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The Next Big Thing

by Michael McCoy, Assistant managing editor for business
April 5, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 14

Many professional magazines have a board of well-known advisers whose names can be found on the masthead. Unlike the advisory boards at some of these magazines, however, C&EN's is functioning, active—indeed, vibrant. We call or e-mail our advisers for guidance, and they respond. We invite them to Washington, D.C., each fall, and they come.


At that annual advisory board meeting, we meet for a day and a half to discuss issues surrounding chemistry and pick our advisers' brains to learn what's important to participants in the chemical enterprise.

Our advisers from the chemical industry represent some of the world's premier companies—firms like DuPont, Dow Chemical, Degussa, Bayer, Shell, and Honeywell. And when we ask these executives what the next big thing is, they respond, with surprising uniformity, with two answers: China and venture capital.

They say China for two reasons. For one, China is where they are investing in new laboratories and plants to serve a huge population that is beginning to be able to afford the fruits of chemistry. In addition, China is where the emerging competition is, particularly for firms making labor-intensive custom or pharmaceutical chemicals.

In response, Jean-François Tremblay, our Hong Kong bureau head, has been spending a lot of time in China. At the moment, in fact, he is on a monthlong journey down the Yangtze River to learn more about how chemistry is developing along this critical waterway. On page 29 of this issue, he writes about a small producer of silane coupling agents that seeks to compete internationally with the likes of Degussa and Dow Corning. Tremblay is also keeping a weblog of his personal observations of China on C&EN Online. U.S.-based reporters such as Senior Editor Rick Mullin and Senior Correspondent Maureen Rouhi have been complementing his coverage with stories about fine chemicals firms in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Our advisers say venture capital because they see investor-backed start-up companies as a key source of the technology the chemical industry will need to thrive in the years ahead. Even the biggest chemical makers have cut back on fundamental research and development, and R&D executives are increasingly looking outside their own laboratory walls for new ideas.

In response, with this issue C&EN is debuting what will be a periodic look at the world of venture-capital investing.

It's a vast world: In 2003, according to the MoneyTree survey conducted by Pricewaterhouse- Coopers, Thomson Venture Economics, and the National Venture Capital Association, 2,715 U.S. companies received $18.2 billion in investment from venture capitalists. A separate survey by Venture One and Ernst & Young found that 1,039 European firms received $5.5 billion in venture-capital funds last year.

That's a lot of companies, and, obviously, no one publication can report on all of them. Even in our world of the chemical enterprise, we at C&EN must carefully choose the start-up companies and investment funds we profile. We intend to make these choices using the basic vetting question we apply to every topic we explore: Will it be of interest to our readers?

Actually, we've been doing this with venture capital for some time. For example, Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch has written numerous profiles of local- and state-government-funded business incubators. Associate Editor Alex Tullo has explored venture-capital-funded companies in specialty plastics and electronic displays. Senior Correspondent Patricia Short recently examined several sugar chemistry start-ups. And our articles on nanotechnology and biotechnology are replete with venture-capital-backed firms.

The article on page 22 of this issue—a look by Mullin at Membrane Extraction Technology, a spin-off of Imperial College London's chemical engineering department—marks an acceleration of our coverage of the venture-capital field. In the coming months, look for stories on start-ups, venture capitalists, in-house chemical company funds, and university business incubators. These stories should all be interesting reading, and one of them might just uncover that next big thing.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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