Earlier this month, Jonathan D. Rich delivered the commencement speech at Iowa State University. Rich, who graduated from Iowa State in 1977 with a degree in chemistry, tried to reassure students and their parents that the economy is rebounding. The job market may look dark now, he told them, but within a year or two it will be robust again.
Like today’s graduates, Rich finished college during hard times. After failing to find a job, he decided to return to school, an apparently wise move. Today, Rich is president and chief executive officer of Momentive Performance Materials, a $2.1 billion-per-year producer of silicones and other advanced materials.
The silicones business, once a part of General Electric, turns 70 this month. Between the anniversary and the visit to Iowa, Rich has been thinking about his company and what it must do to be around in another 70 years. The answer, he believes, is innovation.
Many chemical company leaders talk up innovation, and the term can sound a little clichéd these days. But unlike most CEOs, Rich has done time in the laboratory, the place where chemistry innovation actually happens. Not only that, he’s backing up his talk with a multi-million-dollar bet on the power of innovation.
When Rich went back to school, it was to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry under the direction of organosilicon chemist Robert C. West. By 1982, the economy had improved, and Rich landed a job with GE’s corporate research center in Niskayuna, N.Y. He was a chemist there for almost four years before entering technical management. In that role, his jobs included manager of operational excellence at GE Silicones and technical director for GE Bayer Silicones in Germany.
In 2000, Rich left GE to become head of chemical research at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. He was soon named head of the chemical business itself, his first purely business role. Later, he led Goodyear’s North American tire operations.
Although Rich was successful at Goodyear, he maintained a fondness for silicone chemistry. So when the private equity firm Apollo Management, which acquired GE’s silicones and quartz businesses in 2006, approached Rich about becoming Momentive’s CEO, he said yes. “It was an opportunity to come back to a business I always loved,” he says.
Rich joined the firm in June 2007. A year later he announced plans to move its headquarters from Wilton, Conn., to the Albany area and build a major technology center there. The recession delayed the project, but Rich anticipates starting construction within months at the Rensselaer Technology Park, owned by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He hopes to have the $75 million technology center up and running within 24 months.
Today, Momentive employs about 350 scientists, more than half of whom hold Ph.D.s. Rich expects that the new site will house about 130 people, most of them Ph.D. scientists and engineers.
His goal is for the center to be more than just another laboratory. Momentive already operates multiple labs that work closely with customers to develop new products and applications. But what the firm’s scientists lack is the access they once had to the basic research breakthroughs made by colleagues at GE Global Research, the organization Rich joined back in 1982.
“When we were sold by GE, a piece of our innovation pipeline went missing,” he says. “We want to create a world-class innovation center that will allow us to take our technology to the next level. This will be the beginning of the pipeline—the enabling technologies and knowledge creation that will allow the rest of our R&D facilities to do product development at a faster pace.”
Momentive has a long history of such advances, including the silicone rubber in the boots that Neil Armstrong wore in his walk on the moon and the basic process for making methyl chlorosilane, the key precursor to silicone. More recently, the firm has developed silicon-based surfactants that enable lower pesticide doses and organosilanes that help disperse silica in low-rolling-resistance tires. Last year, the quartz business won a $4.5 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a new Department of Energy research incubator, to develop gallium nitride crystals for lighting based on light-emitting diodes.
Continuing this tradition will require more than just a new building. Rich says Momentive executives are already recruiting to fill the technology center with top scientists and engineers—a task aided by today’s tough job market. Many companies are setting up their newest research centers in places such as Shanghai and Mumbai, and Momentive itself recently opened an application development center in Chennai, India. But for the firm’s most advanced research facility, Rich had no qualms about picking upstate New York.
“Momentive is a global company, and we still think the U.S. is a great place to invest in innovation,” he says. “We hope to recruit great American chemists and engineers but also students who are here from around the world.”
Recalling his recent trip to Iowa, Rich says he is always invigorated when he visits universities and meets students studying for advanced degrees in chemistry and engineering. Many of them are people he’d love to have in his new technology center, working to come up with Momentive’s next big innovation.