#27 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 3          March 1993

Idea Transfer at W.R. Grace & Co.
Interview with F. Peter Boer, Ph.D.

Dr. Boer is executive vice president and chief technical officer at W.R. Grace & Company.  He is past president of the Industrial Research Institute.

Innovator:  Give us an idea of the breadth of your responsibilities.

Boer:  Our R&D budget is approximately $180 million, with about 1800 people in 40 laboratory locations around the world.  We work in 30 fields, as diverse as electronic shielding, polymer chemistry, human health and agriculture.  In terms of functionality, activities range from discovery research, through process engineering, to designing manufacturing plants. 

Innovator: With such a diversity of technical skills and interests, there should be great potential for valuable interactions among those 1800 researchers.  How do you minimize the barriers of distance, discipline, and different businesses?

Boer:  W.R. Grace has a corporate research center, Washington Research Center (WRC), in Maryland, where a third of our research is performed.  This facility provides a vantage point to see how technology can be moved from one business operation to another.  Every business at Grace has access to the full range of technologies at WRC, allowing all our businesses to have the equivalent of a critical mass of technologists.

We think of the corporate research center as being the center of a wheel with 30 spokes leading to the different technology functions.  The businesses take what they need from the center.  This allows corporate research to stay abreast of these businesses, and frequently it finds opportunities that the businesses themselves are unaware of.

For instance, polyvinylchloride technology cuts across our packaging, healthcare, container, and battery separator businesses.  WRC probably knows what's going on in most of those applications, and is expected to understand where there's a potential for using a technology developed in one area to be transferred to another field.

Researchers can call someone at WRC who is knowledgeable about a specific area.  If that person doesn't have the answer, he or she may network and eventually find someone at another Grace laboratory, or provide the name of an outside consultant or university lab.

To increase cross-fertilization among the businesses along the circumference of the wheel,we hold a company-wide technical forum every year or two.  We invite 100 of our top researchers to meet in an off-site location for three to four days to discuss their interests.

Innovator:  How do you pursue an idea that seems valuable, but doesn't directly impact any of Grace's current businesses?

Boer:  Grace has the resources in WRC to pursue an idea that's outside of our core businesses.  If we feel we bring enough to the party to make an idea succeed, we'll invest in developing it.

Now, that's not an obvious thing to say, because some companies will only do R&D in areas that are closely allied with the core.  We feel that if we address only the stated needs of our core businesses, we could be at a disadvantage in the future. 

History has certainly shown that businesses that look good can quite suddenly start to mature and turn sour within a few years.  To decide to focus only on core businesses can leave you in a trap if it turns out that you missed something important, such as a paradigm shift.  Grace has enough variety that we can shift our weight, and I think that has proved to be an asset to us in the past.  But such shifts can also be a detriment, a loss of focus.  We're definitely moving toward increasing our focus, but not to the point where we ignore outstanding opportunities.

Obviously, we have more great ideas than we can possibly handle internally, so we look for strategic alliances to move some ideas out.  We have several alliances in health sciences that look exciting.

Innovator:  How do you balance exploring new ideas with pressuring departments to complete assignments?

Boer:  It's a cycle.  We had a tremendous stimulus of new ideas in the mid 80's, in catalysts for environmental control, membranes in health care, the discovery of the gene gun, and ceramics.  But today I think we're tightly focused on trying to succeed with those projects by bringing them through advanced development.  I think we've had a good success rate.  Also we must determine which projects are ready for the go/no-go decision, because we can't possibly spend major dollars on each project.

There's no question that we will soon need to stimulate another round of creativity.  And in some areas we're consciously trying to do that. 

Innovator:  The go/no-go decision must be one of your most difficult ones.  How do you go about it?

Boer:  Not making the decision is what prevents you from getting the new creative ideas.  As long as everybody clings to their projects, that's going to crowd out exploratory work.  If a research manager has 10 professionals, and is under pressure because he promised a result on a major project in six months, and it's going slowly, he's tempted to throw everyone onto it instead of getting two of his most creative types to concentrate on new projects that may even turn out to be more valuable to the company.

When you're in a crisis mode, you have to put everything you've got into the project.  But if it's always a crisis, then you're going to kill creativity.      

Innovator:  How do W.R. Grace's research departments remain up-to-date on scientific and technical advances?

Boer:  In this day and age, it's unreasonable to expect our technical directors to be personally on top of all, or even most, of the technologies that may affect their core responsibilities.  I think the responsibility almost comes down to the individual research scientist, who has to be the gatekeeper.  We rely on that person to know what's going on in his or her particular field.

Because the world is getting increasingly complex, we must coordinate this information.  When I really need information, I tend to skip through two levels.  I usually go to the manager or research scientist directly, if I know him or her.

The professional scientist has to be the eyes and ears for a specific segment of technology.  If that responsibility is shirked, or if the person doesn't communicate effectively, then the laboratory is flying blind.

Innovator:   Rewards are usually given for completing short-term assignments.  What's the incentive for the individual to stay abreast of the technology?

Boer:  If they don't, and focus on their narrow goals, that's mismanagement.  That unfortunate individual will be technically dead within 10 years and will be nearly worthless to the organization.  They should always be aware of, and communicate, developments in their field.  Also the discipline to stay current should be self-imposed by the individual researcher, since ideas growing out of current knowledge are the foundation for their personal research success, not just the company's success.

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