Moving ideas to economic reality

October 12, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(Changing Gears/Niala Boodhoo)
Woody Cook, Battelle National Security, next to a pool that is used to test underwater robotic devices.

Steve Job’s death last week has reminded everyone firsthand the notion that everyone has ideas, and very few become actual products. That’s because ideas need a push – and in some cases, a big one, from from science, to become reality. It sounds obvious, but when we’re talking about actual products, that translates into actual jobs, and actual economic activity, it’s something worth exploring. That’s why I was so interested to learn more about Battelle Memorial Institute. Innovation can strike in a variety of ways.

Take Emery OleoChemical in Cincinnati. The company started making candles in 1840. Today, it uses the same tallow to make things like glyercin, which goes into soap, detergent and makeup. And it uses technology that mimics what happens in a lightning strike to make the stuff. Mark Durchholz, one of the company’s regional business directors, explained how it works:

“We discharge electricity at very high voltage across oxygen and we make ozone gas,” he said.

A few years ago, the company realized it could use this same technology to branch out into a whole new business. By adapting this technology, the company has created three new product lines – now they’re making materials that make foam, not just from crude oil, but from soy.

The idea for all of this was basically handed to Emery – by Battelle Memorial Institute.

If you’ve never heard of Battelle, not to worry. Neither had Emery OleoChemical – despite the fact that both have been around for more than 100 years, and Batelle is just 100 miles away in Columbus, Ohio.

Battelle has a tradition of silence about the work it does.

“We actually respect the privacy of our companies,” said Battelle’s Spencer Pugh, when I asked him to provide me examples of some of its clients. “I really can’t tell you the names of companies we work for.”

Pugh can talk about a few of the things Battelle does takes credit for: the technology behind the bar code, cruise control, compact discs – and even Xerox copies. Battelle’s a nonprofit. Companies hire Battelle because all it does is scientific research. Last year, its research and development budget was $6.5 million. Battelle has 22,000 employees in 130 laboratories around the world.

It uses this network to help its clients perfect technology. Sometimes, it gets share of the profits – like it did, back before Xerox went public. That’s how it funds the rest of its research.

Battelle’s Columbus campus is just across the street from Ohio State University. Across 50 acres and in 20 buildings, scientists are trying to improve military jet fuel efficiency, perfect underwater robots and develop a new fuel source out of things like sawdust.

Because Battelle has developed a prototype to create fuel out of sawdust, so they wouldn’t let me take a picture of it. I can describe the contraption as invoking my childhood memories of Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, minus the steam.

“Our technology is focused on going from biomass all the way to a fuel that can be blended directly with gasoline that all of us use during the normal course of our days,” said Zia Abdullah, who is leading Battelle’s bioenergy program and the sawdust project.Abdullah plans to have a system that is commercially viable, and available for widespread use, by 2015. That’s pretty fast in the scientific world, and represents several million dollars of investment – much of which is coming from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The problem with research and development for experimental products like this is that it takes time, and investment – something many companies simply can’t afford to do anymore.

“You don’t always know when you start out which ones will pay off and which ones won’t,” said Pugh, when I asked him why he enjoys working at Battelle, where they have the time and energy to devote years of investment into figuring out what works. “Here, there’s a lot of investment in ideas and a very rigorous weeding out process as we find ideas that work and will be successful in the marketplace.”

But that’s the very principle Battelle was founded on back in 1929.

During World War I, Steel tycoon Gordon Battelle was frustrated with how long it took for inventions to go from the lab to the battlefield. When he died young – at age 40, after a routine appendectomy – he left money in his will to found a nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research.

Today, the only company that’s won more major R&D 100 awards – insiders call them the “Oscars of innovation” – is G.E.

Pugh says Battelle will work with any company, no matter what its size. He said something I heard often at Battelle – that inspiration and innovation isn’t so much about the idea, or when inspiration strikes. It’s more about the role science plays in getting an idea out of someone’s head – to the manufacturing floor – and into our economy.