Does the Tortoise Really Win in the End? I Hope So

by Jeffrey Whitford
May 7, 2019 9:15 AM ET

My impatience has been a red thread through many of my experiences, specifically in a space that is chock-full of opportunity, like our Corporate Responsibility work at MilliporeSigma. This experience started years ago with a novel product now known as Cyrene™. One of my team members did the legwork to identify a novel solution that could be a potential replacement for two challenging but ubiquitous solvents. While these solvents are extremely common, they’re under increasing scrutiny from organizations like Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). 

This novel material was arrived upon through a collaboration with an Australian company named Circa and The University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE). It’s a great example of repurposing assets and identifying new uses for them. In this case, it was an old paper mill. Within the existing assets were most of the ingredients to extract and manufacture a new novel, bio-based solvent that has an improved safety profile and can be leveraged for other applications—such as electronics and the efficient manufacture of graphene.

I’ve wised up a bit and am now more realistic about what it takes to get a product to market. So, instead of my previous 18 months, I’ll now give things two to three years. I know, I know—very generous. This one, however, has been interesting. As I’ve said before, buckle up. Due to the bio-based aspect, the consistency we’re working with is inconsistency. Each time you manufacture, you have a different set of variables due to your source material. Each of those tiny, and seemingly minimal, variations creates the opportunity for inconsistency, lest we forget that our work is that of precision, predictability and repeatability. 

Let’s start at the beginning. The material needs to first be identified and before plans are announced to do the modifications and buildout necessary to manufacture at the scale needed for organizations who will require vast quantities of the material. All good. For the development of Cyrene, we worked with our partners at Circa and The University of York’s GCCE and learned the ins and outs of this new novel material. We then partnered with other brilliant academics to test it and work through the traditional applications; we’ve learned from previous experiences that scientists are risk averse when it comes to trying new, unproven materials in their research. We then worked internally with our sourcing teams to hammer out the agreement, and get the material in our systems and ready to go. We did another round of our quality and regulatory checks to ensure that we met all necessary requirements. It seemed as though we’re ready to pull the trigger. 

Then it was time to launch. The material did some magic of its own and was recognized as Bio-Based Chemical Innovation of the Year in 2017—generating awareness and demand for the product that we hadn’t planned for. Kudos, right? Well, yes and no. The demand started to build and the material was just a few weeks out from delivery, except the cycle continued. We hit production delays and had to transition to a scientific version of what I jokingly call “craft solvent manufacturing.” Our partners were diligent and continued to refine, learn and tweak the process to help ensure the needed consistency in the manufacturing process and the specifications we promised customers. Meanwhile, one of my team members endured my frequent inquiries about the progress and when things would be shored up. She navigated conversations both internally and externally, and worked to identify a solution to meet short-term demand while also giving the necessary runway for the long-term. 

We cleared the tranche of backorders and I was breathing easy on this front again. We started to move to the formal launch of the product when we got word that we’d hit another snag in the manufacturing process. The backorders started to climb and we found ourselves in an even deeper hole than we were in before. Once again, it was both a good and bad situation to be in, but we aren’t really the type to do situations that can be vastly improved for long. 

With a new plan outlined, we moved forward and recalibrated our approach. The interesting thing is that we have strange factors at play. The material is already starting to sell itself, which speaks to the power of word-of-mouth, third-party published research and the desire for novel innovation. I use that word with caution, but the reality is that this material can transform the environmental footprint of not only research labs around the world, but also potentially the downstream manufacturing of millions of applications.

This takes us back to the heart of the matter and one of my core tenants—we have to be willing to throw ourselves up against the brick wall repeatedly. The bruises can and will be painful, but with conviction of the transformational possibilities that we see, the payoff is bigger than the number of bandages needed! Our leadership has provided ground cover—they’ve seen the potential and supported the journey even during its glacial moments—but we’ve done a good job at being clear on expectations and its place in the market. Would we have this luxury if we were talking about an established product? Absolutely not, but breaking new ground gives you the testing ground to make sure that you’ve methodically planned and set the stage. Even if you can’t get there as fast as you’d like, you’ve still taken the necessary steps to win in the long run.

Jeffrey Whitford is head of global corporate responsibility for MilliporeSigma.