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Industrial engagement, entrepreneurship, and innovation

by H. N. Cheng, ACS President
August 30, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 31


A photo of Courtesy of H. N. Cheng.
Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng
H. N. Cheng

The chemical industry is a major contributor to the world economy. In 2017, the industry contributed $1.1 trillion to the global gross domestic product (equivalent to 1.4% of the world’s GDP) and supported 15 million jobs, according to an International Council of Chemical Associations report.

Despite the vital role of the chemical industry, the percentage of industrial members of the American Chemical Society has declined in the past 30 years, from over 60% in 1985 to less than 45% today. As a participant in the global chemistry enterprise, ACS must continue to engage industrial chemists by providing services, soliciting input, and collaborating on issues of mutual concern.

One of the major roles of the chemical industry is to foster innovation, which depends critically on basic and applied research. Innovation and basic and applied research are needed to expand our knowledge base and produce new product offerings. But in the US, many corporations face increased competition and the need to improve profits, which lead to a focus on short-term R&D goals at the expense of long-term research. At the same time, significant innovation is happening in academic labs and start-up companies to bring new technology, products, and services to the marketplace. ACS offers a variety of programs and services that can support these established corporations and start-ups and also bring them together to advance their goals.

How can ACS help academic innovators, start-ups, and entrepreneurs? Although more academic labs and entrepreneurs are contributing to innovation, only about 10% of chemical start-ups succeed. ACS can improve these odds for new or prospective entrepreneurs with the training and other programs it offers. These resources include the ACS Industry Matters newsletter and the ACS Innovation Hub LinkedIn group. Moreover, ACS’s Division of Small Chemical Businesses (SCHB), Division of Business Development and Management (BMGT), and others have organized symposia and activities for people interested in entrepreneurship.

SCHB, BMGT, and I, in collaboration with ACS staff, organized a series of ACS webinars to provide systematic entrepreneurship training to chemists. We began in late 2020 with webinars on writing business plans and obtaining funding. In July and August of this year, we organized three webinars, “Sole Proprietorship to Incorporation,” “Intellectual Property,” and “How to Organize Your New Firm.” Archived webinars may be accessed at no cost to members via the ACS website.

How can ACS facilitate translation of discovery to innovation? Many of us become good at discovery through education and experience, but moving a product from discovery to the marketplace requires a different set of skills. Acquiring these skills can be facilitated with appropriate training, collaboration, networking, and support. It is also helpful for the chemist or chemical engineer involved to have an entrepreneurial bent, regardless of whether the person works in academia or government or at a large company or a start-up.

The series of entrepreneurship webinars mentioned above can also help develop these skills. In addition, I worked with SCHB, BMGT, the Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Division, and ACS staff to organize the “Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Collaborations” symposium for the ACS Fall 2021 meeting. We assembled 45 speakers from industry, academia, and government and organized two training sessions on the essentials of management and entrepreneurship. Also included were sessions on innovation at four companies, business success factors, and the role of funding and government agencies, as well as other topics related to academia-industry-government collaborations.

ACS must continue to engage industrial chemists by providing services, soliciting input, and collaborating.

How can ACS attract and retain more industrial members? It must offer a good value proposition and make industry members feel that they belong. In fact, ACS has many products and services of potential value to industrial members—journals, magazines, and other publications, such as the ACS Industry Matters newsletter; SciFinder; courses, workshops, and webinars; leadership and soft-skill development training; job search and career development resources; and professional networking opportunities. Christina Bodurow gave more details in her Comment in C&EN on March 16, 2019.

Furthermore, the ACS Membership Division is piloting an excellent program to enable members to connect with one another. The division continues to evaluate opportunities to foster collaboration, community, and partnership for people working in industry and start-ups.

To highlight symposia related to industry at the ACS Fall 2021 meeting, I designated six sessions as either presidential or presidential-recommended symposia.

In addition, for anyone in industry who may be deterred from joining ACS because of membership dues, Brian Mathes shared in a Comment in C&EN on July 23, 2021, about a new membership program that will start in 2022. This program, with three membership packages (basic, standard, and premium), will represent a great opportunity for industrial members to be engaged with ACS at a range of price points.

The society wants to hear about other ideas to better serve industrial members. During the ACS Fall 2021 meeting, the ACS Council discussed these issues. If you have suggestions or comments, please contact me at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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