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Innovation Strikes, Battelle Answers

Lighting strike sound effect---

Innovation can strike in a variety of ways.

Take Emery OleoChemical in Cincinnati. The company started making candles in 1840. Today, it uses the same tallow to make things like glyercin, which goes into soap, detergent and makeup. And it uses technology that mimics what happens in a lightning strike to make the stuff. Here's Mark Durchholz, one of the company's regional business directors, to explain how it works.

Mark (phone): We discharge electricity at very high voltage across oxygen and we make ozone gas.

This is important because a few years ago, the company realized it could use this same technology to branch out into a whole new business.

Emery has found a way to adapt that technology into three new product lines - now they're making foam, not just from crude oil, but from soy.

And the idea for all of this was basically handed to Emery - by Battelle Memorial Institute.

If you've never heard of Battelle, not to worry. Neither had Emery OleoChemical - despite the fact that Battelle is just 100 miles away in Columbus, Ohio.

Here's why.

Spencer: We uh actually respect the privacy of our companies, so, no, I really can't tell you the names of companies we work for.

That's Spencer Pugh, who works for Battelle. He can talk about a few of the things Battelle does takes credit for - the bar code, cruise control, the technology to create compact discs - and even Xerox copies.

Battelle's a nonprofit. Companies hire Battelle because all it does is scientific research - six and a half billion dollars worth each year. Battelle has more than 20,000 employees in 130 laboratories around the world.

It uses this network to help its clients perfect technology. Sometimes, it gets share of the profits - like it did, back before Xerox went public. That's how it funds the rest of its research.

(auger sound)

Battelle's Columbus campus is across the street from Ohio State University. Across 50 acres and in 20 buildings, scientists are trying to improve military jet fuel efficiency, perfect underwater robots and develop a new fuel source out of things like sawdust.

The machine making this sound is a prototype, a contraption that seemed like my childhood memories of Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel come to life. Assistants have loaded it up with sawdust and turned it on.

Zia Abdullah leads Battelle's bioenergy program.

Zia: Our technology is focused on going from biomass all the way to a fuel that can be blended directly with gasoline that all of us use during the normal course of our days.

Spencer: You don't always know when you start out which ones will pay off and which ones won't. So there is a lot of investment in ideas and a very rigorous weeding out process as we find ideas that work and as we find ideas that will be successful in the marketplace.

That's Spencer Pugh again. Finding ideas that work is an expensive proposition many companies don't want to invest in anymore. But that's the principle.
Battelle was founded on back in 1929.

During World War I, Steel tycoon Gordon Battelle was frustrated with how long it took for inventions to go from the lab to the battlefield. When he died young - at age 40, after a routine appendectomy - he left money in his will to found a nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research.

Today, the only company that's won more major R&D awards is G.E.

Spencer: When we talk to people, they say, well, would you work with a company like mine? And we laugh at that, and say, of course we would.

At Battelle, it's not really about the idea, or when inspiration strikes. It's the role science plays in getting an idea out of someone's head - to the manufacturing floor - and into our economy.

For Changing Gears, I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.