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I’d like to stay with the idea of career transitions.  By 1989, I’d had a good ten year career.  After Oxy acquired Firestone, I outlasted a competitor as Research Manager and was appointed Director of Technology.  This job involved research, the pilot plant, technical service and the technical part of a fledgling licensing business.  It had provided me the opportunity to visit China selling our technology and leading an implementation team in country that included my father as goodwill ambassador.  Maybe there’s a story there somewhere.

 

But from my family’s entrepreneurial background and my own delusion that I could someday run the company, I wanted to make a change from technology.  I asked my boss if I could have an assignment on the business side. It took a while, but finally he said, “Why don’t you make a business out of recycling PVC bottles?”

 

For the past five years I’d worked on waste issues, particularly with respect to incineration. Plastics recycling in those days was pretty new except for soda bottles which carried a deposit.  There was lots of political pressure because polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—which we made—and PET, from which soda bottles are made, are utterly incompatible.  The lack of volume and the contamination issue positioned PVC as a barrier to recycling, and threatened the business of selling virgin material.  For two years one of our trade associations had small efforts to get some PVC bottle recycling started.  Then as now, it’s difficult to recycle a minority product in the waste stream, and PVC was about 3% of the bottles.

 

So what my boss proposed seemed like a logical next phase.  It was a startup—sexy word these days, but the idea didn’t have the same cachet back then.  For most knowledgeable people the idea was ludicrous.  Even today, recycling boils down to four things: Getting something out of the waste stream, separating what you want from the garbage, cleaning it up into pristine condition, and selling it back to people in a form—and critically—at a price they can use.  For PVC, there was no infrastructure of any kind to do any of those steps.

 

So, as they say, start at the beginning.  We immediately offered to buy back PVC bottles at a price equivalent to the best price paid for any type of recycled bottle. What happened then was just about nothing.  Or if it did, people sent me bales of the trash that came off the end of their line and took their exorbitant price.  Occasionally a bale would contain a PVC bottle.  Mostly they contained bugs.  The bales started to fill a warehouse while we tried to invent separation and reprocessing technology.

 

Separation technology in those days amounted to a human-powered picking line.  This was one of the brave new environmental jobs of the Age of Aquarius, and it paid minimum wage.  In the long run, automation won out.  If your eye can see it, and your hand can pick it a machine can do it—if you have enough computer power.  But all that was a few years away.

 

And the entire process is made more complicated because for all of the warm fuzzy feeling of recycling, it was really the garbage business.  Recyclers are the spearcatchers for the packaging industry. Literally no one gave a thought to how this brilliant new package they invented would impact the recycling stream. To this day, they still don’t, really. And that’s not what they get paid to do.

 

Over the next five years we spent our time simultaneously trying to get people to save us bottles, paying them to separate the PVC manually, grinding the bottles up, washing the flake, mixing it with some virgin material and then re-pelletizing it. It worked well enough to make salable material and put recycle-content bottles back on a store shelf.

 

And if you spent five years in the garbage business and didn’t come away with some funny stories, you simply weren’t paying attention.  Too many to relate here.  And in the movie version, Brad Pitt, playing me, winds up with a wildly successful business that eliminates the pressure on the virgin business, and everyone makes a ton of money.

 

I’m not Brad Pitt, and that’s not what happened.  We could make it work, but not at a price—at least not without sinking eight figures into a plant, and that wasn’t going to happen.  In fact, in 1994, I was asked to stand down from the effort, and it was folded into the regular business, mostly to wind it down over time so it could quietly be put out of its misery and given a decent burial.

 

The reason I’m telling you this is because not every risk you take becomes Facebook.  I fell in love with the challenge and the business, and I refused to be defeated.  Along the way, I turned down more standard and probably more lucrative business jobs because I was committed to seeing this to the end.

 

And that’s the irony. There doesn’t have to be an end, even if there should be.  Any failing project can be kept on life support indefinitely in the hope it will work. I had some successes in other cases by doing just that.  But this probably was a failure even though it served a purpose in its time and I should have cut my personal and our corporate losses earlier.


Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to fold ‘em.”  Easy to sing. Hard to do.

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Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.   He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.

My life and work are probably not completely balanced, admits Diana J Gerbi. Gerbi generally works beyond 40 hours in a typical week. But she loves what she does, so the extra amount of work does not seem to bother her.

 

A senior technical manager at 3M Co., Gerbi knows what it takes to get her work done. And she is not afraid to go the extra mile to get it done right, even if it means she has to overcome obstacles, or push some boundaries. That determination has served her well in her professional achievements as well as personal endeavors. 

 

 

In love with polymers

Born to a steel worker father and a homemaker mother in the Laurel Mountains of Pennsylvania, Gerbi was determined to make a successful career choice for herself at a very young age. Inspired by her 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Rankin, who made science, especially chemistry, fun, Gerbi decided to become a chemist, a decision she has never doubted.

 

After obtaining a masters degree in organic chemistry and polymer science, Gerbi went to work for 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota. To more effectively contribute to research and development at 3M, Gerbi, with the support of her employer, proceeded to pursue a PhD in material science from the University of Minnesota.  

 

If you are not well positioned to get the job you want, assess the credentials you need and go get them, Gerbi recalls valuable advice she received early in her career.

 

The research experience Gerbi gained in the PhD program enabled her to make additional contributions at 3M, and the degree helped further her career advancement. In the following decades, Gerbi successfully led and managed multiple key corporate projects, which include a research program on nonlinear optical materials (a 3M crystallization experiment onboard a NASA Space Shuttle flight), and the development of adhesives and coatings for the electronics market. She also contributed to 3 patents along the way.   

 

 

From the bench to management

Over the years, Gerbis responsibility at 3M gradually evolved from conducting basic research and technology development to managing research and development projects. Today she also helps foster research and development collaborations.

 

At her current position, Gerbi tracks metrics for key corporate projects. And she periodically communicates the progress of the projects with key stake holders, including management teams and decision makers from functional groups outside of Gerbis department.

 

While many scientists find people management draining, Gerbi enjoys it. In addition to her solid scientific background, she believes honesty and fairness have helped her to be a good manager. Plus, she likes having a high level view of the company.

 

 

Investing in others

Its no doubt that Gerbi enjoys challenges. Yet, Gerbi is also passionate about developing others, especially the next generation of technical leaders.

 

Diana is the one person I always seek out if I need advice, whether it's about professional development, managing people on my team, making the best science-based decisions, or just needing someone to bounce an idea off of, says Fred LaPlant, a technical manager at 3M Corporate Research Analytical Laboratory.  

 

Since moving to management, Gerbi has become one of the primary advocates for personal and scientific development at 3M, notes LaPlant. And she has developed and promoted many of the tools that scientists are using to advance their technical and leadership abilities.

In the past decade, Gerbi has extended her dedication well beyond 3M. As a co-chair of ACS Division of Polymer Chemistry Industrial Advisory Board, she tirelessly promotes networking opportunities, educational outreach, and award recognition for not only her coworkers at 3M but also members of the ACS Division of Polymer Chemistry.

For her distinguished contributions to the chemical industry and the ACS community, in 2012 Gerbi was named an ACS Fellow, a recognition of which she is very proud.

 

Pushing forward

A self-described boundary pusher, Gerbi never stops improving herself by overcoming challenges, at work and after work. To recharge, Gerbi exercises, reads, and dives into outdoor activities. Backpacking, canoeing, and Body Pump classes are her favorite activities outside of work. Challenges? Bring them on.

 

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Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.

Today my social media feeds are exploding due to the idiotic comments made by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt about his problem with girls in the lab:


“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”


According to Hunt the solution to this “problem” is gender-segregated laboratories. Hunt has apologized and resigned his position for his initial comments, but stands by the assertion that segregation would be less disruptive to science. It is heartening to see the swift repudiation from the scientific community of such backward thinking. A lack of diversity of thought and opinion as advocated by Hunt’s comments goes against everything we are taught as scientists. However in my newsfeeds, I see more outrage at this incident expressed by women than men, which I think raises a broader and more important point. It is not enough to bring about changes in attitudes if only women speak out against gender bias. Unfortunately it is far too easy to dismiss such claims of bias if the affected party is the only one who is speaking out. If we truly want to change such backward thinking in our workplaces, then we need male advocates to speak up along side women to help put a stop to such harmful practices.


While today’s example from Professor Hunt is blatant, bias frequently takes on more subtle, yet just as harmful, forms. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Adam Grant of the Wharton School highlight these more subtle ways that women’s voices are silenced in the workplace. In their piece, Sandberg and Grant illustrate how women must walk a balance between speaking up and being seen as aggressive or not being heard at all. After sharing this article with my leadership team as something we should all keep in mind, one of my female leaders came to talk to me. After thanking me for sharing it, we talked about the ways we have seen this manifest itself in our own setting. The most subtle and most frequent occurrences usually occur in discussion settings. As mentioned in the Times article, when a woman contributes to a scientific discussion, many times her thoughts are cut off by a male counterpart who will either shut down the idea, or worse, take it and carry it on as his own. This is a deadly cycle in science where the exchange of ideas is a critical part of the scientific process. Not surprisingly, once we acknowledged this behavior, we became much more adept at noticing it as it occurred, and as a team, we are working to improve it. We are a work in progress, but are committed to making sure all are heard.


Too often, when gender diversity is talked about in a corporate setting, it is usually a woman who stands up to talk about the issue. It is my assertion that we also need more male leaders standing up beside them and advocating for a level playing field. When we witness instances where women’s comments are shot down or not allowed to be heard, we need men to stand up and call out that behavior as unacceptable. Dr. Hunt, consider yourself notified.

 

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Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)

“How long have we got?” has been one of the constant themes in my discussion about ‘Why do companies do what they do?’ in earlier posts. It therefore seems appropriate to end the series with this chart from analysts Gartner, which aims to answer exactly that question for a number of major technology developments.

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Its format highlights the important role of hype in the process by which technology is adopted.  If you haven’t heard about something, it’s unlikely you are going to start using it.  And the media are always looking for “the new, new thing” with which to entertain their audiences.  Take a look, for example, at Gartner’s top picks in its last assessment:

  • The internet of things and Big Data are right up there at the top of the Peak of Inflated Expectations, yet Gartner assess them both as being at least 5-10 years away from the ‘Plateau of Productivity’, along with wearable user interfaces
  • Even further away are ideas such as quantum computing, which probably have more than 10 years of hard labour in the lab ahead of them
  • Yet some areas such as content analytics, hybrid cloud computing and cloud computing are happily moving well beyond the hype phase

One of the virtues of the chart is that it highlights how perceptions can be quite different from the real state of development.  Many people have indeed become disillusioned with cloud computing over the years.  And so, even though it is now finally getting close to realising its potential, it is at the very bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment.  On the more positive side is Enterprise 3D printing, which I discussed last month.  It may share a name with consumer 3D printing, but is far removed from it in terms of perception and applicability, as it moves steadily up the Slope of Enlightenment. 

 

Of course, one of the purposes of Gartner’s chart is to prompt discussion amongst the developers and managements responsible for bringing these devices to market.  ‘Why are we seen as being at this point in the chart?’ is a question that needs to be discussed and answered.  Even more important is the follow-up, ‘What can we do to move ourselves forward faster?’

 

Technology development doesn’t operate according to fixed laws, as we have seen when looking at the ‘4 Valleys’ chart.  Reasonable people can, and should, disagree about the current state of development.  And one needs to watch carefully for the brainwave that can suddenly propel a technology into ‘fast forward’ mode, as Apple did with speech recognition software – now seen as less than 2 years from reaching its plateau.

 

And, of course, the word “plateau” is a warning sign in itself. Once the technology has finally arrived, how long will it survive?  Will it be a Napa Valley-type product, still in use decades later?  Or will it be a typical Silicon Valley product, destined for a museum before very long?         

 

Gartner are due to bring out their latest assessment next month. I can’t wait for it to appear.

 

This post is number four in a series written by Paul Hodges about the timelines various

companies might face and the decisions that must occur based on those specific situations.

You can read all four blog posts and download your own copy HERE!

 

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Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (www.iec.eu.com), trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars. 

ChemicalEggs3.png“If you are walking behind a manure spreader, never lick your lips”.  My grandfather was a man of few words and, rare as the memorable quotes are, I don’t get to use this one. It always evokes a bit of a smile, but it doesn't fit many situations. Not once have I gotten the privilege of galvanizing an argument or injecting wisdom into a conversation with this quote.


I would spend extended period of time on my grandparents’ farm when I was a kid, but I actually never saw the manure spreader out of the barn.  The glory days of the farm were far before my time and, while it was still an active farm, the cattle were long gone.  Row crops were replaced by strawberries and tomatoes, and chickens were the major activity. There were three pretty good sized hen houses and the days always began with an early morning egg collection. Chickens were let out of the houses to forage and we raided the nest boxes.  That was followed by candling the eggs using a tin can with a hole in it and a light bulb inside.  Eggs that passed the test were put in cartons.  The cartons were loaded into the trunk of a white Ford Fairlane for distribution to customers. 


One day, I asked “Pop, why do you sell eggs?”  It took years for the slyness and wit of the answer to actually sink in. He responded “I knew there was money to be made with eggs because no one ever has”. 


Unlike the manure quote, this is a quote that I have used over the years.  It actually has amazing relevance in the chemical industry.  Eggs represent a pretty good analogy for the commodity chemical industry. 


Eggs are certainly one of the most ubiquitous foods. Everyone needs eggs. Clearly there is a market demand.  It would seem that supplying something that everyone needs would be a great business. Buy some chickens and you’re set. The USDA supplies detailed information about how to raise chickens.  Many stores supply the equipment, food, and chickens.  There is a ready and economical supply of the raw materials, the production technology is readily available, and there is a ready market for the product.  Yet, my grandfather was correct in his appraisal.  No one really makes money with eggs. Sergei and Larry would not cash-in their positions at Google to be chicken farmers.   It is not a lucrative business opportunity.


There are several problems.  The first is with the eggs themselves.  They are an undifferentiated commodity.  My grandfather had his customers due to history and proximity.  He kept them only because he delivered the eggs cheaper than the equivalent eggs offered by local competitors.


The chicken is the fundamental unit of egg production. You get more chickens, you “number up”, in order to increase production of eggs.  You don’t replace a flock with one humongous chicken.  There are certainly some economies of scale, but not the huge economies of scale that can be realized in the chemical industry when production machinery can be increased in size.  It is typically stated that raw materials account for 60-70% of the cost of chemical production.  For large scale egg production, it is about the same.  Economies of scale are realized because large producers can command advantaged feedstock pricing and logistics on getting product to market. There are also economic advantages to growing more chickens in a smaller area, a sort of process intensification. Automation has reduced manpower requirements, again like the chemical industry.  Today’s largest and most efficient producers don’t have their grandsons collecting eggs and chickens ranging freely like my grandfather’s farm did. As we are learning now that avian influenza threatens America’s chickens, today’s chickens are confined in large barns controlled by fewer and fewer companies.  The egg industry has consolidated just like the chemical industry.


The current chemical industry is facing some of the same issues that my grandfather faced as a chicken farmer, with some of the same limitations.  Materials produced by the chemical industry, like chlorine, sodium hydroxide, ethylene, propylene, polystyrene, vinyl chloride and such, are largely undifferentiated commodities.  The technology to manufacture them is readily available, not quite as easy as the local farm supply for chickens, but vendors stand ready to supply the technology globally. Anyone with raw material supply and cash can be in the chemical industry, just like raising eggs. Chemical products, like eggs, are incredibly useful, almost a necessity. However, like eggs, this doesn’t translate into a particularly attractive business.  Once a market is largely satisfied, suppliers compete on cost and profitability drops.


There are of the order 50,000 farms commercially raising chickens in the US.  That is more than 1000 times the number of commodity chemical companies.  USDA scientists continue to investigate better production methods and freely share advances.  The lifetime of the “production equipment”, a hen, is short. Advances in chicken farming move through the industry relatively quickly.  Chemical plant assets, in contrast, last for 30 to 50 years.  Minor retrofits are not commonly possible.  The pace of advancement is slow.  We are currently seeing a wave of divestitures of commodity chemicals.  Since the products are still needed, the plants still run, but they are now, more and more, being operated not by multiproduct, integrated producers, but by single product firms.  Single product firms that operate plants just like the competition and compete on cost. Unlike my grandfather who went to his grave waiting for someone to make money in eggs, these assets had their day minting money.  At some point, many were exceedingly profitable businesses.  Technology was differentiated and demand far outstripped supply.  Paradoxically, as the products became more necessary for life as we know it, the quality of the business degrades.  “Commoditized” is a derogatory business term. The most exciting businesses, those with large margins, are most often for things that aren’t really necessary for life.


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Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.