Many who study chemistry enjoy how the science allows them to explore the natural world around them. For Michael J. Pcolinski, 51, it is “the interface between applied science and real life” that creates the excitement.
As North American vice president for innovation and technology at BASF, the world’s largest chemical maker, Pcolinski is the person responsible for managing two new academic alliances: the California Research Alliance, formed this spring, and the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials, formed last year.
“We feel that by being open and serving as partners and developing long-term relations, we will have access to the best science,” Pcolinski says of the alliances. And with that science in hand, BASF hopes to develop new materials for its real-world customers.
In the California Research Alliance, BASF is supporting biosciences research and work on new inorganic materials for energy and electronic applications. Scientists at Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; and UCLA play a role in the alliance, which supports 10 postdoctoral positions.
At the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials, scientists from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are taking a role in research that may lead to new materials for the auto, construction, and energy industries. The center supports about 20 postdocs.
The alliances are part of a BASF effort to transform the way it conducts R&D, Pcolinski explains, as it moves “toward more partnered innovation.” Because customer needs are more complex than ever, the company is making an effort to draw on as many resources as it can.
Within BASF, that means “focusing on cross-business unit collaboration and establishing relationships with customers,” Pcolinski says. Outside of BASF, it means forging broad links with as many sources of scientific knowledge as the company can muster. That includes academic institutions, government labs, and even start-up companies, he explains.
For Pcolinski, innovation is about making matches between inventive people who bring new products—for both BASF and its customers—to market. It is about leveraging marketing research and customer insights “through ideation to invention and then commercialization.”
He says he’s found that “customers who make the most money are the ones who creatively apply new inventions.” BASF, of course, makes some money in the process as well.
It was a gift early in life of his grandfather’s 1931 lab notebook from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy that impressed him with the idea of applying scientific knowledge for practical benefit. “In those days, pharmacists used to make their own salves and ointments,” Pcolinski observes.
The connection with his grandfather also inspired him to study pharmacy after graduating with a B.S. in chemistry from Purdue University in 1986. As a young pharmacy graduate student at Ohio State University, he focused on medicinal chemistry. Among his interests at the time was screening plant metabolites for therapeutically useful biological activity. He received his Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy—the study of medicines from natural sources—in 1992.
Pcolinski’s appreciation of practical innovation expanded through his experience with BASF. He joined the firm fresh out of graduate school and completed a series of research assignments in the U.S.
In 1997, Pcolinski moved to Germany for the company, where he continued to do research and learned to speak German fluently. Immersed in German society during his overseas assignment, he learned that diversity matters and that “cultures all around the world have lessons and experiences to offer us.”
When he came back to the U.S. in 2001, he took on a series of industrial leadership roles. They included stints as director of the industrial coatings division and vice president of the North America inorganic chemicals business.
Pcolinski stepped into his current position a little more than a year ago. As part of the staff of Andreas Kreimeyer, BASF’s board member responsible for research, he helps get resources and funding in place in North America for the firm’s science-focused efforts. “We have a history of collaborating with academia, and we want to strengthen that,” he points out.
Academic partnerships are also a way to recruit new talent to BASF, which has an annual R&D budget exceeding $2.5 billion, more than any other chemical firm. “We want to attract men and women who are diverse in background and thought,” he says, “and who want to be a part of an organization focused on providing products and solutions to address some of the enduring needs we face.”
In addition to overseeing academic alliances, Pcolinski’s responsibilities include the firm’s pilot-scale reactor research systems and corporate analytical services in North America.
What his duties have in common is that they require him to listen carefully and bring people together to foster practical innovations. “I’m a matchmaker,” he says, one who helps researchers innovate at the interface of science and real life.