A long-time research leader with Kingsport-based Eastman Chemical Company heads to Raleigh, NC this month to take the reins of the corporation’s new Eastman Innovation Center lab (EIC) on the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University (NC State).
Stewart Witzeman, Director of Eastman’s Research Division, will head the new center that includes two labs and office space for visiting Eastman scientists. It is part of a six-year, $10 million agreement that Eastman and NC State announced in September to conduct joint cutting-edge research in chemistry, materials science and other areas.
Collectively, the open innovation initiative is called the Eastman Chemical Company Center of Excellence (ECCE) partnership.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Witzeman and Yong Li, Director of Eastman’s Corporate Technology Division, outlined the vision for the new initiative, how NC State was selected, and the goals the company has for ECCE and EIC. Li led the effort to identify 12 potential universities, narrow to two, and ultimately decide on one.
“Throughout my 28-year career at Eastman, we have entered into one-off or project-based relationships with universities, rather than longer term strategic relationships” Witzeman said. “Going forward we needed to do more, be better at it, and be more focused.”
When Li came on board, his first assignment was to lead the effort.
“The company believed that the R & D function had to grow if Eastman was to grow and become more of a global company,” Li said.
His process involved identifying internal priorities, matching those with the capabilities of U.S.-based universities, and creating a list of the top dozen institutions for further examination. From there, Li and his colleagues visited each of the 12, “comparing our needs to their capabilities and interests,” he explained.
“We sought broad alignment with our technical interests,” Li said, adding that “the school had to be big with many professors” in the priority areas of chemicals, chemistry and materials. Other criteria included research and academic excellence as measured by key higher education indices, faculty diversity, industrial savviness, and even management of intellectual property and activity with start-ups.
“Location was also a big factor,” Li said in explaining that reasonable ease of travel between Kingsport and the institution was important. In the end, NC State was selected because “we felt it had unique advantages for us.” Those included unique departments like fiber sciences and nonwoven materials, forestry and biomaterials, and industrial design.
Witzeman added that NC State’s “can do” attitude, starting with Vice Chancellor Terri Lomax, “was just superb.” He also cited two other factors – the fact that NC State’s nationally-recognized Centennial Campus was developed with private funds and an open and creative approach to terms related to confidentiality and management of intellectual property.
In a release announcing the agreement, Bob Clemens, Eastman’s Vice President of Corporate Technology, said that “having pre-established cost and intellectual property arrangements makes it easy to start new projects quickly.”
Identifying and nurturing the joint projects is a major focus of Witzeman’s role. The EIC will be in the Partners II building that is under renovation. It will open in February. The two labs and office space will initially support Witzeman and three visiting Eastman researchers in materials and polymers, chemical catalysis, and design.
“We are going to have this facility on campus, but also have a regular rotation of our scientists and engineers,” Witzeman said.
For Eastman, it is all about success in a challenging and highly competitive global market. Greg Nelson, Eastman’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, said that the relationship with NC State “will help us bring differentiated new ideas, technologies, and materials from early stage research to the market more quickly than traditional approaches.”
Looking to the future, Witzeman describes this initiative as a “beachhead for other university partnerships.” He praised the State of Tennessee for its support in areas like workforce development and the strong relationship that Eastman has with the University of Tennessee.
“Going forward, how do we make it better,” Li asked rhetorically. One suspects that the lessons learned over the next few years at NC State will significantly inform Eastman’s future relationships with universities.
“As a global company, we go where the best expertise is,” Witzeman said.