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Richard M. Gross

Dow vice president of R&D considers the practice of chemistry in the 21st century

by Marc S. Reisch
February 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 8



"I wanted to retire when i was still relatively young," says Richard M. Gross, 56, Dow Chemical's corporate vice president of R&D. "I still have energy and passion for a lot, including chemistry."

He is now starting work on what he says will be a six- to nine-month assignment for Chief Operating Officer Andrew N. Liveris to look into Dow's strategic R&D needs. The report Gross turns in before he retires is likely to influence the direction of R&D at Dow for years to come.

Dow, Gross explains, has to position itself to meet the demands of the 21st century. The new R&D council structure takes a team-based approach to doing that, he says. And as part of his assignment, he'll look at how Dow and the council should leverage opportunities in countries where science-based institutions and enterprises are developing.

That effort, he says, will include a look at how Dow should structure alliances with labs and universities in countries such as India, China, and Russia. Dow might do well to consider hiring interns and summer students in these developing countries, he says, as it does in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Already, Dow conducts about 30% of its R&D outside of the U.S. By putting more of its research in the hands of experts in places like China and Taiwan, Dow is not so much trying to lower labor costs, Gross maintains. "To compete in the 21st century, we need to tap into innovation around the world," he says.

As part of his project for Liveris, he will also try to identify the next technology platform for growth after biotechnology. Bringing his years of experience at Dow--six in his current position--Gross will take a closer look at nanotechnology, although many other companies are already doing that, he points out. He'll look at other possibilities too, but "it's too early to say what I'll consider. I'm doing this with an open mind."

Liveris is counting on Gross to help Dow place its bets on the future. Just after the company announced its 2003 earnings a few weeks ago, Liveris told C&EN that he wants Gross to determine where Dow should be a leader in research in the next five to 10 years. "I want Rick to help engineer our science and technology strategy around the market needs of the future," he said, "so we are not sucked up by the established businesses."

Gross will be looking for ways to establish Dow in high-profit businesses. "Where will society pay good returns for practicing chemistry in the 21st century?" he asks. "We have to let go of commodities and focus in on health, pharma, energy, and natural resources. In the 21st century, we'll have to focus more on complex systems. Dow won't just be a supplier of pellets. But we'll go downstream for higher returns."

"I wanted to retire when I was still relatively young. I still have energy and passion for a lot, including chemistry."

Dow is already moving in that direction. For instance, the firm designs and manufactures custom polyurethane inserts for a new generation of Michelin run-flat tires. "We want to go from molecular architecture to design and engineering. We want to be involved in selling the actual part," Gross says.

Because Dow can't do it all alone, ventures with outside partners also fit into Gross's thinking about how Dow will embrace novel research techniques and speed innovation to market. One example is Dow's collaboration with Greenovation biotechnology company of Freiburg, Germany. The technical alliance grants Greenovation access to certain intellectual property, and in return, Dow will receive data that could enhance its development of plant-based biopharmaceuticals.

Gross expects Dow to take a more hands-on approach to the business and practice of chemistry in the future. It's the kind of hands-on approach he enjoyed when he joined the company in 1974 to do coal liquefaction research in its hydrocarbon and energy business. It's what he enjoyed when he worked over summer vacation at a Monsanto polyvinyl butyral plant when he was still a chemical engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

And he will continue to work with his hands--literally--when he retires from Dow. Gross says he likes woodworking and plans to take a class in building wooden boats. "I'm primarily interested in sailboats," he says.

Gross lives in a 100-year-old house in a historic district in Midland, Mich., and might do more of the electrical, plumbing, and drywall work he often did as a younger man when he had more time on his hands and was restoring an even older house that he and his wife owned then. But Gross says he will retain his passion for the chemical industry and may be involved in it somehow after he retires.



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