Patrick Maestro receives prestigious CNRS medal
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.
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.
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.