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Business

Amid pandemic, chemical firms invest in R&D

3 companies put money into new facilities, seeking better collaboration in the months ahead

by Michael McCoy
November 19, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 45

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Credit: Cayman Chemical
Cayman CEO Kirk Maxey at the site of the new R&D facility

COVID-19 has taken a deadly toll on people and an economic toll on business.But in the chemical industry, work goes on. For three companies in the US, that means looking to the future by investing in new R&D facilities.

Cayman Chemical, a supplier of research chemicals and services, broke ground earlier this month on a $20 million R&D facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The three-story structure will house contract services, production, and research facilities. It will also have a gym and a company-wide meeting space.

In Pittsburgh, the polyolefins producer Braskem just completed a $10 million expansion of its US innovation and technology center. The project adds eight labs with equipment to support R&D in catalysis, recycling, and 3-D printing.

And in Marinette, Wisconsin, the contract chemical manufacturer ChemDesign has completed a technology center that houses engineering and support staff offices, quality-control operations, and process development laboratories.

ChemDesign CEO David Mielke says the firm embarked on the project a year ago to replace antiquated, dispersed quarters and never considered halting it during the pandemic. Process development and manufacturing is a collaborative affair that benefits from in-person interaction, he says. “We worked through this pandemic. . . This building still needed to happen.”

Mielke adds that the new facility helps keep ChemDesign employees safer with better fire safety, improved ventilation, and wider spacing of work areas.

Cayman CEO Kirk Maxey says he hopes vaccines will have pushed COVID-19 to the background by the time his new facility opens late next year. Cayman was days from starting construction in March when sales started to fall, Maxey says, forcing him to hit the pause button. Sales have rebounded more recently, he says, including of products and services that help fight the pandemic, such as libraries of small molecules that interact with the coronavirus.

Like Mielke, Maxey is counting on the new facility to spur collaboration among employees, who are now in five buildings dispersed around Ann Arbor. “We could see our culture was being diluted and siloed,” he says.

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