Carl F. Kohrt
Managing industrial innovation is a challenge, whether in a corporate setting or in research. In 2001, Carl F. Kohrt brought experience from both realms to Battelle Memorial Institute, a charitable trust established in 1929 to commemorate a leading steel family in Columbus, Ohio.
Today, Kohrt oversees six national laboratories (Pacific Northwest, Brookhaven, Oak Ridge, National Renewable Energy, Idaho, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), a staff of 20,000, and a $3.7 billion budget. One of his accomplishments has been to get these labs to collaborate. They target energy and manufacturing projects. Battelle researchers are developing carbon nanotube materials for many applications appropriate to their clients’ commercialization goals.
Battelle is involved in projects for nearly 2,000 companies and government agencies in 30 countries. The organization also is active in community work, including education, diversity, and cultural activities. Here, Kohrt tells Small Times’ contributing editor Jo McIntyre how he keeps track of it all.
Q: In one day, Battelle announced it had donated $1 million to the National Society of Black Engineers and that the Battelle Energy Alliance had placed a $150,000 order for the U.S. Army for five visual first responders made by View Systems of Baltimore, Md. Is this a fair sample of the range of your daily activities?
Yes. There are so many things we do globally. As a CEO, the metaphor I use is that I pick the music, but I’m not even sure I direct the orchestra. There are many talented people here.
Q: How many of your labs are involved in nanotechnology research?
All of them: It’s a fundamental building block of Battelle. It takes many forms and goes back to 1977. There were nanostructured materials then; they just weren’t called nano. Work we did at Kodak was based on nanotechnology. The reality is we’ve been working at small or molecular levels for a long time. What’s changed is the tools that are available and the knowledge of how to use those tools to manipulate materials at that scale.
Q: What are the most important areas Battelle is working on these days?
Here are three: Energy, expansion into Asia, and education. One of our largest portfolios is in the general area of energy. That will be a platform for Battelle increasingly because of our association with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Projects include carbon management, finding new ways of obtaining carbon in a clean way from coal; fuel cells and solar energy, the more portable parts of energy, and one of the primary areas of alternative energy for the nation; and last, nuclear. We have formed a group working in Idaho on behalf of the Department of Energy researching the next generation of nuclear power.
Q: And the other two areas?
The second-to give a little different flavor-is our expansion into Asia. We’ve historically had activities going on in a lot of places in the world. We used to have a lot of presence in Europe, but have reduced the physical presence there. In Korea and Japan we have opened up facilities. We will see where China and India come in the next few years.
Third is education. In the last three years, we’ve decided we are in a position to have an impact on education both nationally and locally. We started a public high school in conjunction with Ohio State to help people learn about science and technology by helping them move on to careers and having them learn in work places. We have seven different sites around the country.
Q: Which projects are closest to commercialization of nanotech ideas…
Keep your eye on applications of health-drug delivery. That would probably be the place I think that might occur. It could also be in communications-improving techniques and doing more for less.
As I’ve learned about nanomaterials, they fall into general categories. With some things we already do, as in bumpers on cars, nanocomposites can fit into bumpers to improve the weight ratio or other performance. They improve performance, but do not change the function. Another category is to do something we’ve never been able to do before. That will come, but it will probably be not the immediate path for commercialization.
Q: … or is most research geared toward military applications?
Military applications are about one-third of our business. They are willing to pay at a higher level than what a commercial market could find. Several applications of nanotechnology for government purposes are some of the areas where we already have great confidence there will be some commercial applications. We feel the composites and new materials will find their way into the aerospace industry.
Our goal is to get technology into other people’s hands. In some cases, that’s for the service of the nation, but our history has been most effective at getting things into companies. That’s how technology gets propagated-by getting into the market side.
Q: Battelle helps develop new products for commercial customers. How do you do this?
How do we do innovation? Our general philosophy and behavior is that innovation is curiosity-driven. Most ideas are walking around on two legs. Some scientist or inventor sitting in his easy chair has a flash of brilliance. That generates an idea. What Battelle does is ask, “Will anyone care? Does it solve a real problem?” The idea is to make the connection between what is possible with what is needed.
Battelle is not a regular company. We operate in the first 50 yards of that 100-yard football field. Taking it into the marketplace is something we generally do in collaboration with someone else. We don’t do manufacturing, or sales and distribution.
Our collaborators often have the best sense of what people need, but don’t know what’s possible. When you get the Battelle gang that knows what’s possible, then we find the common ground. Often they pay us to do that, then we go away, but increasingly, we are becoming co-investors and sharing in the return.
Q: How do the national labs fit into this picture?
We directly manage six labs. We have a particular way to do that. It’s outlined in a book called The Battelle Way, which contains the cumulative knowledge over many years. Pacific Northwest Laboratory has been in existence for 44 years and is a U.S. Department of Energy-owned lab; Idaho National Laboratory’s Battelle Energy Alliance is a joint venture with other groups; Oak Ridge National Laboratory is co-managed with the University of Tennessee; Brookhaven National Lab is co-managed with Stony Brook University; and the Renewable Energy Lab is co-managed with Midwest Research Institute.
The sixth and newest lab, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Lab, just commenced in January this year and is 100% managed by Battelle.
We are competing to manage four other existing labs. Commercial companies or other agencies compete for contracts to manage these labs. This government-owned, contract-operated structure is unique to the U.S.
Q: Do these labs now work together?
Yes. What Battelle has done is provide the vehicle to touch all the labs. People can go to these labs and get help. In practice, most companies don’t know where to go and what questions to ask. We still have a long way to go in terms of honing that to perfection. We’re the only contractor to do this.
Q: What is Battelle’s relationship with government agencies?
We team with more than 800 federal, state, and local government agencies, doing research on national security, homeland defense, energy and environment, health and life sciences, and transportation and space. Battelle has three basic groups: lab operations; applications, where most government work falls; and commercial operations that focus on extracting technologies and applying them to start new companies or improve existing companies.
Q: What changes have you overseen during your five years at Battelle?
The organization in principle has maintained its mission of service to community and nation using science and technology to do that. The thing that is most different is that we have found a way to use all the assets in a more-effective and balanced way. The result is we’ve almost doubled in size.
The management team consists of eight people on the executive committee. Other than that, we’ve had the benefit of continuing to work together. We started out as a bunch of metallurgists; now we’re doing biology and other projects. We want to maintain our relevance by bringing the best ideas forward.
Q: What have you personally been doing lately?
I set the tone and strategy and culture. I consider my job mostly as a strategist, setting the tone at the top as a ‘culture cop.’ Labs populated by good scientists and engineers are devoted to discovery. Others I work with are close to customers; they have a different focus. Then there are venture capitalists. Getting these three to work together is my job.
My second job is to be the face of the company. I’m expected to articulate the values of the company. I spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C., and around the world. I’m out of the office a lot.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of at age 63?
I’m proud of the organization. I have always taken great pride in being part of an organization that is successful. If it is successful, then indirectly, I’m successful. I hope my legacy will be taking great assets that weren’t being fully utilized and facilitating horizontal collaboration.
The Kohrt File
Before joining Battelle as president and CEO, Carl F. Kohrt spent 29 years at Kodak, where he served in such management positions as executive vice president and chief technology officer, vice president and general manager of the Health Sciences Division, director of the Photographic R&D Laboratories, and research scientist.
Kohrt led Kodak’s research and development efforts to adopt market-oriented directions and encouraged the company to enter digital and networked businesses. He also headed Kodak’s Corporate Diversity Council.