Nov
15

Chemical Engineers and Innovation: A View from the AIChE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah

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I’m back from the week-long Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Salt Lake City, Utah, where over 4,200 engineers from around the country and many other nations were gathered. Hundreds of technical papers were presented from researchers and leaders pursuing advanced in energy, biotech, materials, nanotechnology, chemicals, and related fields. Energy was probably the biggest theme, but bio-related R&D was extremely hot as well.

The Division that I Chair, Forest Bioproducts Division of AIChE, had over 50 papers presented on topics related to biofuels and bioproducts from plant resources such as cellulosic or lignocellulosic biomass. We learned about advanced in biomass gasification, in fermentation of biomass to product fuels, in managing feedstock, in converting syngas or pyrolysis products into value-added chemicals, and many other topics.

I was especially impressed with a keynote speech from Ann Lee, Senior Vice President of Process Research and Development at Genentech, the biotech company that is now part of the Roche Group. Ann outlined Genentech’s pioneering work as the first biotech IPO, the first company to market a recombinant DNA drug, the first company to develop at humanized therapeutic antibody (Xolair), the first company to develop a therapeutic antibody for cancer (Rituxan), and the first in many other areas. They were paving new ground time after time, taking on huge risks and uncertainties, and facing the numerous barriers that innovators continue to face on their way to success. Through it all, Genentech managed to cultivate and maintain a culture of innovation with commitment at the top to drive past or through the barriers to achieve success in so many areas.

The development of personalized antibodies and antibody fragments for very specific and successful cancer treatments has involved visionary efforts that tapped the expertise of thinkers across multiple boundaries, exemplifying what can be done when a country eradicates internal “not invented here” syndrome. Herceptin, the first personalized custom antibody treatment for cancer (HER2+ cancer cells in breast cancer) is a remarkable advance, as is the related Lucentis drug for treating age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Chemists and chemical engineers working together made these innovations possible, and I applaud Genentech for their innovation success.

One innovation-related tidbit I picked up in a session of the meeting that I chaired for the Management Division concerns resources to help start-ups. The Wayne Brown Institute (VentureCapital.org) has developed a screening system based on 15 criteria that have proven remarkably effective in gauging the health of a start-up. In one study, 80% of those that scored high on their assessment were still in business 10 years later – a remarkable statistic. I’ll be looking into this resource in more detail in the future.

Say, do you know which university led the nation last year in terms of high-tech start-ups generated? MIT? Close! It was actually the University of Utah, with 23. Nearby BYU had 11, is remarkable given its much smaller level of funding for R&D (they typically lead or are in the top 3 in terms of start-ups per dollar of research). Interesting. I saw plenty of evidence of active innovation in the Utah area. One of the highlights of the visit for me was a tour of Ceramatec in Salt Lake City, an innovation company developing ionic ceramic membranes that support fuel cells and other advanced products.

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InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.