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October 29, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Eastman finding great value in new Innovation Center at NC State

Eastman-teknoBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.

It had been nearly 10 months since we last chatted with Eastman Chemical Company’s Stewart Witzeman about his then pending move to Raleigh, NC to lead the company’s new Innovation Center at North Carolina State University (NC State).

During a recent business trip to the area, we had an opportunity to catch-up with Witzeman at the Center located on NC State’s Centennial Campus. During our visit and follow-on conversation over dinner, we found an executive enthusiastic about the new venture and the value it is bringing to Eastman as well as the university researchers with whom he and his colleagues are engaged.

“We’re getting a lot of play, value and attention,” Witzeman said of the Eastman initiative that has been expanded since our initial article published in early January. It now includes a second partnership with the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill that is narrower in scope.

“Our physical presence makes a difference,” Witzeman says of offices that the company maintains on both campuses.

The Eastman Innovation Center is located in one of the privately-funded buildings on the Centennial Campus which is well-recognized as a model for university-private sector collaboration space. Centennial has a good mix of corporate tenants as well as most of NC State’s engineering programs and the new Hunt Library, a spectacular facility named for the former North Carolina Governor.

Since it entered the partnership with UNC in February, Eastman representatives have been keeping regular ‘office hours’ in the UNC Chemistry Department.

“We are approaching the one-year anniversary of signing the agreement with NC State,” Witzeman noted. It is a six-year, $10 million arrangement designed to foster joint cutting-edge research in chemistry, materials science and a number of other areas. The UNC arrangement is on a smaller scale – six years and $1.5 million – and with a more limited focus – chemistry and materials science only.

Witzeman says the UNC arrangement is Eastman’s model for work with other universities.

“We’re in the midst of our third round of proposals,” he said. Each round starts with a problem statement provided by Eastman to which researchers submit responses. NC State faculty have participated in all three rounds. The current solicitation is the second for UNC researchers.

“We have more than 20 collaborations underway,” Witzeman proudly noted. They range in duration from one semester to multi-year engagements.

He said the typical project involves one or two researchers in Kingsport collaborating with scientists at NC State or UNC. They do regular reviews – some by phone and others onsite in the Innovation Center.

The volume of work is growing with Witzeman noting that they have a steady stream of visitors from various Eastman sites to the Innovation Center. Illustrative of Eastman’s commitment to the Innovation Center is the fact that Witzeman has been joined by three colleagues from Kingsport who are on one to three -year, rotational assignments in North Carolina.

The Center’s offices, which Witzeman described as “touchdown space,” incorporate some of the company’s products – from plastic ceiling tiles and Mylar coatings on glass partitions – appropriately bearing the NC State red and white palette – to floors and even Witzeman’s desk that are made from a new product called Perennial Woodtm.  The latter is real Southern pine that is transformed permanently through Eastman’s proprietary acetylation process called TruLasttm to give the wood 25 percent more hardness that raw pine and a strong physical barrier against rot and decay.

For those interested in learning more about models for university-corporate collaboration, Witzeman pointed us to a recent article in a publication named Chemical & Engineering News. It profiled the Eastman Innovation Center as one of its examples.

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