Patrick Thomas, CEO of Bayer MaterialScience, is committed to pushing back the frontiers of technology, and puts sustainability at the core of the business
Stepping into Patrick Thomas's office in Leverkusen, the first thing you notice is that it's full of gadgets. Gadgets and art. There are headlamp clusters from the new Audi A8, a roof panel of the Smart Fortwo car, eye surgery equipment, jars of nanotubes and samples of viscoelastic foams. There are roller blades, ski snaps, audio CDs – including the complete symphonic works of Beethoven – and footballs. There are also two stunning originals by Spanish surrealist Joan Miró.
Thomas is CEO of Bayer MaterialScience, a company whose annual turnover of €10bn makes it one of the biggest players in the international polymers market. As we talk, he occasionally tosses a football into the air. 'Bayer developed this football with Adidas. It's the first one that isn't stitched together. It's glued.'
For a man with a corporate division comprising 14,000 people he's very relaxed. An inspirational character, full of big ideas, he starts by telling me about Bayer's association with the sustainably powered aviation project Solar Impulse.
'It all started off with me going to their original hangar in Zurich, where I spent hours on the simulator, which was great fun, because Solar Impulse is very difficult to fly. It's quite intriguing flying an aeroplane with such a huge wingspan. The first time I flew it I landed 15ft below the main runway at Zurich airport.'
In a meeting of minds with Solar Impulse team leader and pilot, Bertrand Picard, Thomas discovered that the project was already employing 'some of our materials on the plane without us really knowing'. The logical move was for Bayer to become the lead materials partner, with Thomas asking Picard what problems he was facing.
'We came up with a shopping list of stuff they wanted from battery technology through to improvements in the strength-weight co-efficient of the composites. Then there were exotic metals and other stuff.'
Bayer then culled down the list to what was feasible and worked on 16 specific areas where the company could 'genuinely bring unique technology. The way Solar Impulse works is like a competition. Anyone who brings new ideas, if they win on technical grounds, then they win.'
This is because, as Thomas says, the only objective is to prove that it's possible to fly around the world without using any fuel. And if you can 'show this to the world, people will adapt, shift position and ultimately change their behaviour.' For Bayer, Solar Impulse is an inspirational project that motivates its innovators, while taking its material science to the limit.
Thomas says that Bayer is always being asked regulatory industrial questions, such as the feasibility of manufacturing a car seat for a 10 per cent reduction in cost, 'which is normally where our business runs into its design challenges.' But with Solar Impulse 'we have the chance to say 'look we've only got to make one seat, so how are we going to do it?' Knocking another 5 per cent off the weight of a 3-Series BMW is something we do all the time. But suddenly there's no one worrying about the cost of a one-off. At the moment we have a design based on some quite wacky technology including air-bagging and viscoelastic foams.'
The spin-offs from projects such as Solar Impulse are technological benefits that get passed along to conventional industry sectors. 'We're a huge supplier into automotive, electronics, construction, white goods and so on. There's no device you can take out of your bag' – referring to my photographic, communications and computer technology – 'that we've not been involved with at some level.'
Apart from the four end-markets already mentioned, each taking up 20 per cent of Bayer's business, a final fifth is 'a complete mixture of absolutely everything'.
Thomas walks around his office grabbing some of the toys that make up his techno Aladdin's Cave. 'There are compact discs, DVDs and so on. They're all made of polycarbonate and we're the world leader in that. Why do you make polycarbonate at all? Because it's extremely strong and robust, as you'll know if you've ever tried to destroy a CD by hand.' Which makes it handy for electricity meters: the material is thermally and electrically stable, and 'you can't break into it and fiddle with it'.
At this point he picks up a set of forceps and micro-scissors used in eye surgery. 'We use these materials in this application because they're easy to sterilise, they're strong and they're high-quality engineering polymers.'
The next group of materials is polyurethanes, which are mostly found in comfort technologies: anything from car seating to viscoelastic shape-memory foams for orthopaedic beds.
'We also have a strong association with Adidas and for years we've supplied the systems that glue together their footballs as well as the coatings, the dolphin-skin effect. This all comes from Bayer, but we're not just selling the materials, but the technical knowhow as well.'
He shows me the panel of the new headlamp for the Audi 8, an all-LED cluster where Bayer materials are used in the lenses, light guides and management systems. 'LEDs are high-temperature and you need to dissipate the heat quickly, while retaining lightweight components. We make the only polymers that can be used in that very high temperature light management domain.'
It all started in the late 1970s when Thomas was an engineering undergraduate riding a bicycle around Oxford. In those days a computer was 'a huge machine into which you fed a deck of cards that then came back with the message 'syntax error' on a teleprinter'.
He specialised in microwaves and control systems, with the idea of going straight from University to IBM as a 'technical courier', importing innovation from the US into Britain. 'But I didn't really want to do this as it made out Britain to be a second-class research hub in Europe.'
At this point he was advised by the careers service that ICI was taking large numbers of engineers from non-chemical engineering backgrounds. 'So I applied to ICI, where I suddenly realised that the control of all these process plants was really quite a challenge, because they're hugely non-linear. I joined as a power engineer, which is the link that got me into the IEE and subsequently the IET. I did high-voltage switching, high-current engineering and then got into control systems and control system dynamics.'
At that time everyone was trying to take the human being out of the process and fully automate it. But what was becoming increasingly obvious to Thomas was that this was a mistake.
He gave a lecture at the IET headquarters at Savoy Place in London on the 'State of the Art of Digital Control Systems in the Process Industry'. As he spoke on how digital algorithms as interpreted for process control 'usually screwed up when they went from an idea to a piece of code', he realised that most of his audience was from the aerospace sector and more interested in guided weapon systems and space shuttles.
He remembers the moderator wrapping up with less-than-complimentary words to the effect that it was nice to hear that the process industry hadn't caught up with the real world. Later, the aerospace people in his audience reassured Thomas that his lecture was the only one they'd understood.
Thomas seemed to be on a trajectory that might have taken him towards head of control at ICI. But there were several internal moves in 'this brilliant training ground' for technologists. In his first decade he worked in the healthcare and agrichemical arenas, before switching to the polyurethane sector in Brussels, where he became head of engineering.
Thomas says this was the point where someone said to him 'aren't you sick of engineering? You should go into marketing.' Having discovered that filling in communication plans 'was exactly the same as control-loop data sheets' he decided that you could learn an awful lot about marketing relatively easily and quickly.
He also learned that his technical background was fundamental for communicating with the people he intended to do business with and for understanding their engineering problems.
Marketing was 'quite fun' and crucially didn't involve giving up engineering – an attitude he subsequently took to Huntsman, a privately owned American polymer company, where he spent six years heading up the industrial marketing businesses and learning about finance. Then he received a call from Bayer inviting him to 'come and have some fun with us'. He joined Bayer in August 2006.
'Megatrends' is a Bayer word and one that reaches deep into its corporate DNA. ''Megatrends',' says Thomas, 'are basically the things that will drive the business over the long term.'
By the year 2050, he says, we will be consuming significantly more energy, 'which means we're going to have to find a way of managing increased population and increased urbanisation, while being able to supply materials that can provide transportation, thermal insulation and efficiency in energy management.
'Every refrigerator in the world is insulated using polyurethane, and that material protects the food in its life from being grown, through cold store and through refrigerated lorries to the refrigerator in your house. Currently half of the food that's grown is lost. If we're going to sustain a massively increased population on the planet, then we're going to have to be able to protect more of that food. As the population grows, the amount of agricultural land available isn't going to increase at all.'
These 'megatrends' are what drive Bayer towards sustainable markets: from protecting the food chain to building insulation.
Buildings are the biggest single use of energy and contributor to greenhouse gas emission, leading Thomas to the challenge of how to design structures that are suitable for the next 50 years.
'We run a programme called the Eco-Commercial Building Programme which is helping supermarket chains, fast food restaurants, hospitals to make their buildings energy efficient to an extent where in 20 years it will still look as if it was a sensible investment. Our programme runs all around the world: we build buildings according to that standard for our own use. We have a new office facility in Greater Noida in India, which is zero emission. Our offices in Brussels are built to a standard where they use half as much energy as any other building in the office park.'
Thomas believes passionately that these megatrends will guide his business naturally to a sustainable future. 'I don't see sustainability as something separate. It's our business model.' In the automotive sector, he tells me there's the common assumption that a car is simply a lump of metal decorated by plastic. 'That's an awful way of thinking about it, because it misses the point.'
A car, says Thomas, is primarily a safe mode of transport. And one way of increasing that safety is to manufacture it from lighter materials, moving away from steel and glass. He uses the example of the roof panel of the Smart Fortwo.
'The starting point here is that it only requires half the energy to make compared with a conventional glass roof. Second, it's only a third of the weight of the equivalent component in glass, and what that does is reduce the weight above the centre of gravity of the vehicle, which means that you can reduce the weight of the suspension system. If you think about it, all the glass in a car is above the centre of gravity, and so every time you reduce that weight you increase the stability of the car and reduce the need for heavy springs and dampers.'
Looking to China
In terms of emerging super-economies China is the Holy Grail in automotive manufacture. In Europe it takes seven years to bring a car to market, China three. That's good news for Bayer. 'First the Chinese are not married to steel and glass; second, they're the largest car producers in the world.'
In 2010 the US produced 10 million cars, with China somewhere in the region of 15 million. Manufacturers such as Cherry instinctively invest in new materials, are concerned to keep weight down, while producing a car requiring less energy to build and less energy to use. Add to that a design-for-recyclability philosophy and it's easy to see why Bayer's eyes are looking east.
'We can solve all of those problems with the materials we have. Even when it comes to engine components we have a type of aluminium reinforced with carbon nanotubes.'
Thomas is keen to stress that Bayer MaterialScience isn't new to sustainability and corporate social responsibility, stating that there's a 140-year history of CSR outreach involving projects such as sponsoring prizes, sports, the arts, communities, education and an orchestra. 'We've always believed that CSR and sustainability has to be a part of business. At Bayer we've been trying to understand the nature of sustainability for some time, asking ourselves what it means to be a sustainable company. The main reason we do this is that it's very good for business.'