The image of a kid in a toy store comes strongly to mind when one talks with Volker Schädler, leader of the BASF research group at the Institute of Supramolecular Science & Engineering (ISIS), part of Louis Pasteur University, in Strasbourg, France.
A little more than a year ago, Schädler--now 35--was offered an irresistible challenge: to establish a research team in a new, state-of-the-art laboratory designed for a chemistry Nobelist in one of the most charming university cities in France.
His assignment was to guide a group of four postdoctoral scientists in fundamental research that builds on work by the institute's founder, Jean-Marie Lehn, and that has business appeal to BASF. One year later, he says now, the concept is working well enough that Stefan Marcinowski, BASF's board director responsible for research, has approved an expansion of the team.
That Schädler even has a lab at ISIS is testimony to Lehn's initial idea for the institute. Lehn, one of two Chemistry Nobel Prize winners in 1987, wanted to support his work in the science and engineering of supramolecules. But he went one step further: In what was seen as a highly unusual decision, he insisted that the institute's facilities be open to industry in order to bridge the gap between academic and industrial research. That would include allowing selected companies to "rent" university labs for their own research teams.
"With Lehn's experience, he realized there was a need both to create good ideas and to transfer them to industry," Schädler says.
Two of Lehn's former students were already at BASF, and, through them, Lehn and Marcinowski began talking. BASF responded to the concept and decided to commit to the new lab.
At the time, Schädler was working in BASF's functional polymers division, following three years in central research. He recalls, "I was contacted by my former boss in central research" about ISIS. "It sounded like such a challenge for me, I immediately said yes."
ISIS was launched in December 2002 in a ceremony attended by the French minister of research. At that point, "everything in our lab was empty--there was just me," Schädler says. "I had to define my projects and build my team." The company ran advertisements--there was even one in Chemical & Engineering News--that generated about 120 applications, and he began interviewing.
"We focused on the concept of an 'interfacial lab' with interests from both academia and industry," Schädler says. "It is also a good chance for people who aren't sure if they want to go into industry or continue at university."
The researchers were hired by BASF, and all have contracts with the company. BASF pays rent to ISIS and contributes funds toward equipment and other infrastructure. "That's the official side," Schädler says.
BUT EVEN MORE benefits come to the company unofficially, he says, "when we meet for a coffee break, discussions, and so on. There are always many well-known people coming here for lectures." In fact, that informality was a central tenet of the institute: Lehn intended for company scientists to take active part in the life of the institute.
For his projects, Schädler says he combines Lehn's supramolecular chemistry with innovative research that fits BASF's needs. The hope, he adds, is that projects "become really attractive and turn into concrete product concepts that BASF can take over" at the company's headquarters labs at Ludwigshafen, about a two-hour drive from Strasbourg. "Here, we focus on creating novel ideas, but we don't carry out the entire research from concept to final product. The fine-tuning and scaling-up of the product has to be done by BASF's central R&D.
"Having an industrial research lab at this highly ranked French university is a unique setup, and many people are a bit envious," Schädler concedes. "You have to be innovative in the R&D structure at BASF, too, because some of the very hot topics in chemistry for the next 15 years might only be found and pushed forward by looking at them from an entirely different perspective than the purely corporate one."
Generally, he notes, the postdocs are there for two years. "This is a reasonable time. You need time to get into a topic--you should dive into a new topic and learn from that." The staff will always be changing, he acknowledges, working on fluctuating topics.
Schädler's team represents a broad range of expertise. For example, there is a French postdoc with a strong background in mesochemistry. Another, from the U.S., has experience with polymer nanocomposites. "This mixture creates a lot of new ideas," he enthuses. "The fact that we have filed for four patents already shows there is a spirit to get new ideas."
And patents are not an easy option, he insists. "The BASF patent department is almost like an examination board. You have to go before them to 'defend' the idea, which is good for keeping high quality."
The BASF lab currently is delving into two projects, each with two postdocs. One pair is investigating the capability of supramolecular polymer complexes to encapsulate water-soluble polymers as carriers for functional polymers. Water treatment and process chemicals for paper production are possible applications.
The other pair is studying nanoporous materials for thermal insulation. The team is searching for an entirely new production process that uses supramolecular self-assembly to cut costs. Up to now, Schädler says, routes to nanoporous materials were too expensive to be applicable on a large scale."I really enjoy the atmosphere here," he says. "It is fantastic being in the interface between outstanding academics and a big company."