Innovating in West Virginia's World-class Chemical Industry
by Kim Harbour
SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Keith Pauley’s goal is to make India and China complain about their brain drain to South Charleston’s Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center (MATRIC).
When Pauley recruits, he talks about his four-year-old company that just completed $6.5 million in projects last year, including the start-up of a biodisel plant, the development of innovative corn-based polymers and new heat transfer technology for the NASA Lunar Lander. Then, as job candidates visit South Charleston, they meet the scientists and see the projects. “The work and the people speak for themselves,” said Pauley, MATRIC’s president. “We can compete with anyone in the world with our science and technology. And we’re doing it every day!”
Currently, MATRIC has 68 projects and employs 80 people. But it is planning to grow the staff to 140 by the end of 2009, with a five-year goal to have over 500 people in its core research, engineering and technology spin-off businesses. Its headquarters is at the Dow Technology Park, with offices in Morgantown, W.Va., and Oakridge, Tenn.
Touring the South Charleston labs underscores the diversity of MATRIC’s scientific and commercial pursuits. Along one hallway, a lab featuring a digester making natural gas from chicken manure is next to an aerospace lab supporting NASA work, which is beside another lab developing water desalinization membranes. Continuing down the hall, there is work being done on corn-based polymers that can be added to plastic to make water bottles more biodegradable or combined with fabrics to make them more color safe and durable. Research is also being done on carbon nanotubes made from coal pitch, biofuels made from wood chips or other cellulose materials and new gas-separating membranes that could be used for oxygen masks for coal miners.
MATRIC is an incubator with a family of companies that focuses on conducting cutting-edge science and finding both the capital and the management teams to bring these new products to market. Here, the discovery of a new plastic compound can translate into optical polymers with bullet- and shatter-resistant properties. Because such a compound would be prized by both the military and consumers, MATRIC has spun-off a new company, Transparent Armor, LLC, to pursue different applications of the same base polymer.
West Virginia? – Of Course!
Pauley went to high school in St. Albans, class of 1983. Ten days after graduation, he left West Virginia to attend school at Oregon State University -- assuming that his studies in nuclear engineering would result in career options far from the Mountain State. Over the years, Pauley got to do science and engineering with the country’s top research and development labs: the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He worked at NASA for five years in Houston, focusing on technology and software development for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.
Then, after living outside the state for 20 years, Pauley realized that he needed to come home to West Virginia. His mother was getting older and he wanted to take more responsibility for her care. He started conversations with BIDCO (the former incarnation of the Charleston Area Alliance) about the new research company that was being formed. After a year of discussions, Pauley agreed to become MATRIC’s first paid employee, and he returned to Charleston with his wife and four young children.
When Pauley says, “West Virginia is where I belong—this is my home,” it is not a platitude. He is a sixth-generation West Virginian. His family traces its history to 1760s in the state, when his ancestors fought in the Battle of Pt. Pleasant (commemorated on the obelisk, there) and later marched with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Other Pauley ancestors fought for the Union in the Civil War, and helped to form Lincoln County.
Now that he’s back, Pauley enjoys being involved with his family in their church as well as canoeing, camping, hiking and helping to lead a Boy Scout troop in Charleston. Recently, the troop did a geocaching adventure along the Greenbrier River. In true treasure hunt style, Pauley and the scouts used GPS coordinates to find the box, leaving behind a few troop patches to add to the stash.
For Pauley, returning to West Virginia has meant both personal and professional growth.
“Every place is about the people you have as friends. We had great friends every place we’ve lived. Our family feels the same about the great people in West Virginia,” he said.
Regarding MATRIC and its potential for success, Pauley explains that people should not be surprised. They should say: “Of course that would happen in West Virginia!”
“West Virginia is world class in the chemical industry. Of the top 500 chemicals, 286 of them were developed in the Kanawha Valley. During 60 years of operations in the valley Union Carbide generated 30,000 patents -- an innovation rate of 10 patents per week. Some of the best science and technical development in the last 100 years happened right here in our community.”
Currently, MATRIC is working with companies in the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Europe that have sought out its staff. “We have an incredible brain trust of researchers and members of the National Academy of Engineers associate with our group. Our people have world-class reputations due to the work that the scientists and engineers did in the past for Union Carbide.
“What we need, now, is to recruit more venture capital and management talent,” he said. “Venture capitalists from California or New York are looking to see that key positions are filled by individuals with particular resumes and backgrounds. That’s why we’re so supportive of the ‘Come Home’ effort. We see it as a tool to help us reach the high quality management team members we need to grow. It is a win-win for us and new candidates if we can attract top talent to West Virginia.”