Science with a Business Head

Little by little, as its client base justifies it, MATRIC is using legacy infrastructure and talent to build a boutique, 21st century chemical industry service.

Written by Pam Kasey
Photos courtesy of MATRIC

Chemical engineer Rob Nunley’s earliest tasks at MATRIC weren’t mentioned in the posting for his job. “Literally one of the first things I did was, I had to tell a guy to clean the raccoon poop out of here,” the pilot plants program manager laughs, gesturing toward a corner in what was once Union Carbide’s Building 771 in South Charleston.

Two years later, Building 771 houses the latest innovations in chemical engineering. It’s a turnaround that’s emblematic of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center’s role in retooling the Kanawha Valley’s chemical industry.

Filling a Vacuum

Through the 1980s and ’90s, natural gas— a key chemical feedstock that was once especially cheap in the Kanawha Valley— turned pricey. The industry adjusted, as industries do, with mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing. Among them was Dow Chemical’s purchase of Union Carbide and sloughing, over time, of many dozens of Ph.D.s who worked there. MATRIC formed in 2004 to put that idled talent to use in contract research and development services, and it quickly found its market.

Dow eventually cut the South Charleston campus loose, granting Carbide’s storied R&D facilities to the state for what became the West Virginia Regional Technology Park. MATRIC now operates at the tech park, where many of its senior staff began their careers. A tour of the campus with MATRIC leaders is punctuated by, “My office was in that building across the way,” and, “I wore a path between here and there back then.”

By reinvesting its revenues, the nonprofit organization has grown over the past decade to 42,000 square feet of fully equipped laboratory, pilot, and office space, and it’s still expanding fast. MATRIC works in several realms, including software technologies at a Morgantown office, but most of its work is in chemicals.

MATRIC1Laboratory and Pilot Plants

Do a Google Images search for “chemical manufacturing facility” and you’ll see lots of pipes and tanks and, mainly, vertical metal columns. When a company manufactures a component for paints, pesticides, plastics, or any of the hundreds of thousands of other substances that make modern life possible, this is the kind of set-up it uses.

But long before such a facility is built, there’s a laboratory phase where the inputs and processes are tested and tweaked at a small scale, which leads to a pilot phase where the equipment is assembled in miniature and proven. Few chemical companies can do all of that in-house. And that’s where MATRIC comes in. MATRIC can step in at any phase of development. “The multidisciplinary environment we have and the resources we have provide that critical mass that’s sometimes needed to solve a problem,” says Duane Dombeck, director of process and product R&D, another Carbide veteran who’s managed MATRIC’s labs from the beginning.

A client might start with an idea for a molecule that could become a seat-cushion foam. Or the client might want to turn sugars into a new acrylic acid. What are the best raw inputs? What’s the best catalyst? What are the best conditions for an efficient reaction? MATRIC solves these questions on the fourth and fifth floors of Building 740. Laboratory after laboratory after laboratory—35 in total, with a couple dozen projects going at any one time—test reactions or run miniature pilot processes with pipes, tanks, valves, and gauges in custom-built set-ups.

MATRIC leaders tout their scientists’ enthusiasm. Once, early on, a potential client had an idea for synthesizing a widely used compound from a renewable, domestic resource. The new process had a lot of promise. But the organization’s scientists hadn’t been able to make it work in large quantities. At a follow-up meeting several weeks later, before the client had even signed a contract, a MATRIC chemist placed a container on the table. In the container was more of the material than the customer had been able to produce, ever. “Our guys love the problem so much they want to chew on it sometimes before (Chief Technology Officer Parvez Wadia) closes the deal,” says Chief Operating Officer Greg Clutter.

A logical extension of MATRIC’s laboratory services is its more recent pilot plant capability, located in Carbide’s 1950s-vintage Building 771. When Jack Dever, director of process engineering and development, hired Nunley as pilot plants program manager in 2013—yes, both of them are also Carbide alums—771 was stacked high with desks, chairs, boxes, and wildlife, its special design going to waste. “This building was built with the intention to hold high-pressure processes,” Dever says. “The design was really focused on, How do we keep the men safe when they’re working on these processes?” Running down the center of the long building is a 15-inch-thick, steel-reinforced concrete wall. On the front side, operators and state-of-the-art control systems; at the back, the pilot plants, each within its own cell, and a lightweight exterior wall so any explosion would blow out the far side and leave staff unharmed.

“We have a highly qualified technician pool here,” Dever says. “This is their handicraft. They build a pilot plant and then they run it so, when something goes wrong, they know how to fix it. They’re not just a pair of hands for operations, but really doing the whole process.”

Building 771’s 22 cells house a continually shifting mix of shorter- and longer-term pilot projects—some under construction, some just getting started, some winding down. Construction is flexible to a project’s needs. “We took the roof off of the building and went up two more stories to house this reactor,” says Nunley of a pilot plant that takes up three cells. And while MATRIC had this pilot plant’s unusual molten-salt reactor made by the same fabricators in Germany that will ultimately construct the commercial-scale plant, Nunley notes that the equipment used in the pilot plants is usually fabricated locally.

In a pilot plant, what will eventually be a massive storage tank may be represented by just a slender tube. That makes it possible to identify improvements cheaply with huge cost-savings potential. In one recent example, Dever and his team were able to streamline a client’s own design. “It’s going to save them tens of thousands of dollars on the pilot plant,” Dever says. “It’s going to save millions of dollars on construction of a plant.”

All of this could turn out to be the seeds of a reborn chemical industry in the Kanawha Valley. “A customer that is looking for where they’re going to build their technology when it’s all said and done, that’s something we can talk with them about,” Dever says. “You want to build a commercial plant? Let’s look out the window. There may be places to build.”

MATRIC3-Scientific-Glassblowing-Market Mindset

There’s another story MATRIC leaders like to tell, about a client who came in with a process for bio-based transportation fuels. “We said, ‘Sure, you can make fuels—but the real value is in nutraceuticals,’” Wadia recounts. “The customer actually changed the name of the company because they felt that the earlier designation was a misnomer for their new value chain.” Clutter adds, proudly, “We like the fact that it was a West Coast venture capital-funded organization that came here to West Virginia to get the uncommon expertise and infrastructure that’s here.”

The point of the story is, MATRIC is a bunch of scientists and engineers and technical folks—but it’s also much more. “Matricians,” as President and CEO Steve Hedrick likes to call his staff, are just as tuned in to the market viability of their projects as to the science. Wadia holds both a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and an MBA, and says he was always on a business team at Carbide. Many MATRIC staff have histories in technology licensing.

No matter how intriguing the science of a project might be, MATRIC isn’t interested if it will cost the customer more than the outcome will be worth. The team has stopped projects when early findings showed they were not financially worthwhile and more than once has advised customers against projects right up front.

What does interest MATRIC is projects that are challenging to solve and have the potential to increase a customer’s bottom line. “Before we step into the lab we ask ourselves, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ and ‘What’s it worth?’” Wadia says. “We develop a preliminary economic model and use results from the research to refine the economics—and the economics in turn guide the research. It sounds like good common sense but it’s not that common. And it’s what customers value.”

Hedrick doesn’t like to put numbers on patents or start-ups that have come out of MATRIC. Pressed, he says he thinks MATRIC has spun off 15 companies. Some are names familiar within the state, including Liberty Hydro and Aither Chemicals. “We have minority ownership in the bulk of those companies and they have leadership teams that keep us informed,” he says.

A handful of places do what MATRIC does. Hedrick mentions the Southwest Research Institute in Texas as one similar institution, noting that it’s much older and larger—it has a staff of 2,800, compared with MATRIC’s 100. But MATRIC’s value shows up in its client list. “The biggest company in the chemical space that you can think of, the biggest petrochemical players in the world—we are engaged with them,” Hedrick says. Dow, DuPont, and ExxonMobil appear on the organization’s website, along with U.S. federal agencies and chemical technology start-ups. That reach has brought $75 million in revenues to West Virginia so far.

The Future

In Hedrick’s mind, one can make too much of MATRIC’s grounding in Union Carbide’s legacy. “Those were some really good days,” he says. “But there comes a time and place where that experience and those critical thinking skills need to be transferred to the next outcropping of Matricians that comes along. The great days are in front of us.” The staff look back fondly on their days at Union Carbide, but harbor no regrets—they’re having fun at MATRIC.

Hedrick keeps a chunk of a walnut two-by-four on his desk, a symbol of the goal the company set for itself: to double in size in four years. He won’t say when that comes due—“that wouldn’t be fair to my team”—but the signs of growth are all around in spring 2015, with two new laboratory projects under construction and the pilot plant adding new cells and new capabilities. “We put that challenge in front of ourselves and we’re on the move towards it,” he says.

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