I started my career in the early 1980s, a time when few people saw the link between science and business. One of the first academic organizations to make this connection was CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research), where I completed my PhD. This year I was honored to receive the CNRS medal, an event that has caused me to reflect on how much my early experience has influenced my career. 

I was lucky to study at CNRS, a laboratory which operated with a lot of connections to industry. At that time, this was extremely rare. You have to remember that in this era, academics largely set their own agendas while continually worrying that industry would steal their ideas. At the same time, industry considered academics to be pure minds working on blue sky topics.

Potential to solve real-world problems

After my PhD I joined Rhône-Poulenc, one of France’s largest chemistry and pharma groups, where I began investigating the potential of rare earths (a field I continued to research for the next 18 years and which still inspires me). In 1998, Rhône-Poulenc merged with Hoechst and the company’s chemical, fibre and polymer activities were spun-off to form Rhodia, itself now a part of Solvay.
These larger chemical and pharma companies clearly saw the potential of linking breakthrough research and business to solve real-world problems. However, it was difficult for scientists to advance in their careers if they didn’t want to go into management. 
Inspired by the example of IBM, Rhodia decided to offer its scientists a non-management career path option. This approach recognised that not everyone can or wants to be a manager, and that scientists need a good salary, interesting work, and career progression.
But Rhodia insisted that their researchers had to be applied and connected to business. While the research was important, it had to have a commercial application. Revolutionary at the time, this way of working has become an integral part of Solvay’s DNA.
SVL006444 - rare earth

Generating new ideas and applications

Businesses and universities also began to see opportunities for cooperation. In addition to direct contracts, which we still continue to have worldwide, these opportunities came through the establishment of joint teams. The benefits for both sides are enormous. Academic scientists get to undertake funded, cutting-edge research, while business gains commercial opportunities. 
CNRS and Solvay researchers working together at the Laboratory of the future in Bordeaux-Pessac (France)

As Scientific Director I’ve helped to start a number of these dedicated research teams. They typically involve scientists from Solvay and external academics. Together they work on a common global project with a medium- to long-term potential business impact.
Each team works on one subject area. Solvay now has four such teams which continue the collaboration between Solvay, CNRS and universities while reaching out to the external world. The teams benefit Solvay’s business, but they also give us new ideas for further research or applications that we had not considered. It’s all about offering researchers the best conditions in which to work and respecting what they do.

The Laboratory Of the Future is a joint research center of Solvay
and the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) , in partnership with the University of Bordeaux

Chemistry of the Future prize adds to Solvay tradition

Solvay has a long tradition of supporting science and its contribution to industry. In 2013 we added to that tradition by launching the Chemistry for the Future Prize to underline the essential role of chemistry (as a science AND an industry) in helping solve some of the most pressing issues the world is facing.
This year I am again co-secretary of the jury, and we’re in the process of assessing applications. We have a very high level of candidates, potential Nobel Prizewinners. The jury will announce the winner in November, but I can tell you that person will be a high-level scientist with demonstrted practical applications for their research.
Solvay’s contribution to linking business and science doesn’t go unrecognized. While I might say the CNRS medal is like giving an old actor something to acknowledge their career, I am truly humbled. I believe that this medal and my election to the French Academy of Technologies also recognize how Solvay fosters science and the connection with industry. I am fortunate to have benefited from this approach, as have a lot of other scientists. And we have enjoyed interesting and fulfilling careers along the way!
There are still many challenges facing mankind, particularly in the areas of clean energy and the environment. Scientists are expected to solve these problems with solutions that don’t exist today. I firmly believe that we will find these solutions, but only if industry and science continue to work closely together.