"Science is a key enabler for product innovations"
Patrick Maestro, Solvay’s Scientific Director (pictured above left with Solvay CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu), has just received the Légion d’honneur, France’s most prestigious order of merit. A perfect occasion to chat with him about combining fundamental research and applied science in order to foster innovation and create business, while making the world a better place.
Hello Patrick. First of all, can you tell us what exactly a Scientific Director does?
Well, it’s a very diverse job. Fundamentally, my role is to ensure that Solvay maintains itself at the right scientific level, with the right skills and knowledge to address the subjects we work on, for all our business units internally and also through numerous relations with the outside world.
So connecting people is a big part of your job?
Absolutely. I’m here to connect Solvay’s researchers amongst themselves, and when possible with the rest of the Group (marketing, business, etc... ), as well as with academic laboratories across the world, and our partners and customers. My job is to influence, connect, open doors, give access, and to keep up with everything that’s going on in the fields of research that concern Solvay. I’m fortunate enough to talk to very high level scientists, among which several Nobel Prize winners. Also, being on the jury of the Solvay Prize gives me access to the brightest scientific minds of our times. My job is a mix of science and human relations, as I’m in contact with a great variety of people. Solvay’s science is applied science, with the objective of creating business, but it relies on theoretical and fundamental research, so there is a necessity to constantly connect the two.
With the objective of fostering innovation?
Yes. Innovation is always a very complex process that combines all types of competencies: research, marketing, industrial, legal, business… For example, our Advanced Materials Lab in Lyon France, contributed to our understanding of how silica spreads within rubber, which led to business applications in the field of tires, and this was just a part of a global innovation project led by our Silica Global Business Unit. Another example: knowing exactly how solvents behave enables us to create, with the Novecare GBU, solvent combinations that are less harmful for the environment. Scientific knowledge contributes to moving quicker onto the market – and with more confidence, because we understood how our chemistry, technologies and related systems work.
These innovations are often the result of collaborations with partners…
Part of my job is to manage a research budget thanks to which I can launch collaborations with other organizations and promote open innovation, which is part of Solvay’s DNA. We for example have a global partnership with the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in France. We opened four joint research units in France, the USA and China that connect our in-house researchers, CNRS researchers and international students, all working together, under a well defined confidentiality agreement, at Solvay facilities on subjects such as eco-friendly reactions for new processes, microfluidics for chemical reactions and mixing, the study of complex formulations and advanced materials. Working on these high-level subjects enables us to broaden the field of applications of our materials. For example, studying the impact of shear on surfactant mixtures helps us figure out how spreading cream on your skin with your fingers affects its physico-chemical properties, and hence performance. We also have several other collaboration programs, for example with Stanford and U Penn in the USA, with universities in China, South Korea, Switzerland… Research at Solvay is completely international.
Scientific knowledge contributes to moving quicker onto the market – and with more confidence.
Science at the core
How does one become Scientific Director? What is your career history?
Well, I’m originally from Bordeaux. I studied chemistry at university and obtained my PhD working at a research lab that combined a very high level of science with the concern of its applications. This eventually led me to industrial research at Rhône Poulenc. I became a scientific advisor there, and went on to become the scientific director of Rhodia, and then Solvay. I’ve occupied this position for over 15 years altogether. I have always felt supported at Rhodia and Solvay, sharing the idea that creating a product application can’t be done without science. And of course, science is historically in Solvay’s DNA, as illustrated by the Solvay Institutes and Conferences.
Can you tell us what you’re most proud of in your scientific career?
I would say having contributed to a certain number of discoveries involving rare earths – my specialty for a long time – concerning catalysts, luminescence and pigments for polymers, which were developed at my labs. These were all demands from customers, but the right solutions needed to be found, thanks to scientific research. And then, I would also say having been able to move out of this comfort zone to explore completely different areas.
In November, in addition to receiving the Légion d’honneur, you also participated in the Ellen MacArthur foundation’s Disruptive Innovation Festival (DIF)…
Yes, I represented the voice of Solvay to explain that chemistry is a real enabler for the circular economy. Whether you look at depolymerization for recycling plastics or the circular loop of hydrogen peroxide in the paper industry, chemistry is fundamental to help the circular economy move forward. As for the Légion d’honneur, I see it, with the greatest humility, as an acknowledgment of my career. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been in contact with lots of influential people in the scientific and industrial worlds. I was elected as a member of the French Academy of Engineering, and also received a medal of innovation from the CNRS; all this has given me a certain visibility in what remains a relatively small community. Apart from that, I don’t really know how this has come to happen.
As you increasingly become a public figure, what is the message you would like to pass on?
I want to encourage young people to embrace scientific careers, because it’s important for the future. It pleases me to see that many young people today are interested in science. I try to help them and share my experience as much as I can.