Heritage Day 2003 in Chemical Week

July 13, 2003 - New York, NY

By David Hunter

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) hosted a busy day of awards presentations last month at the Heritage Day celebrations at its Philadelphia headquarters. Innovation, and how to stimulate it, is a theme that is getting a lot of reflection currently in the chemical industry and the theme surfaced in the awards at CHF too.

One of the two awardees of CHFs Othmer Gold Medal this year was John Baldeschwieler, a pioneer of ion cyclotron resonance technology, founder of a number of companies, and professor of chemistry emeritus at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech; Pasadena, CA), and he drew lessons from his own experience. Innovation is very difficult to manage, he says, because the wrong kind of management easily stifles it, and because serendipity--by definition unmanageable--plays an important role in the innovation process. Instead, Baldeschwieler laid out some essential conditions for innovation it requires "a critical mass of intellectual density" such as big universities like Harvard, Caltech, or Stanford can provide, "enabling minds to interact;" "a critical mass of skill sets" to provide the technology backing to move innovation forward--frequently in the hands of industry; funding, and here he favors "an untidy pluralistic approach;" and freedom of minds and an emphasis on small research groups to encourage the play of ideas. "Serendipitous things can often change the course of science," Baldeschwieler says.

Robert W. Gore, chairman of WL. Gore & Associates (Newark, DE), who was awarded the Chemist's Club Winthrop-Sears medal at CHFs event, echoed this theme. "Innovation is a very unpredictable process," he said, and illustrated the point with two events in his company's history. W.L.Gore's key raw material, polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE) or Teflon, emerged in 1938 when DuPont researchers investigating refrigerants followed up on a mysterious white powder at the bottom of an apparently empty gas cylinder, he says. Gore also referred to his own experience in 1969 when he was trying to create a cheaper plumbers' tape: through a heating and stretching process--he recalled literally pulling the heated material with a strong quick jerk--he ended up not with plumbers' tape, but with a new high strength microporous expanded PTFE material. This became the basis of Gore-Tex fabrics--breathable but water-proof--which opened up a whole new range of markets and applications for his company.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Gore says. Within two years of the introduction of the first Gore-Tex fabrics, "we began to get reports from hardcore mountaineers of leakages," he says. Investigation revealed that in intensive use, "perspiration will wet out our membrane" and enable water to pass through, he says. The company responded with a second generation product; the setback "gave us a lot of energy to make new inventions." Gore also underlined that "good things happen when people are encouraged to look for something better," and he has been careful to maintain his employees' "freedom to act, without too many fences or approvals, an enterprising spirit with an attitude of raking the initiative and taking risks." Gore recalled how his father Bill Gore "always called us an enterprise, and bridled when people called us a company. A company is assets to squeeze--but an enterprise is something that reaches out."...

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