Science for public interest, private profit
May 19, 1983
Dozens of articles in the libraries describe the work of an agency no one’s heard of—a significant federally-funded laboratory in Peoria devoted to finding ways to harness natural processes to improve the efficiency of agriculture and energy made from Illinois crops. This is one of them.
Remember when it could be said of U.S. commerce that all you had to do to have the world beating a path to your door was to invent a better mousetrap? Officials at the USDA's Northern Regional Research Center do, wistfully. They don't invent mousetraps at the NRRC, of course, but only because mice are too mundane a quarry to excite its researchers. They are busy trying to catch yeasts which transform sawdust into alcohol, or the diesel oil substitute that might lurk in a bushel of soybeans or the cancer inhibitor which resides inside the seeds of a poisonous weed.
If you divine the commercial possibilities in each of these investigations you have sensed the NRRC's mandate precisely.
Four years ago, a magazine assignment took me to the NRRC labs. I talked with Dr. William M. Doane, who is now laboratory chief at Peoria. He described to me a fairly typical project he was then working on.
"As you know, in recent years there has been increased pressure on farmers to increase yields by adding more and more chemicals to their soil," he said by way of introduction. "But the increase in yields failed to keep up with the increase in chemical application.
"Why? Because so much of those chemicals was lost. It either evaporated because of its high volatility or it was degraded by sunlight or it washed into streams where it impacts on nontarget organisms, whether human beings or birds in the air.
"What they needed, we thought, was some kind of time-released chemical. You've heard of Contac. Well, if we could encapsulate these toxic chemicals, to protect it from evaporation and release it gradually into the soil, it would reduce the amount of chemical applied, and so reduce its impact on the environment, as well as save the farmer money and time. Plastics were no good for the job. They survive in the environment too long. But a natural polymer is biodegradable."
The result of these investigations was a series of slow-release compounds made from corn starch which field tests showed performed the miracles Doane and his colleagues had prayed for. But it was not until last year that the latest of these (starch borate) began to be produced on even a pilot scale by a Wisconsin chemical company.
Because of such delays NRRC officials have taken to complaining publicly in recent months about some better information transfer system to strengthen the link between innovation and investment. This has become a familiar complaint in Illinois, of course. Illinois Business magazine a few months ago wrote: "Businesses need to find out more about what scientists are doing. In Illinois, the giant corporations, giant laboratories and giant universities need to work together more closely."
That point is arguable, but for the sake of the present argument I will let it stand. Getting scientists and industralists to work closely, however, requires some understanding of why they are presently so far apart. The state of the economy has not helped, of course. Funding at universities and U.S. ag experiment stations—where ideas which sprouted at places like the NRRC are allowed to flower under field conditions—has been pruned. And basic work (which makes up the larger share of the NRRC's work) has never been extensively funded by industry.
Language is a barrier of sorts, one supposes. Imagine your average CEO confronting this typical sentence from an NRRC paper: "Substitution of flour or corn meal for starch in the cericnitiated graft polymerization of acrylonitrile give polymers which, after saponification, had a higher absorbency for aqueous fluids than saponified starch-g-PAN."
Still, foreign firms manage to overcome the barriers of two foreign languages (English and Science) to read the prospect of profit in Peoria's papers. Two NRRC researchers recently got their first patent royalty checks from a Swedish company using their low-energy, low-polluting process for making paper additives.
Scientists tend not to be the sort of men and women a prudent capitalist is willing to risk money on. Dwight Miller, one the NRRC's top administrators, told me of a former staffer. "He spent his entire life studying yeasts. He had a yeast named after him. He probably wrote the equivalent of a book about yeasts. That's all he knew, but he knew more about yeasts than just about anyone else. He even discovered a kind of yeast that mates. Imagine that, mating yeasts." I tried to and couldn't. "I can't imagine anything less sexy than a yeast," Miller continued, "but he said they mated." Miller paused. "Those are the kinds of guys who make the breakthroughs." However, except in rare cases (3M, Polaroid, Bell), those are not the kinds of guys who impress accounting departments.
Last year, the late Mayor Jane Byrne commissioned a task force to develop high-tech industries in Chicago. The commission shrank from the one recommendation that seems essential—move Chicago to Boston—but did point out two factors which inhibit the exploitation of new products and processes in Illinois. One is the phenomenon which is known as 'waterholing'—the fact that there is no place for ideas and money to meet, that (quoting the Trib's financial columnist Bill Barnhart) "If the money is on LaSalle Street, the entrepreneurs generally are in the suburbs." And the ideas, he might have added, are in Peoria or Hyde Park or Urbana.
The second factor is "foxholing." I regard this as more critical, as it is typical of economy in general. Fox-holing is a tendency of managers to protect their domains, to avoid risks. As one capitalist told the Trib, there are lots of creative people in Chicago. The trouble is, "Many of them go to the Board of Trade to get rich shorting commodities instead of building something."
One should keep in mind the distinction between the kind of people who run successful businesses and the people who found them. There is a breed each of scientist and entrepreneur which are closely related. Both are accustomed to thinking outside the usual categories, and share a ( mutual distaste for foxholes. Much of the high-tech industry was founded by inventors who wanted ways to make their own machines instead of somebody else's. This point is apparently understood by the co-sponsors of a symposium scheduled for next month in Chicago (a group including arms of state and Chicago city government and private business) called "Joining Technology and Capital." Interestingly, university professors and researchers have been invited, not to tell venture capitalists about science and technology, but to listen to capitalists tell them about money. As one of the featured speakers put it in a pre-symposium release, "Once the attendees realize that their academic and scientific skills are highly marketable, they may get the courage to go out and form businesses of their own."
One hopes so. One fervently hopes so. ●