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From Small Things, Big Things Will Come

For Germany’s Degussa, Nanotronics center is new way to turn nanotech research into products

July 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 28

Oberholz wants to increase cooperation with academia.
Oberholz wants to increase cooperation with academia.

Next April, Degussa will inaugurate its new Nanotronics science-to-business center in Marl, Germany. That’s a short 10 months after the company’s executives and representatives of local and state governments and the academic community laid the center’s foundation stone in a gala ceremony at the end of June.

Over the next five years, Degussa will invest some $60 million in the center, which is intended to develop “innovative solution systems for electronics applications in collaboration with universities and industrial cooperation partners.” In the past four years, the company says, it has invested about $120 million in nanomaterials.

The center was designed by the architectural firm Henn Architekten to facilitate employee networking. As architect Günter Henn reasoned: “Eighty percent of all innovation comes because of personal contact. Look at the old ways buildings were built—people were locked up in little rooms, unable to communicate with each other.” Hence the new center’s emphasis on areas for informal discussion.

About 100 scientists, including all Marl-based employees of the Degussa subsidiary Creavis Technologies & Innovation, will be working in the nanomaterials field at the center’s laboratories and pilot plants.

The center will pull together Degussa’s already extensive work in electronics with partners up and down the value chain. One of the center’s first projects will be materials for high-performance lithium ion batteries used in automotive and professional power tool applications. Another will be solar cells that don’t require costly glass covers. Other projects include printable electronics and low-cost displays.

Unlike the company’s “project houses,” which feature internal collaboration across business units and divisions, the new center looks outside to commercial partners and universities for collaboration. Also unlike the project houses, which have a finite life, the center is planned as a permanent addition to the company’s operations.

One element characterizing the center is the integration of collaborations with universities in Europe, Asia, and the U.S., and the temporary integration of staff of universities, research foundations, and institutes.

This concept, suggested Degussa Chairman Utz-Hellmuth Felcht, should appeal to researchers while improving the climate for innovation in Germany. “We should be more focused on how we deploy our R&D budgets, and give our top research projects greater support,” he said. “At the same time, we need to give our first-rate scientists and engineers good prospects for the future in Germany as well, and stop them from emigrating, particularly to the U.S.”

Another element is joint development with suppliers and customers along the value chain with a goal of accelerating time to market. The center will aid integration from pure nanotechnology research through to marketable commercial products, said Alfred Oberholz, board member responsible for R&D at Degussa. “We intend to use scientific discoveries made in the new center and to quickly convert them into innovative products,” he promised.

Nanochemistry and nanotechnology are well-known research areas, Oberholz pointed out, “but they are mostly pursued only for specialty products. We want to replace this single-product approach with one that takes the value chain fully into consideration. Vertical integration is the concept.”

In addition to its own investment in the center, Degussa has received nearly $10 million in subsidies, half from the government of the North Rhine Westphalia state and half from the European Union.

The Marl site—Degussa’s largest site worldwide, part of the dowry brought by merger partner Hüls—is in the Ruhr region, which was marked in the past by a concentration of heavy industry and mining. Some of the industries that will be involved in the new center’s discoveries, such as the printing and textile industries, are still located there.

Other traditional industries—mining in particular—have been drying up, exposing the region to high unemployment and underutilized infrastructure. Hence the state’s efforts to invest in more research-oriented programs.

However, Felcht said: “We have never started a research project because we got funding—only because we believe the project is inherently sound. Of course, we are grateful for the support, for the help, but the fact that the state gives us grants indicates their interest in fostering cooperation between industry and universities.”

Added Harald Schartau, minister of economics and labor for the state: “We want to find innovative means of technology transfer [from academia to industry]. The traditional ways, from universities out, have become outmoded. This center has opened a new way of cooperation. That’s why we made the grant.”

“I look forward,” Felcht concluded, “to all the people at the new center enjoying a lot of creativity and fun, and huge success with their projects.”


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