#27 from R&D
Innovator Volume 2, Number 3
Transfer at W.R. Grace & Co.
Boer is executive vice president and chief technical officer at
W.R. Grace & Company. He
is past president of the Industrial Research Institute.
Give us an idea of the breadth of your responsibilities.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
How do you pursue an idea that seems valuable, but doesn't
directly impact any of Grace's current businesses?
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.
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.
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
How do you balance exploring new ideas with pressuring
departments to complete assignments?
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.
question that we will soon need to stimulate another round of
creativity. And in
some areas we're consciously trying to do that.
The go/no-go decision must be one of your most difficult
ones. How do you go
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.
How do W.R. Grace's research departments remain up-to-date
on scientific and technical advances?
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.
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.
Rewards are usually given for completing short-term
the incentive for the individual to stay abreast of the
If they don't, and focus on their narrow goals, that's
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.