Partnering with Industry
Faculty and students find new innovations through corporate-sponsored research
Each year more than 90,000 people in the United States die from hospital-acquired infections. The irony isn’t lost on the hospitals, which have responded with efforts ranging from hand-washing campaigns to the elimination of unnecessary invasive procedures. Other solutions remain elusive, however. For example, catheters left in patients often cause infections: the devices either become populated with bacteria or, in the worst cases, help spread infection into the bloodstream. The consequences can be deadly.
“That’s where my group comes in,” says Phil Messersmith, professor of biomedical engineering and of materials science and engineering.
Messersmith and his research group are experts in surface coatings and the chemistries used to apply them. Over the past several years they have worked to develop an antibacterial coating to help prevent device-related infections. These efforts, however, have not been funded through traditional governmental routes. The funding came from Baxter Healthcare Corporation in a multidisciplinary research and innovation alliance with Northwestern. During the three-year collaboration Baxter funded more than 20 research projects throughout the University, from Messersmith’s coatings to an automated system that checks IV bags.
While the majority of University research funding comes from governmental sources, corporate-sponsored research represents a growing opportunity for McCormick professors. More than 10 percent of research at the school is now funded by corporations. These alliances with the corporate world provide funding for graduate students to conduct basic research and give them and their professors visibility into practical applications.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” says Richard Hay Jr., director of corporate relations at McCormick. “There is a lot of concern that basic science isn’t being translated into useful applications, and some companies have reduced their investment in internal research and development. This provides benefits for everyone.”
Corporate-sponsored research is spread across many different specialties at McCormick and covers applications ranging from biomedicine to aerospace. Potential collaborations develop in several ways. The school’s Office of Corporate Relations sponsors a series of seminars throughout the year where industry leaders can meet and learn about faculty research. Sometimes researchers are approached by companies interested in gaining access to the latest technology and the best minds in the field. The agreements are coordinated by the Office of Corporate Relations and Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office and Office of Sponsored Research. In recent years the offices have worked together to streamline the process. “Collaborative research agreements are now much easier to put into place,” Hay says. “We work together to come up with win-win scenarios.”
Once an agreement is signed, the researcher—armed with three to five years of funding—gets down to work.
Developing antibacterial coatings
When the Baxter agreement was initiated in 2009, Messersmith traveled to the firm’s Round Lake, Illinois, offices and met with a small group of scientists there. Messersmith explained his research in natural adhesives for medical solutions: he had developed an adhesive that mimics the properties of both a gecko and a mussel to stay sticky under water as well, as a mussel-inspired glue for fetal membrane repair. Perhaps his skills would be useful in developing a new coating for catheters, he suggested.
“Our expertise helps them solve problems,” Messersmith says. “We get funding, and we get to publish in our usual way. Everybody benefits.”
Messersmith and graduate student Tadas Sileika have spent the past two years researching the chemistry for an antibacterial coating and discussing the problem with a third partner: a microbiology group at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which brings expertise in infectious diseases. While there are antibacterial coatings on the market, Messersmith hopes to create a polymer surface coating combining both antibacterial and antifouling elements (the latter prevent organism attachment) that might remain effective over long periods. In this third year of funding, he hopes to finally make that coating a reality.
“This is the critical year,” Messersmith says. “By the end of this year we hope to identify a coating composition that Baxter can then move into product development.”
One of the best parts of the project has been working with—and learning from—Baxter’s scientists. Sileika has a Baxter scientist on his thesis committee, and Messersmith says he’s learned from the scientists’ industrial perspective. And still he retains his academic freedom: he’s published a paper in a scientific journal that resulted from Baxter-funded research.
“There is common ground between our needs and their needs,” he says.
Creating new chemical processes
For Justin Notestein, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, the Dow Chemical Company’s $250 million commitment to research and development at 11 universities was a boon. He’d already worked with the company on the Dow Methane Challenge—he was part of a team trying to find a way to turn widely available methane into useful chemical feedstocks—and the problems in which Dow was interested related directly to his research in designing materials and gaining a new understanding of catalysis to create sustainable alternatives to chemical processes.
Now Notestein is the primary investigator on two Dow-funded projects. The first involves epoxy resins, which are used as coatings and are increasingly used in high-performance areas such as electronics packaging. Among other challenges, one of the current methods of producing the resins can leave behind chlorine, and Dow and its customers want a cleaner way to do it. Notestein is leading a team of five professors developing catalysts to make the resins in reactions not involving chlorine, as well as working to understand how these catalysts function. “There is nothing on the shelf that will do it,” he says. “This is something I’ve been working on since graduate school. It’s a difficult problem—and a great challenge for an academic researcher. If we could get this to work, it would be broadly applicable.”
The second project will look for new ways to create methyl methacrylate (MMA). This material is used in many products, including clear sheets of polymethyl methacrylate, known by a variety of trade names including Plexiglas®. Dow uses MMA in a wide range of copolymer applications that include coatings, resins, personal-care products, and plastic additives. The goal of the Dow-sponsored research is to find an alternative way to make MMA starting from a biomass-derived raw material. Professors from the chemistry and chemical and biological engineering departments will work together to develop a practical method involving biological feedstocks. Laboratory studies, with luck, will someday lead to an actual industrial process. “This is very interesting from a chemical point of view,” Notestein says. “It should work, but nobody has been able to implement it. It’s a discovery mode of engineering.”
Taking lab chemistry and turning it into a viable chemical process takes a considerable amount of time. Subtle changes in conditions must be understood before a system can be moved from the lab to pilot program and, ultimately, full commercial scale. Dow is funding the project for five years—enough to fund a graduate student through his or her PhD. “Because they’ve taken the long view on this, we can take the first two years to develop catalysts from the ground up,” Notestein says. “It’s a very good time frame, and it trains the student in the types of skills that companies like Dow need.” In fact, Dow officials have said they funded this research for just that reason: to give students the right chemical engineering skills.
Notestein is bringing those skills to undergraduates, too. He has developed a new course called Chemical Product Design, in which he uses examples from Dow’s search for new innovations. The projects result in real applications while still giving Notestein and his students the room for intellectual exploration.
“It’s a set of grand challenges that are relevant to the chemical industry,” he says. “They’ve left it very open for us to guide it.”
Designing better tires
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and McCormick recently began an open innovation research collaboration that is attempting to answer a question the entire industry faces: How can we make an all-season tire that has minimal rolling resistance? The tire can’t be too stiff or it won’t gain enough traction in bad weather, but it can’t be too soft either or it will require more energy to turn. The Transportation Research Board estimates that if tire-rolling resistance were reduced by 50 percent, 10 billion gallons of fuel (8 percent of our total national fuel expenditure) could be saved each year.
Researchers at McCormick suggested computationally designing a next-generation tire material that could help reduce the energy consumption of vehicles. The project was ideal for Wing Kam Liu, the Walter P. Murphy Professor in mechanical engineering. Liu’s expertise in digital-based multi-scale modeling of hard materials translated well to soft materials like rubber. “I was ready to work on this project,” he says, “but I needed a good team.”
Together with Catherine Brinson, chair of mechanical engineering and Jerome B. Cohen Professor of Engineering in materials science and engineering, Liu assembled a multidisciplinary lineup. Q. Jane Wang, professor of mechanical engineering, looked at the makeup of the tire, studying the nanoscale friction between rubber and carbon black, a material often added to tire rubber to stiffen it. Research assistant professor Dmitriy Dikin used a scanning electron microscope to study the materials at the nanoscale, and Wei Chen, professor of mechanical engineering and Wilson-Cook Endowed Professor in Engineering Design, provided expertise on design principles and computational representation of microstructure. Brinson created lab-scale samples to characterize the mechanics of the rubber–carbon black interactions and also worked with Liu and Chen on multiscale predictive modeling.
“With all this information we are building a computational model to virtually design a material with the right performance,” Liu says. “We have the right team of experts at Northwestern that work well together and with Goodyear researchers to accomplish this goal.”
So far the team has developed computational design methodologies, several of which Goodyear is already using. Still, a solution isn’t imminent. “It’s a grand challenge in materials science,” Brinson says. “If I make one tiny change in the material’s composition, can I now predict exactly how it’s going to affect the bulk properties of the material? The answer is no. We’re trying to fundamentally understand the changes at the nanoscale and predict how those changes propagate upwards to impact bulk performance.”
Over the next several years, the group hopes to synthesize more designed materials for testing in the lab. Eventually their goal is to use this multiscale modeling to design new tire tread materials. As with the other projects, these computational design theories aren’t just for Goodyear: they can be applied to many different materials systems. And these researchers, too, enjoyed working with Goodyear scientists and sending students and postdocs to their labs.
“It’s key to integrate theory, small-scale lab experiments, and the real world,” Liu says. “Everyone loves it. We are opening a new dimension in technology.”
Norbert G. Riedel, corporate vice president and chief science and innovation officer, Baxter International Inc.
Q: Over the past three years, Baxter has funded more than 20 research projects at Northwestern as part of a multiyear alliance. Why did Baxter choose to partner with Northwestern on research?
A: Northwestern has a very strong research base, an outstanding engineering school, and an excellent reputation in medicine, nanotechnology, and materials sciences. I believe, after almost 20 years of experience, that we have a unique relationship with Northwestern. That is one of the keys that keeps this relationship productive. The culture matters. There truly is a connection.
Q: How are potential research projects chosen?
A: We send out requests asking investigators to submit brief proposals concerning their research. We select proposals in which we have a particular interest and ask investigators to write up a larger description of their research. Then we make funding decisions. The criteria are based on not only the scientific merit of the work but also potential fits with our strategic orientation with respect to our portfolio of products. We never ask anyone to do particular research tailored to our needs. We are very respectful of the University’s academic freedom. We tap into research that would be done anyway and look for work that is a good fit with our organization.
Q: Baxter has scientists on staff. Why do you need the help of McCormick researchers?
A: Baxter is much more focused on development, particularly later-stage research programs for which the proof of principle has been accomplished. Most of the basic research has already been done. We don’t have an internal research engine for early-stage exploratory work that is about discovering new ideas and principles. Universities are the ideal breeding ground for that. It’s where most of the innovation occurs in our country. I would never be able to replicate that internally. I’m much better off tapping into that through partnerships like the one we have with Northwestern.
Q: How does Baxter’s proximity to Northwestern [the firm is based in Deerfield, Illinois] benefit the partnership?
A: It benefits both sides. When you have these kinds of programs and relationships, they are dependent on frequent interaction and good philosophical alignment. Proximity, in my view, is essential. These partnerships require a lot of interaction between scientists. It’s extremely hard to do if you are 3,000 miles away from each other; it typically fails. This interaction also offers Northwestern researchers a more translational orientation in their research. It’s a great opportunity for Northwestern to understand how an organization like ours goes about these programs.
Q: Baxter has been involved with McCormick’s entrepreneurship course NUvention: Medical Innovation, and you are a member of the McCormick Advisory Council. How do these connections complement the research alliance?
A: They all really connect. In NUvention: Medical Innovation, students look at innovation and ask how an idea can become a new product and company. The orientation is toward the marketplace. In that case, the involvement of Baxter is helpful. Our discussions in the McCormick Advisory Council often relate to what the curriculum should look like or what the strategic focus should be. There we try to make the work at McCormick most relevant. These connections are all oriented to creating more proximity between industry and academia.
William F. Banholzer, executive vice president, ventures, new business development, and licensing, and chief technology officer, Dow Chemical Company
Q: Dow will give $25 million in research and development funds to US universities in 2012. Why is Dow interested in investing in science and engineering research at universities, and how does this fit with Dow’s R&D program?
A: Our objective is to create products that create value for society. How we do that is up to us. We can fund work in universities and national labs, we can license technology, or we can hire our own people. As big as Dow is, we’re not going to have all the skills needed to address all the problems we’re trying to solve. We have a lot of resources, but we don’t have all of the best ideas, so I think there’s a natural partnership with universities.
We also hire a significant number of PhDs in chemistry and engineering for research and development. In academia it’s getting harder and harder to get funding in traditional fields, particularly in chemical engineering subjects like separations and thermodynamics. They aren’t sexy, but they are as fundamental as ever. I was worried that the current workforce wasn’t getting trained in fields that are going to remain important to us over the next 100 years.
We have some hard problems and want the best minds to work on them. Many of those are at universities. The dialogue between industry and academia spawns the next generation of products. Having a robust inter-action with universities is a way to keep the United States competitive.
Q: How did Dow identify the McCormick School as a strategic partner?
A: We have a long history with Northwestern. Many of our employees are alumni, and it has a tremendous reputation in engineering, materials science, and chemistry. Northwestern has been a great partner in our intellectual property agreements.
Q: McCormick has received $2.36 million from Dow for five research projects. How are potential research projects chosen?
A: Every year we have an exercise where we rank the problems we’re trying to solve. We ask: What programs have the biggest return? What is the best team we could assemble on this? In some cases we do everything inside. In others we think the projects could benefit from the skills of people in academic and national laboratories.
Q: How does Dow benefit from its partnership with McCormick?
A: We work with schools like McCormick so that we have world-class people—our future employees—trained by world-class faculty. The concrete result is that we will have a well-educated workforce trained in areas that will be of interest to society. If we can actually come up with a better electrolyte or better route to materials we need, those are things we hope we can commercialize.
We’re continually trying to engage academia. Most students today want to work on projects that make a difference in society. If you’re in an academic environment, technology doesn’t benefit society until it is commercialized. The closer the interaction is between large companies and academia, the better.
- Emily Ayshford