There may be no other industry that affects more people’s lives in more ways than chemicals. Innovations improve everything from the food and water supply to our household necessities, and tomorrow’s breakthroughs will mean a more sustainable, affordable and safe future for everyone.
To recognize these advances, and to encourage the continued pursuit of excellence, the ICIS Innovation Awards have been honoring the industry’s innovative achievements for 13 years now.
Elsevier’s R&D Solutions was proud to sponsor the 2016 ICIS Innovation Awards, held at the end of the year, especially because an exciting new category was added: the Alpha Innovator of the Year Award. The ICIS Innovation Awards traditionally awards companies for innovations, and this new award seeks to also honor the individual scientists and researchers who are at the heart of some of the industry’s greatest advances. For Elsevier and ICIS, this is an important addition because the chemical sector has tended to highlight the achievements of companies and organizations, with somewhat less visibility highlighting the individual people behind the innovations. The Alpha Innovator of the Year award puts the spotlight on some of the brightest minds of today – something that helps the industry create an innovative culture in chemical research and manufacturing.
I was honored to be one of a panel of six judges that selected this year’s winners, each of us keen on chemical industry innovations that solve business challenges and support the industry’s customers and society at large, as well as the environment. We didn’t have any easy task, with many impressive products, cutting-edge processes and innovative thinkers to consider.
Saving money and energy in refining and petrochemical operations
The overall company winner was Delaware-based Compact Membrane Systems (CMS) for the development of a customized amorphous fluoropolymer membrane that separates olefins and paraffins. This separation is a crucial process in refining and petrochemical operations that ultimately affects numerous industries – and it is also one of the most costly and energy-intensive processes in chemicals. Membranes have long been pursued by the oil industry as a solution to the high cost and high energy required for feedstock separation, but until now, they have not measured up, as the membranes would foul too quickly from exposure to the chemicals.
With new ideas from fluorochemist Dr. Andrew Feiring about the potential for fluoropolymers to improve the properties of membranes, CMS Chief Technology Officer Dr. Sudip Majumdar initiated a project to develop new technology for this challenging separation problem. The result: a customized amorphous fluoropolymer (CAF) membrane containing silver ions complexed to a fluoropolymer that selectively transport olefins.
“With a total industry dollar value of about $320 billion, an alternative technology would be welcome to decrease energy intensity and reduce costs,” said Dr. Majumdar. Now, CMS has introduced an alternative technology by developing a stable membrane that can separate these molecules with a fraction of the energy and funds.
Dr. Majumdar was presented with the Alpha Innovator of the Year award in the Environment and Sustainability category for his guidance in creating his company’s winning new process. A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Majumdar specializes in membranology. “Over the years, I have worked on various membranes, including facilitated transport membranes,” he said, “and this work in particular helped me a lot in terms of discovering what will and won’t work for this solution.”
“It was Dr. Majumdar who was ultimately responsible for the success of the project,” said CMS CEO Dr. Erica Nemser. “As an expert in membranes, his knowledge was crucial to the technical development of this new technology, and he particularly helped in overcoming challenges related to scale-up. Most importantly, Sudip helped his team members avoid dead ends and identify synergies across their individual projects. He also had the unenviable task of coordinating all of the different pieces of the project and keeping everything on track as the project advanced.”
Dr. Majumdar also proved to be an excellent leader and coordinator, she added, guiding his team in their work and keeping track of the various moving parts of this complex project.
“I work for a small company and my team is very nimble,” Dr. Majumdar said, “and the development process reinforced how much I like this.”
This nimbleness of the team under Majumdar’s leadership was crucial to the project’s success, according to Hannah Murnen, CMS’s Vice President of Business Development. “If a problem surfaced on a Tuesday afternoon, by Wednesday afternoon Sudip had already devised three ways to address the problem and two had already been tried while the third was in process,” she explained. “This ability to pivot quickly while not losing sight of the overall goal is critical in the development of any product. Sudip and his team manage to walk the line between pursuing their ideas to their fullest, but not getting too attached to any one idea so that if a problem arises, they can quickly switch tactics to continue their progress.”
Dr. Majumdar said the recognition by experts in the field will help his team market their technology.
Creating a tissue expander that improves the growth of new tissue in surgical patients
Also receiving an Alpha Innovator of the Year recognition in the category of New Product Development/Process Optimization were Dr. Marc Swan and Prof. Jan Czernuszka, recognized for their research and work in developing an innovative self-inflating implant, which will significantly improve the growth of new tissue in the correct places for surgical processes in humans and animals.
Dr. Swan had left his practice as a surgeon to pursue a PhD and help create the very medical device that he had envisioned as a practicing surgeon – a painless self-inflating expander for operations like soft tissue reconstruction on children with cleft palates. Through his professional network, he met and ended up studying with Prof. Czernuszka and his biomaterials group at the University of Oxford.
Dr. Czernuszka led the charge to create this new tissue expander by developing a fruitful collaboration among researchers in the material, chemical and surgical sciences. “When the program first started,” he said, “we brought in a polymer chemist, David Buchnel, as well as Tim Goodacre, who was Mark Swan’s mentor at the hospital, and John Meechan, who was head of the department there, so we had strong clinical input and polymer chemical input, as well as my input in the area in biomedical materials.”
Dr. Czernuszka explained why this project was unique:
A lot of my other research has been in the area of tissue engineering, where you try to make bits of tissue outside of the body, but they are much further away from the market compared to something like this device. The advantage of this area was that it was a surgeon-led problem. They came to me and said, ‘We have this problem we’d like to solve,’ and that makes it more immediate and more potentially immediately applicable.
The team chose the veterinary field for the commercial launch because it’s easier to get into that market, as regulation is much less stringent than for human use, and then used the information they gained to design better products for human use. Dr. Czernuszka explained:
There had previously been some related work in this area, and surgeons told us they had used some of those devices, but they wanted to develop something better. Of course, you never start from scratch when you do research; there’s always something you can take from somewhere else and build on it, develop it, take it further. We’ve taken that something else, shown why it isn’t so good, and then turned it into something that’s now in use, and will be in further use.
Whether helping a breast cancer survivor feel whole again or attempting to restore an accident victim’s appearance, reconstructive surgeons often need more skin or tissue in order to make the surgery more successful. The product these researchers ultimately developed is inserted beneath a patient’s skin and effectively “grows” the tissue as it expands, giving the surgeon more to work with.
Drs. Czernuszka and Swan have now founded a company, Oxtex, and are in the process of commercializing this technology for use in both animals and humans. As David Jackson, CEO of Oxtex said: "The unique and integral partnership between Swan and Czernuszka led to a pioneering novel solution for use in humans, and for the first time ever, in animal applications."
Together, the team was able to tackle this immediate, real-world problem.
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