Opening windows of opportunities in Holland

January 3, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Tom Guarr, the new director of research and development at the MSU Bioeconomy Institute whose name is on 58 patents, was caught by surprise when asked what his IQ is. One can assume he probably knows. Somewhat embarrassed, he thought carefully for a moment. “It is triple digits,” he replied.

Yes, humor can be found in those who inhabit the rarified atmosphere of electrochromic chemistry, where Guarr has spent much of his professional career and has immersed himself in such arcane studies as “electropolymerized phthalocyanines and their applications” — the actual title of one of his academic papers.

“Tom has led our chemistry program and has been a great asset to Gentex as we have improved our auto-dimming electrochromic mirror chemistry over the past 17 years,” said Gentex chairman/CEO Fred Bauer at the announcement in October that Guarr was going to work at the MSU Bioeconomy Institute in nearby Holland.

“He was also the leader of the team that developed the dimmable aircraft window assembly that is currently being used on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner series of aircraft, as well as the King Air 350i,” added Bauer. “These windows are an industry ‘first,’ and Tom was a key contributor in their development. We’re pleased that Tom is staying local.”

As vice president for chemical research, Guarr led a “small, but very talented team” of experts in the development of the windows, which he described as “one of the most fun things I’ve ever been involved with.”

Guarr has been with Gentex since 1994. He will continue to work there on a part-time basis through March to aid in the transition.

Guarr’s father was a mechanical engineer at Univac in Kansas City, one of the earliest computer companies. When Guarr was 16, his father taught him how to rebuild a car engine. As teenagers, he and his brother “dabbled in putting electronic circuits together,” he said. They built crude burglar alarms with parts scavenged from discarded televisions and radios; one was a photoelectric type, like the device that stops a garage door when the beam is broken.

Guarr earned a B.A. in chemistry — summa cum laude — from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in 1979. He then studied chemistry at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, where he earned a master’s in 1982 and a Ph.D. in 1984. That was followed by postdoctoral research in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology from 1984 to 1986.

He taught at the University of Kentucky from 1986 to 1993, where he achieved the level of associate professor with tenure after starting out as an assistant professor.

“All assistant professors are hungry for research funding. We had developed in our lab some interesting materials that were electrochromic, so I approached Gentex hoping to get some research funding,” he said. “They invited me out to give a talk and to discuss it with them, and at the end of that visit, they said, ‘Well, we don’t very often do research contracts, but how about a job?’”

He politely declined the job offer.

“Two years went by, and they called me again, out of the blue, and at that point, the timing was right and I decided to go for it,” said Guarr.

Thomas F. Guarr


Organization:
MSU Bioeconomy Institute
Position: Director of Research and Development
Age: 54
Birthplace: Topeka, Kan.
Residence: Holland
Family: Wife, Amy; sons Joe, 25, and Evan, 16.
Community/Business Involvement: American Chemical Society, Electrochemical Society, American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Sigma Xi, Kentucky Academy of Science, board member and former president, Black River Public School; judge, FIRST Robotics.
Biggest Career Break: The opportunity to work for Gentex, where he experienced the practical side of innovation.

Guarr’s work at Gentex reflects its emphasis on new product R&D. He is named as one of the inventors on 58 patents obtained by Gentex, there generally being several inventors listed on each one. Most of those patents are regarding electrochromic devices or compounds.

“I tend not to make a big deal about the number,” said Guarr. “I’d rather have three or four good ones” than a lot of patents of relatively low value.

As the new director of R&D, Guarr is in charge of the MSU research activities at the MSU Bioeconomy Institute, which opened in 2009. The 140,000-square-foot R&D facility was part of the 35-acre Pfizer complex in Holland, which shut down in 2005, resulting in the loss of 500 jobs. When two years of major marketing efforts failed to find a buyer for the complex, Pfizer demolished the manufacturing plant on Howard Avenue to open up the land for redevelopment. However, the fully equipped, modern R&D lab facility, as well as a pilot production facility, were donated to MSU.

The institute helps entrepreneurial businesses develop “green” chemical technologies, with four small companies now leasing space there. The pilot plant has a variety of specialized chemical reactors with a capacity of more than 7,000 gallons, plus centrifuges, dryers, filters and related equipment. The chemical research equipment is said by an MSU official to be “well beyond the means of most start-up firms.”

Bill Freckman, director of operations, is responsible for the pilot plant and facilities, in general. Both he and Guarr report to Paul Hunt, the senior associate vice president for research and graduate studies at MSU who has overall responsibility for the institute.

In addition, Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland operates a BioBusiness Incubator there, with Randy Olinger of Lakeshore Advantage in charge of tenant recruitment and tenant relations. According to Olinger, the leaseholders are: Eco-Composites LLC, which is developing sustainable products that incorporate natural cellulosic fibers; Venntis, which is developing technologies for alternative energy production from biomass resources; Single Source Procurement, which is involved with sourcing and purchasing material for chemical and other tech-based companies; and Aqua Clara, which is working on affordable water purification technologies and products for underdeveloped areas of the world.

A combined $1,080,000 grant from the federal and state governments goes to work at the institute starting this month. The grants — $500,000 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a matching $500,000 from the state of Michigan, and $80,000 from the EPA — will fund a new consortium of MSU, Lakeshore Advantage, the NewNorth Center in Holland and the Prima Civitas Foundation in Lansing.

The MSU Proof-of-Concept Center for Green Scale-Up Chemistry offers training and consulting to client companies on green technology innovation and sources of capital investment.

The federal i6 Green PCC-GCS project supports the U.S. Economic Development Administration goal of driving technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, leading to a green innovative economy, increasing U.S. competitiveness and creating new jobs.

Other activities at the institute include entrepreneurial research in combustion engine design enhancements, microbial bio-augmentation products and lithium battery chemical technologies.

The institute’s lab recently performed some chemical process development to assist the progression of certain chemical technologies into the institute’s pilot plant facilities, in this case, for GFT LLC, a participant in the Scale Up Michigan program initiated in 2010 by the BioBusiness Accelerator. Other companies that used the pilot plant in 2011 include Pleotint and Boropharm.

The R&D director’s position at the institute is supported by the interest income from a $5.2 million endowment fund raised and administered by the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland Area. A selection committee comprised of MSU and Holland community representatives chose Guarr after a national search.

So, what’s the next big thing? That’s a simplistic question that amuses Guarr, but he does have some thoughts.

“In my opinion, one of the critically important new directions will be the replacement of traditional materials by more environmentally friendly organic and bio-derived materials,” he said. “This is beginning to happen in construction, plastics and even electronics. We are just starting to learn how to tailor the properties of organic systems to meet the demands of some of these applications by controlling the structures at the ‘nano’ level. Control of interfacial properties is also key.”

“Also, despite the recent stabilization in oil prices, I believe there is a real need for alternative sources of energy, as well as means of advanced energy storage. There won't be a single panacea here — different systems will develop to meet different types of needs. There are tremendous opportunities for innovation here.”


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