success commercializing nanotechnology research from his own laboratory, including the innovative dip pen nanolithography technique. This method allows direct deposit of nanoscale materials onto a substrate and led to the creation of an entire suite of FDA-cleared, nanoparticle-based medical diagnostic systems.

“The point is, if you make discoveries and sit on the sidelines hoping that the world recognizes the greatness,” Mirkin says, “those discoveries are much less likely to turn into something that generates jobs. Not all chemists should become entrepreneurs, but it’s no sin to look at commercializing technology that looks promising in our own academic labs.”

“Applied science is not incongruent with fundamental science,” Swager says. “You do need fundamental science—but not recognizing practical applications is not good. It should be acceptable and expected that there is utility to technology.”

For those chemists who want to pursue this entrepreneurial path, ACS is creating what the report calls a “technological farmers market.” This virtual marketplace will provide entrepreneurs with access to the resources they need to create business plans, obtain patents, access capital, learn the ins and outs of handling Material Safety Data Sheets for chemicals, and much more. The Web portal, which will be accessible through www.acs.org, will offer links to other organizations that provide information and support for entrepreneurs.

Mirkin says the help is needed. When he started his first company, he says, he “had no idea how do it. I had to find the right folks.” Entrepreneurs first need ideas about new and marketable technologies that might spring from university research, he adds. Then they must create business plans and attract capital. And finally, they need talent—their own and that of others.

“I never took a business class,” says chemist Michael Lefenfeld, president and CEO of SiGNa Chemistry. “I was always told that scientists don’t make good businesspeople.” While his own success with start-up companies disproves that notion, new entrepreneurs do need help, he says. For example, they need to know that “some of the biggest expenses in starting a company are the legal expenses.” The ACS offerings will draw on the expertise of the society’s membership as well as its networks of people with ample experience in the myriad tasks involved with getting new ventures off the ground, he notes.

“Chemical small businesses—$100 million firms or smaller—will be working on the global problems that need solutions through chemical means,” Lefenfeld says. The ACS farmers market, he adds, will provide all the essentials for helping these firms become successful.

For the report, task force member Kathleen M. Schulz, president of Business Results Inc., a management consulting firm, says she tried to provide “a clear-eyed view of working in all parts of the chemical enterprise.” Over the course of her career, Schulz has worked in academe, industry, and the nonprofit world. “There is no single path to becoming an entrepreneur,” she says. It is a path open to new graduates as well as people who are midcareer in industry, for example.

ACS members are a diverse lot, Schulz adds, but nearly all of them face an uncertain future given the state of today’s economy. “We have to find a way to help as many of them as we possibly can,” she says.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
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