Venerable DuPont is one of the United States’ oldest and most successful corporations. Founded in 1802 as a gunpowder and explosives maker, it became a household name by giving the world nylon, Lycra, Teflon, Kevlar and other materials, many of them based on revolutionary breakthroughs in polymer chemistry.
Indeed, for much of the 20th century, DuPont-and its fabled central R&D lab-has been viewed as ground zero of innovation in the chemical and materials industries: it currently spends nearly $2 billion a year on research and development. But some of these innovations have come at a cost. DuPont pioneered chlorofluorocarbons, which were phased out in the mid-1990s due to their role in the destruction of the atmosphere’s ozone layer. And the company’s various manufacturing processes, though perfectly legal, have made it one of the world’s largest industrial polluters.
At the same time, you don’t live to be a two-century-old firm without reinventing yourself several times, and the chemical giant is currently attempting another reinvention-recently shedding its energy and pharmaceuticals businesses to concentrate on new ventures in biotechnology, organic displays and even superconductivity.
In advance of the firm’s bicentennial anniversary, Technology Review editor at large Robert Buderi visited DuPont’s energetic chairman Charles O. “Chad” Holliday Jr. in his headquarters in Wilmington, DE. The two spoke in depth of DuPont’s technological future-especially the effort to combine traditional chemistry with biology to create new bio-based materials. They also examined DuPont’s environmental performance, the Kyoto protocol and the need to balance economic success with environmental responsibility and social progress-challenges reflected in Holliday’s position as cochair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. In short, they discussed where DuPont is headed in the next 200 years-well, at least in the next decade.