Risk-averse culture limits chemical innovation: Bayer MaterialScience CEO

18:18 PM | July 15, 2013 | Clay Boswell

Fear of failure has stifled innovation in the chemical industry, says Patrick Thomas, CEO of Bayer MaterialScience. Companies would be better served by ambitious goals that test and extend their capabilities. “If you succeed all the time, it means you’re not setting big enough targets,” he states.  
Thomas: Set difficult targets.
Thomas spoke in New York on 12 July during an event marking the first coast-to-coast flight by a solar-powered airplane, the ultra-light Solar Impulse. Bayer MaterialScience developed a new polyurethane foam insulation, a polycarbonate windscreen, and specialized coatings, adhesives and fabrics for the project, which the company also sponsored.
“There are some corporate cultures which punish failure: If your projects don't work, you're never going to get a job again,” Thomas observes. “We try to celebrate failures. When a project has failed, at least someone has tried something which wouldn't have been tried otherwise. They may not succeed the first or second time, but the third time? Maybe yes.”
Chemical innovation slowed after a heyday that spanned the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Thomas notes. “Everybody kind of went into cost-cutting mode,” he says. “Of course, you've got to be efficient; but you shouldn't stop innovating, and you've got to set difficult targets for innovation.”
A Bayer technology using carbon dioxide as a feedstock to produce polyether polyols illustrates how ambitious projects can yield unexpected innovations even when they fail to achieve their stated goals, says Thomas.  
“We went to our catalyst center in Aachen University and said, ‘We want you to make polycarbonate out of carbon dioxide.’ Because in principle, if you polymerize carbon dioxide, you get polycarbonate,” he says. “So they tried that. Three years later, they came back and said, ‘We can't do polycarbonate; but we can make a feedstock for polyurethane.’ And that's okay! It's taken you somewhere, that's the important thing, and unless you set really stretching goals, you have no hope of making a difference.” Bayer plans to commercialize the technology by 2015.