The metrics of success have changed for scientists entering the field of chemicals. Market dynamics have shifted, and long-time experts have begun to move into retirement, taking their knowledge with them. Forces of change abound, including faster pace of innovation, shorter time to market, stricter focus on commercial value, business process transformation, and increased competition from globalization. Add to this list more current trends in optimizing Big Data, industrial automation, and harnessing the power of the Internet of Things, and the equation gets even more complex.

To adapt to these fundamental changes, best-in-class companies are adopting new strategies, such as increased collaboration with customers and new models for R&D. This places a new onus on engineering, science, and technology leaders to get outside their comfort zones and learn new skills.

In light of these new trends, what do today’s chemical technology candidates need to succeed? As it turns out, business acumen in the chemical industry might be almost as valuable as scientific discovery. Let’s look closer at the trends shaping this new formula for success and how business acumen—the innate understanding of how money is made—can help candidates navigate.

Speed of Innovation

The pace of innovation has increased dramatically. Scientists used to take their time, often spending several years and multiple iterations to develop chemicals, materials, and other products that weren’t necessarily guaranteed a place in the market. To succeed in today’s labs, researchers must spot advancements faster than ever while keeping their eye on the bottom line. Every move must be made toward a transaction—a problem that can be solved with a new or adapted customer solution. In other words, the “now” of scientific discovery must sometimes take a back seat to the “next” of market demand.

Research for its own sake is therefore a thing of the past. For every R&D project, CTOs and other science-minded leaders must ask key business-focused questions: What is the value proposition? Why would a customer pay for this new product or solution versus an alternative? What does the competitive analysis reveal about how customers will gain efficiency or realize cost savings? Creating a revolutionary new material without knowing if customers will pay for it or how that molecule will exceed the next best alternative is a recipe for failure—not a formula for success. The R&D strategy must be fully aligned with the overall business strategy to ensure sustained commercial success.

Voice of the Customer

Chemical and materials companies have learned to keep up with the quickening pace of innovation by collaborating more closely with customers. While far from a new concept in business, the idea of scientists leaving the confines of the lab to share findings with end-users may seem novel to some. Technologists and chemists must now play the role of market researcher and business partner to speak directly with people to ensure they have a workable solution on their hands. It’s the only way to ensure that new materials have an application waiting for them, and it depends on high-level communication skills.

Through closer customer collaboration, scientists, technologists, and engineers can develop products and solutions more successfully. In addition, innovation that might have taken as long as 10 years can be shortened to as little as two because of these partnerships. Furthermore, marketplace success is virtually guaranteed since the customer is involved throughout the development process. As long as the customers in question are sure about what they want and are open to disruptive technologies, this collaboration can lead to impressive leaps forward.

Deep Knowledge, Broad Style

Communicating with customers is important, but what about other non-technical stakeholders? To sell an exciting new idea, complicated data must be distilled into easy-to-digest talking points that resonate across a wide spectrum of audience members, from financiers to board members. Each of these audience members requires a tailored message, which means scientists must exhibit emotional intelligence as well.

Scientists must tell a compelling and eloquent story that addresses real-world problems, including energy efficiency, clean water, or environmental safety. No matter how effective a solution is, it must be framed in a way that understands and addresses problems and opportunities that exist. Experts in R&D must now have a grasp of business and finance, just as the business side must become acquainted with the science behind a product.

The Next Generation

Given the laundry list of new skills that today’s scientists must possess, it begs the question: How do organizations prepare the next generation of chemical engineers? Educational programs must incorporate technical judgement to create a more holistic breed of scientist. Likewise, companies would do well to present a more entrepreneurial and nimble face to R&D departments to attract young graduates who may believe that startup environments are preferable.

In today’s evolving climate, technical expertise for scientific-minded business leaders has become table stakes. What separates the tech leaders of tomorrow from the rest of the field are business acumen and the learning agility to acquire these disparate skills. A technical degree, be it undergraduate or graduate, does not ensure technical judgment—that is, the ability to develop a project and articulate a complex concept to a non-technical audience, such as C-suite leaders. It’s a daunting challenge for those in the chemical technology space, but for CTOs and other leaders who embrace this change and begin to think more holistically, the potential for innovations that pay is staggering.

Interested in learning more about trends shaping the future leaders in chemical technology?  Reach out to me and the rest of the JM Search Team.

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