5 Questions with H.N. Cheng: Fostering Innovation in the Chemical Sciences

The ACS President sees no shortage of opportunities for chemists to innovate
Industry Matters Newsletter
H.N. Cheng, ACS President
H.N. Cheng, ACS President

H.N. Cheng obtained his B.S. from UCLA and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In his R&D work, he has been active in developing and promoting green polymer chemistry as a platform to produce eco-friendly and sustainable products. As part of this work, he has been involved with the use of biobased materials, biocatalysis, green processing, and green methodology. He has also done a lot of work on polymerization theory and polymer NMR. He is currently a Research Chemist at USDA Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. Prior to 2009, he was Senior Research Fellow at Hercules Incorporated (now Ashland, Inc.) in Wilmington, Delaware, where he held various R&D and managerial positions. He has authored or co-authored over 270 papers and 26 patent publications. He has organized 37 symposia at national meetings since 2000 and edited 21 books.

He was selected as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS) (2009), a Fellow of the ACS Polymer Chemistry Division (2010), and a Fellow of the ACS Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division (2018). He was the recipient of ACS Volunteer Service Award (2016), Tillmanns-Skolnick Award for Outstanding Service from the ACS Delaware Section (2006), Distinguished Service (2005) and Special Service (2015) Awards from ACS Polymer Chemistry Division, and ACS Delaware Section Award for research excellence (1994).

Some claim it is harder to innovate today because many of the “easy” innovations have already occurred. Do you share that view? If so, what are the implications for the future?

It is a pleasure for me to talk about innovation because it is part of my ACS Presidential platform. As we know from history, innovation is a major engine for economic growth for any society or organization. In chemistry, certainly a large number of innovative discoveries have propelled the growth of this discipline in the past 200 years. For future growth, we need to continue to innovate, enrich it with new ideas and developments, and refresh it with new technologies and products. 

As for the view that innovation is more difficult to achieve today, I tend to disagree. Innovation and technology, in general, are still growing. In 2000 there were 200,000 US patent filings. By 2020, this had grown to over 600,000 with more than 3.3 million patent filings worldwide. Chemistry is a central science that covers a broad range of subfields and topics. Perhaps some topics are more “mature” than others, such as “commodity” industrial chemicals, polymers, and additives. However, many other areas are still growing, and there are lots of opportunities for innovation.  Examples of growth areas include nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage, catalysis, molecular assembly, sensors, organic electronics, sustainable green chemistry, and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to chemistry. A major trend these days is multidisciplinary R&D, where researchers work at the interface between chemistry and other fields or use the tools of different disciplines to solve problems, thereby providing new avenues for innovation. Just to highlight two recent illustrations that innovation is alive and well are lipid nanoparticles, which have had a significant impact on enabling the delivery of mRNA for vaccines and therapeutics, and AI-driven approaches, such as AlphaFold, which have made remarkable progress in predicting protein structures from amino acid sequences.

Another major area of growth for chemistry is in applications. Our world is rapidly changing with new technologies, new consumer demands, and even new diseases. These new demands will require the skills of chemists to help solve them.  In fact, many of the “grand challenges” of our time (such as climate change, population growth, food production and safety, therapeutics and diagnostics, clean energy, and clean air and water) are highly complex, requiring the help of chemists. New discoveries and innovations will most certainly result from these efforts. 

Thus, I believe there will continue to be opportunities for innovation in chemistry in the near future. We, as chemists, just need to stay abreast of the latest developments in science and technology, be aware of the ongoing needs for specific skills, be adaptable, and work hard. 

What is the current role of the U.S. federal government, generally, in fostering innovation within the chemistry enterprise? How would you evaluate its performance? 

Since 1945, with Vannevar Bush’s report that recommended the creation of National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. federal government has played a key role in innovation in the chemistry enterprise.  In fact, NSF, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and other government agencies have contributed significantly to these efforts.  One of the most significant government initiatives was the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, which is a federal law enacted in 1980 that enables universities, nonprofit research institutions, and small businesses to own, patent, and commercialize inventions developed under federally funded research programs within their organizations. Many of the products and services available today are a direct result of this legislation.

Overall, I believe that government programs have been very successful in at least three ways.  First, for 70 years government funding has successfully supported the research of numerous academic scientists and the training of graduate students and postdocs. Second, government grants to academic research groups have enabled high-risk, long-term projects that may lead to significant innovations. Third, government grants to small businesses have provided an important source of funding and an opportunity for early technologies to demonstrate proof-of-concept. In all these cases, government funding has played a tangible role in enabling and fostering innovation in the chemistry enterprise. 

The U.S. has maintained its lead in science and technology in the postwar years and has contributed strongly to the growth of chemical technology and chemistry profession. The NSF, for example, has stimulated basic and applied chemical research and development, and its funding has trained many generations of scientists. Under the appropriations legislation currently being advanced by the House and the Senate, the current $8.5 billion annual budget of the NSF would surge by about $1 billion in fiscal year 2022. Both bills support the proposal to create a new, technology-focused NSF directorate. If these bills are passed, we can anticipate further growth of innovation.

How would you assess the state of cooperation and collaboration between academia and private industry when it comes to innovation? What would it take to make this partnership more productive?

I believe the collaboration between academia and industry has increased over the years. Again, the Bayh-Dole Act has contributed significantly to this collaboration as many of the major discoveries are made in universities that are now able to license these technologies to corporations as well as to start entirely new companies, thereby fostering entrepreneurship, which is another of my Presidential focal areas.

In fact, business-sponsored research in the U.S. has increased from $3.2 billion in 2011 to $5.1 billion in 2019. In addition to business-sponsored research, an important way academia and private industry can partner together is through licenses, as mentioned before. A recent trend, highlighted since last year, has been an increase in the amount of attention and private funding towards hard sciences, especially biopharma, and more generally to the chemistry enterprise. The path from basic research to commercial products is increasingly well supported and accelerating. As an example, CRISPR-Cas9 only took six years from the first demonstration of editing in a mammalian cell to a patient being dosed with a therapeutic using the enzyme. Successful academic projects now have outlets through both publications and commercial out-licenses to existing companies or to startups.  As a result, there is a renewed need for scientists trained in these fields.  

Whereas the advantages of academic-industry cooperation are being recognized, there’s room for improvement. All of us can contribute to this effort, some possible actions include:

  1. Enhanced dialogue and networking between academia and industry.
  2. Better training and support of current and prospective entrepreneurship. We should note that entrepreneurs can come from all sectors (academia, industry, government),work functions (managers and lab scientists), and career stages (early-career, mid-career, and retirees).
  3. Stronger financial and logistical support of early-stage companies.
  4. A practical working model to deal with the intellectual property resulting from collaborative programs.
  5. Greater involvement of professional societies to stimulate interactions among entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, corporate venture managers, academic researchers, service providers, and consultants.
  6. Increased training and support for university technology transfer personnel to better understand and manage the technology transfer agreements that result in the best opportunity to bring the technology/product/service to market for all parties.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, rather than governments, are the driving forces for advancing space travel. Regarding the chemistry enterprise, do you see certain areas that would be better developed by government funding, as opposed to relying on private businesses to drive innovation?

The current situation can be seen slightly differently. Previously, space exploration and travel were entirely the domain and responsibility of governments. Today, it is a collaboration that is moving from public funding to private enterprise—a natural evolution. An advantage of the free enterprise system is the support and the embracement of the associated financial and other risks of visionary businesspeople like Bezos, Musk, and Branson for new technologies. Their support is certainly beneficial to innovation. Government can surely play a major role in innovation in chemistry, particularly in the following areas:

  1. Provide financial support to high-risk but high-gain projects, which may not be supported by investors until there is better proof of commercialization.
  2. Identify the innovation areas of greatest need or value (depending on national priority or security, or on projected future needs) and take the lead in investing in these areas.
  3. Find niche or interdisciplinary areas that may be useful but not have the visibility to gain the attention of business and technology leaders or investors until the risks have been reduced and the commercial opportunities more visible.
  4. Encourage and coordinate collaborative projects involving industry, academia, and government, where the government can provide initial support.  This has been happening and continues to happen today through government funding, particularly at universities resulting in new innovations and technology that then transfer to industry or create new companies.
  5. Provide special funding to younger and promising scientists with entrepreneurial ideas who may not have the experience or connections to get business funding.

World governments and businesses collaborated in an unprecedented manner to quickly develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines. Do you see any lessons from this collaboration for future innovations?

Indeed, the COVID-19 vaccine development is an example of how government and business can collaborate to produce results in an expeditious manner. Certainly, one of the biggest lessons learned is the criticality of time sensitivity, especially for new innovations and discoveries. Previously, it would have taken many years for a new vaccine to be developed and approved, especially one based on a new technology that had not been approved for use. The COVID-19 vaccine collaboration showed that all parties—government and industry—could adjust, react, and move forward to successful conclusions without adherence to the “old ways.” This sense of focused attention to imminent public needs can and should translate to other areas, such as other diseases, climate change, and reduction of microplastics in oceans.

In general, collaboration is an excellent way to speed up the pace of R&D. Many government and academic labs carry out research that may have commercial potential, and it would be useful for them to collaborate with business. Indeed, the current trend for many companies is to encourage collaboration. This may involve exchange of samples, information sharing, cooperative agreements, joint developments, or joint ventures. As shown by the COVID-19 experience, sometimes it is beneficial to have global collaborations, especially if it can increase the speed of development, decrease cost, access a greater talent pool, or permit greater responsiveness to local markets and needs.  

Furthermore, individual scientists and engineers can benefit from collaboration. These are especially useful if there are complementary skills among collaborators.  Collaborations can entail division of labor in a project, use of particular equipment to facilitate research, and exchange of personnel.  Collaborations can also facilitate the recruitment of talented students or postdoctoral fellows by institutes or laboratories

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Related Content