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Featured GC&E Organizer: Paul Thornton, GreenCentre Canada

Honored Contributor
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Leading up to the GC&E Conference we will be posting interviews with our 2017 GC&E Conference organizers to learn a little more about them and the excellent sessions you can look forward to at this year’s conference!

Paul Thornton, Ph.D., GreenCentre Canada

Session: Bridging the Gap: The Diverse Paths from Academic Discovery to Industrial Implementation for Innovat...

Q: What motivates you to work in the green chemistry & engineering space?

paul-thornton.jpgA: What really motivates me to work in the field of green chemistry is the opportunity to work on up-and-coming technologies that have a chance at immense commercial and environmental impact. In particular, I believe there is great unrealized potential for the commercialization of sustainable chemistry from diverse fields of academia (e.g., material science and polymers, catalysis, and novel chemical processes). Of course, this potential is unrealized, mostly due to the immense challenge of getting a technology out of the hands of academic inventors and into an industrial setting. It is hard work, and by its nature, demands diverse experience and expertise – especially in business development, intellectual property and patents, and in researching markets for potential applications. GreenCentre Canada has been active in the commercialization of sustainable chemistry technologies since 2009, and we have found that assembling a team that can work across the technical and business fields is critically important. I find it very satisfying to work as part of this team and make contributions that are technical, but important from an industrial and business development perspective. I find the results that come at each stage of a development project also highly motivational; successes are always nice, and perhaps an indication that you are moving in the right direction, but setbacks need to be taken in the context of being just other challenges to address in the process.

I believe now is also a very exciting time to be involved in green chemistry and engineering as, in the last decade, we have seen many corporations take real steps toward incorporating greener processes and producing greener products. Chemists from both industry and academia have an opportunity to contribute new technologies that can compete on the market and be much improved upon from a green chemistry perspective. For many academics, I think there is still a bit of a challenge to embrace collaboration with industry and the possible commercialization of their research, and many questions remain on how these collaborations can work best for both parties. I find being engaged in bringing both the academic and business sides of green chemistry together very motivating.

Q: In one sentence, describe the session you are organizing at GC&E.

A: The “Bridging the Gap” session will feature academics, industrial researchers, and business experts sharing their successes and strategies for the commercialization of green chemistry technologies from academia.

Q: What will attendees learn at your GC&E session? What makes it unique?

A: The session will have a great combination of speakers from academia and industry and include discussion on a wide range of chemical technologies, from new materials to sustainable processes. There will be a nice amount of technical discussion and straight chemistry, but this will be put in the context of commercial development stories.

Scott Allen will be talking about his work at Novomer, a company that he cofounded with Prof. Geoff Coates during his doctoral studies. Novomer has been very successful in using CO2 as a feedstock for the preparation of high-value materials. Scott will be talking about the conception and commercialization of this technology from its very early stages to its eventual industrial adoption.

Marty Mulvihill is going to be speaking about his work at Safer Made, a venture capital fund in which he is now a partner. He will talk about emerging trends for innovation in a variety of market sectors and highlight some strategies that researchers can use to scale their technologies from the bench to commercial application.

In addition to these and other great speakers, we will be hosting a 40-minute panel discussion toward the end of the session, the theme of which will be “when to consider a commercialization effort and how to get started.” We will have some of our speakers participating in the panel, and this should be an excellent opportunity for the audience to engage with them beyond a brief Q&A. By hosting this panel, we aim to demystify some of the approaches that have been taken to advance academic technologies commercially, and also inspire researchers to look at their own work as potential innovations with industrial potential.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of the GC&E Conference (or what are you looking forward to)?

A: The last GC&E Conference I attended was in 2013. I was really impressed by the mix of academics and industrial researchers and the small, inclusive atmosphere that facilitates a great exchange of ideas and chances to network with many people from across the U.S. and around the world. I always look forward to learning new chemistry and perspectives from the industry talks, as these discussions can be very illuminating about what challenges different companies are facing and what opportunities exist for collaborations.

Q: What are you currently focused on in your work or research?

A: At GreenCentre Canada, we are working on a wide variety of projects, and I am fortunate to be involved in a number of them. Catalysis remains a very important field to us, and we have a number of new and novel catalysts that we are working on. We have been working with Prof. Paul Chirik (Princeton University and keynote speaker at this year’s GC&E Conference) on the commercialization of several base-metal catalysts with different applications in the fine-chemicals sector. Last year, we successfully licensed a ruthenium ester hydrogenation catalyst invented by Prof. Dmitri Goussev (Wilfred Laurier University) to Johnson Matthey. We have several other great collaborations ongoing in the catalysis space, and we are excited by their potential for commercial adoption.

In addition to catalysis, GreenCentre has several projects ongoing in functional and advanced materials. These projects could have a huge impact on separations technologies and some electronic devices or sensors.

Q: If you weren't a chemist, what would you be doing?

A: If I were not busy with chemistry, I would be a full time dad! I have two young daughters (aged five years and 18 months) who I adore and love spending time with. If I were not spending time with them, I would likely be doing some sort of sustainable farming.

Q: When you aren't at work, how do you spend your free time?

A: Spending time with my girls and doing things with them is my main activity outside of work. I enjoy photography and star-gazing (astronomy) as hobbies. I enjoy running and love to be outdoors and go camping.

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