TR: DuPont is at once an old company, 200 years old, and a new company. You’re making some of the same products you did decades ago, and pioneering new things.
Holliday: The key in innovation is to keep taking old products, finding new uses for them, different adaptations, while you bring in new things. We are adding biotechnology, a major new platform, while we’re taking things like nylon, which has been around for 60-plus years, into new forms and uses. We just introduced a new form of nylon that has a very soft feel, and fantastic wear resistance. So as an example, if we can take nylon to a new level of performance and give you a reason to replace the carpet in your bedroomthat’s what it’s all about.
TR: The challenge of innovating in your existing businesses and growing new businesses isn’t really new, though. Are there other aspects of this that are?
Holliday: Historically, we liked to get everything done with a bow tied on it, and then go to customers and say, take it. You can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to get the end user working with you every step along the way. Take our new soy milk that we’re putting out with General Mills. We have a sweeter-tasting soybean, and some very good technology to process it. So we went to General Mills and said, we can sell it to you and everybody else as an ingredient, or we together will perfect the packaging, the distribution, the flavors, the process and make it a 50-50 joint venture. So we did it. It’s called 8th Continent soy milk, and in many parts of the United States you’ll find it on your supermarket shelf today.
We also have an MIT alliance that is really about understanding technology from the outside-and being sure we’re focused on customer needs. What MIT did was pick a major business/market arena to focus on and identify a leading industrial partner to work with. For example, they have a deal with Ford in automotive and Merck in human health. For bio-based materials, they chose DuPont. So we have now about 30 specific research programs ongoing through our relationship with MIT on bio-based materials. It’s a five-year process. We’re about a year and a half into it now. It’s a big commitment-$35 million on our part-but we like the way they bring in a lot of outside thinking, a lot of new ideas. And the business school-the Sloan School-is a part of this, so we look at the business model at the same time.
TR: Let’s talk more about bio-based materials. You once told me if you could pull off this “biotech thing” it would really be something special. Is this what you were talking about, the merger of biotech and chemicals?
Holliday: Yes. There’s tremendous focus now on genetically modified plants. We get $1 billion worth of revenue from genetically modified plants today. That’s going to be a very important business for us going forward. On the other hand, there’s human health-using the knowledge of genomics to make better medicines. That’s very important. But we’ve gotten out of pharmaceuticals. In between there’s this big space called bio-based materials. The key here is what’s being called bioengineering-putting basic chemical processing capability and fundamental engineering skills together with genetics to create new technology platforms, so we’re no longer just depending on the petrochemical route. I don’t know anybody in the world better equipped to do that than we are, because we started our first research in bio-based materials in about 1985. So if you’ve got a problem, it gives us the option to take either the traditional chemical route or the bio route, or some combination.