Reshaping an industry
Medical researchers have learned that all cancers are unique, but that it is possible to interrupt the growth and spread of cancer in an individual by deactivating, at the molecular level, the particular genes that drive its growth in that individual—that cancers can be cured with medicines customized for the unique genetic makeup of the individual and his or her attacker. If the production of relatively small quantities of such highly individualized therapies should someday become affordable and widely available, it will be due in no small part to the work of Richard Braatz, Ph.D., this year’s winner of the Excellence in Technical Innovation Award, endowed by UOP.
Braatz graduated from Oregon State University with a B.S. in chemical engineering in 1988, followed by a Master’s degree and Ph.D. from Cal Tech. He then went to work as a research engineer with Chevron, followed by stints at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and DuPont. In 1994, he moved to academia, joining the faculty of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In 2010, he was appointed the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was an active publisher and lecturer, delivering more than 200 lectures throughout the world and publishing more than 200 professional papers as the lead or joint author. He is an active contributor to professional societies as well, serving as an officer of both IEEE and AIChe. He presently serves as editor-in-chief of IEEE’s Control Systems Magazine. Further, he has consulted to a regular who’s who of industry: Merck, Avery-Dennison, Dow Chemical, Proctor and Gamble, Abbott Laboratories, IBM, and DuPont, among others.
Lately, Braatz’s interests have turned to polymers, hydrocarbons capable of crystallizing into any of several different structures (polymorphs) according to minor variations in composition and ambient environment. The crystalline shape the compound assumes may, in turn, dramatically shape the rate of release of medicines, making control of the final crystalline structure of the essence. Braatz developed a technology that facilitates control of the crystalline structure that the polymorph finally assumes during production. Though his chemical engineering background is vital to the work, “I do that,” he says, “as a design and control engineer.”
“With bulk polymers,” he points out, “you can mix away your mistakes.” But with small quantities of precise, custom blends, the batch is all good or it is all bad. According to a report in the Journal of Crystal Growth, “The application of the ATR-FTIR-based technologies resulted in in-situ solution concentration estimates in dense crystal slurries that were more than one order of magnitude more accurate than reported in previous studies.” The technology he developed is now used by Merck, Schering Plough, Pfizer, Bristol Myers-Squibb, and Abbott Laboratories.
While at it, he introduced Joseph Juran’s “quality by design” into the pharmaceutical industry. As Aaron Cote, the scientific director and head of the Merck Crystallization Lab explains, “While the FDA and ICH were still writing documents on experimental design, mathematical modeling, and process design and their relationship to product quality, Richard was developing and applying such technologies at Merck.” Cote adds, “Richard has continued to impact the pharmaceutical industry by making major advances in quality by design, including the design and implementation of control systems for a continuous pharmaceutical manufacturing facility that was designed and operated at MIT in 2011–2012.”
Kevin Girard, a research fellow at Pfizer, adds, “Dr. Braatz’s contributions are adopted widely across the industry and have been a steady stream of innovation. The tools developed in collaboration with Dr. Braatz and his group are immediately applicable at Pfizer. They quickly provide a return on our investment, because they solve critical problems and build upon tools and skills we already have in our labs and plants. Richard’s impact to the pharmaceutical industry is among the highest in academia.”
“The main thing about innovation,” Braatz says, “is two things. First, find a compelling need. Second,” he laughs, “have no fear.” He echoes other industry leaders who have noted that many industrial initiatives end up only nibbling around the edges of difficulties, “You have to make sure you identify the real problem.”
Though celebrated for innovations that have helped to reshape the pharmaceutical industry, those are not the things Braatz himself is most proud of. “The best thing I’ve done,” he judges, “is the people that have come from my lab.”