Investing in the Future of Our People and Our Planet Through Science
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“Investing in the future” can mean different things depending on who you speak to; investing in people, in the planet, in business…Ideally, it can mean all of these things, after all, we need people able to innovate and find creative solutions that help to soften our impact on the planet.
There can be many aspects to investing in people; providing financial support, opportunities, training, access to facilities or even just a means to get their innovation out to a wider audience. Likewise, investing in the planet is a multifaceted issue, from creating products that reduce waste generation to making more sustainable choices in the way we conduct ourselves and our work. In turn, all of these aspects feed into better businesses, completing the circle and enabling them to provide greater support, ultimately, helping to improve the future for everyone.
We spoke to Geoff Winkett, vice president of molecular spectroscopy at Agilent, and Michel van den Berge, senior marketing director for molecular spectroscopy at Agilent, about the importance of fostering academia–industry relationships and how the issue of sustainability is shaping the way they approach the development of new and existing solutions.
Karen Steward (KS): We recently heard from a number of PhD students about how valuable academia–industry relationships are in both advancing scientific studies and developing skills for the next generation of scientists in the Agilent Science Futures series. Can you tell us about how the molecular spectroscopy department at Agilent are engaging with academia
Geoff Winkett (GW): It's a key part of what we do on numerous levels. To start with, Agilent runs a thought leadership program where we sponsor a key thought leader in a particular area. We then work with that thought leader to develop ideas and support their research. In spectroscopy, we recently started a program with Professor Bernhard Lendl at TU Wien, Austria, a recipient of an Agilent Thought Leader award, around the use of quantum cascade lasers (QCLs). Agilent has invested in this thought leader in terms of providing equipment as well as funding, and the molecular spectroscopy research and development (R&D) teams are working very closely with Prof. Lendl to explore the limits of QCLs. We’ve already used some of the early work from this program for the further development of the 8700 laser direct infrared (LDIR) chemical imaging system, which is used for microplastics analysis. But there are many potential applications we could explore. This type of collaboration is a great way for us as a company to learn from some of the best external experts in the field.
Agilent also engages with various institutions around the world, even on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus where our UK molecular spectroscopy facility is based. We have a really strong linkage with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) down the road and have a number of ongoing Raman spectroscopy projects with researchers there. This is a key part of our R&D process.
The third element is an internship program in both Melbourne, Australia and Oxford, UK. We work with some higher-educational institutions on one-year Agilent student internships whereby students become an embedded employee for that time. Across the molecular spectroscopy division, we've probably had more than a dozen interns across both sites now.
KS: What are the longer-term benefits of internship programs like this?
GW: It's a fantastic experience and gets some new people with fresh ideas into our organization. It's valuable work experience from the students’ perspective and we often end up hiring these individuals at the end of the internship program. It works both ways: they get to try out the work and see if it suits them and we can see if they’re a good fit for the organization. They don’t come in and make coffee or do filing, they’re put straight into key projects and given tangible deliverables to be responsible for. They must present to executive management at the end of the year on what they've done and what they've learned. Generally, our goal is to hire everyone that's really proved a value and that also gives us linkages with the universities around the world.
In Australia, we’re linked with some of the big chemistry, physics and mathematics departments, and likewise here in the UK, which is prime opportunity for us.
Having access to this additional resource pool of thought leaders and research institutions is critical to help us understand where to focus on and where to invest. There’s no lack of ideas, it’s which ones to pick that’s the challenge but that’s a nice challenge to have.
KS: Increasingly, companies, universities and research organizations are having to consider sustainability when they look at the equipment they use, their suppliers and the way they work. What is Agilent doing to address sustainability and how are you helping your customers to meet their sustainability goals?
GW: This takes us back to Agilent’s mission, which is all about improving the quality of life. Therefore, sustainability and environmental concerns are intrinsic to what we do as a company. I'd say there are four areas to consider.
Firstly, we've publicly announced that we will be carbon neutral by 2050. Secondly, we’ve been looking at how we can do business and operate in a more sustainable manner, whether it's putting electric vehicle charging points in our car parks, using energy saving light bulbs or looking at our production and R&D equipment to see if there are better alternatives. As an example, many of our largest global sites – e.g., in Melbourne – have solar farms.
The third area relates to our R&D process. Traditionally, it's been very much commercially driven but now there's an emerging element relating to how can we design and develop a product that's going to be more sustainable, both in the R&D process and in the manufacturing process. Even factors like the weight of the instruments and how it affects instrument transportation are being considered. That's forming part of our R&D engineers’ thought processes now as we go through the R&D process and formalization.
The fourth area is Agilent’s role in My Green Lab a non-profit organization aiming to improve the sustainability of scientific research. We are transformative sponsors, as well as being the first sponsors, and actively involved in the ACT label certification, which is a vendor neutral environmental impact factor labeling scheme. The ACT label aims to provide information about the environmental impact of manufacturing, using and disposing of a product and its packaging, making it easier for consumers to choose safe, sustainable products for the laboratory. Many of Agilent’s products either have registration already or are going through the registration process. Fundamentally, we've decided that each new molecular spectroscopy product introduction should have an ACT label registration. There are no excuses or reasons why we should not build that factor into our product lifecycle so that when we release products, they already have an associated ACT label registration.
KS: Are there any ways in which Agilent are contributing to sustainability that may be less immediately apparent to people?
Michel van den Berge (MvdB): What I hear from our customers quite often is that if we make an instrument that uses less electricity or water or similar, it is important, but it's only a small part. The big impact comes where our customers are using advancements in their research or in manufacturing. For example, in the chemicals and energy market, our customers are developing plastics that are 100% recycled and can keep being recycled. However, to do this development work and make such advancements, they need high performance instruments. So, in that way, we contribute to improving sustainability indirectly through the customer, which is less obvious.
Take our LDIR instruments for example – these are purchased by customers who are investigating microplastics in our environment, which is a key environmental issue now. Also, take instruments like the Agilent Vaya, which tests materials for their identity and the presence of contamination through packaging. Previously, end-users had to open the container to take samples, which would have been more time-consuming but also, the samples had to go into another type of analysis where it may have generated chemical waste. Whereas with a spectroscopy instrument, all end-users have to do to analyze their samples is shine a light through them. It therefore avoids the use of chemicals and build-up of waste.
KS: How have customers’ demands and expectations changed on the issue of sustainability?
GW: It’s becoming a key priority for our customers that Agilent is providing them with solutions that consider their environmental impact, essentially becoming part of their decision-making process. I've seen written into some tenders that customers want us to tell them what we're doing as a company and as a business to address environmental issues. Acting on sustainability has moved beyond being a nice thing to do, to becoming a critical part of doing business.
Geoff Winkett and Michel van den Berge were speaking to Dr. Karen Steward, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.