Where do organic chemists go when they retire? Joseph A. Miller Jr., 62, a polymer scientist and former chief technology officer at DuPont, went right back to corporate research. Only now he is leading inorganic research as CTO at glassmaker Corning.
In 2001, Miller ended a 35-year career at DuPont. "I was ready to retire," he confesses. He considered academic opportunities, but not long after, he was offered a chance to work in the town of Corning in New York state's rural southern tier.
Having served at the nexus of technology advances as DuPont's CTO for seven years, he says he couldn't pass up a similar position at a company that has a history of being on the cutting edge of inorganic chemistry--from the first glass envelopes for the light bulb to today's fiber-optic cables. It's a company where the pace of new product development is hectic: In 2003, 88% of Corning's sales came from products four years old or less.
"I've always been interested in technology," Miller explains. "Like DuPont, Corning is a materials science company. A history of strong support of research is built into the genetic code of both firms." And Corning, whose fiber-optic business plummeted when the telecommunications bubble burst in 2001, needed a technology maven to coax new developments out of its labs and into the market.
Though he admits that he is "still an organic chemist at heart," Miller doesn't find that that limits him at Corning, where researchers undertake projects on glass, ceramics, and optics technology. "I surround myself with good people" in order to understand and direct research at the 153-year-old firm. "You'd have to be brain dead not to be excited by what is happening at Corning," he says.
This is a firm that truly understands the value of "catching the next wave" through R&D, Miller claims. Opportunities ahead for Corning are in the growing market for liquid-crystal display glass for notebook computers, desktop LCD monitors, and LCD televisions. The need for catalytic converter substrates and particulate filters for a new generation of diesel vehicle emission controls is also driving research.
As the semiconductor industry revives after a prolonged downturn, chip fabricators are gearing up for the next generation of smaller and faster chips. Photolithography lenses must be capable of resolving finer circuit lines, and Corning has developed high-purity fused-silica lenses for 193-nm wavelength lithography and calcium fluoride lenses for 193- and eventually 157-nm wavelength lithography.
And then there are the longer term opportunities such as glass microchemical reactors, yttrium-stabilized zirconium electrolytes for solid oxide fuel cells, and photonic tools for drug discovery.
Though the R&D budget Miller has at Corning is nowhere near the $1 billion-plus budget he had at DuPont, it's nothing to sneeze at. His organization of more than 1,000 scientists, technicians, and engineers had a budget of $344 million in 2003. R&D as a percentage of sales exceeded 10%--much higher than at most chemical firms, where the average spending level is closer to 3%.
Corning is also a company that has changed its priorities significantly since Miller came on board. Corning spent $631 million on R&D in 2001, but it plans to spend just $339 million in 2004. Sales fell from nearly $6.1 billion in 2001 to $3.1 billion in 2003 entirely because of the collapse of the fiber-optic cable business.
The firm has "shifted gears," Miller says, to reflect its present circumstances. Where 75% of the research budget went to telecommunications in 2001, only 32% goes to such research now, mostly to lower manufacturing costs. LCDs, catalytic converter substrates, and a host of new initiatives get the rest of the smaller 2004 budget.
Growth today for Corning is in glass for LCD displays. Using a process "originally developed 40 years ago to get into automobile windshields," Corning now supplies display makers with "Generation 5" 4-foot by 5-foot perfectly flat glass sheets. And the firm is scaling up to meet rising customer demand for even larger sheets, Miller says.
To finance the next wave of growth, Corning is putting almost half of its R&D budget into things like inventing new bioscience laboratory equipment to speed drug discovery. By linking combinatorial chemistry and photonics, scientists may be able to rapidly identify potential new drugs by detecting the increase in molecular mass when a binding event occurs.
For a man who once considered retiring to academia at age 59, Miller says he has "no plans to retire soon." He and his wife are getting comfortable, he says. They are building a house in the Corning community, which is only about an hour from the Pennsylvania town where Miller grew up.