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Research and Innovation

Eastman Partnership a Win-Win

When executives at Eastman Chemical Company began searching for a research university to partner with several years ago, they didn’t know which institution would be the right match. They simply picked up a list of the top 100 universities in the country and started making phone calls.

After a series of phone calls and site visits, they were so impressed by the culture of innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration at NC State, they negotiated a six-year master research agreement to work on projects to benefit both Eastman and the university.

Today, after an investment of five years and $13.3 million in that strategic partnership with NC State, company officials say the effort has paid off. At a public meeting on Centennial Campus last month, they delivered a progress report showing how collaborations with NC State students and faculty benefitted Eastman as the company changed its business focus from commodities to performance-based innovation.

“By transforming our portfolio toward specialties, we’ve grown revenue significantly,” said Scott Armentrout, Eastman’s director of external innovation. “And our relationship with NC State has morphed along with the direction of the company.”

‘We Like What We See’

In business segments such as additives, advanced materials, fibers and chemical intermediates, Eastman has leveraged research and innovation to anticipate market trends and outpace the competition. It turns out that many of Eastman’s focus areas align with NC State’s strengths. Armentrout illustrated that correlation on a single slide in his presentation, a chart listing the company’s most important projects. More than a dozen of the items on the list were circled in red, denoting areas where Eastman is partnering with NC State.

“You’re involved in the areas that we very much care about,” he told the audience of NC State faculty and staff. “We like what we see and we’re going to continue doing it.”

Armentrout said Eastman would be “exploring new spaces” to expand its work with NC State in the coming years, promising to renew its master research agreement with the university and to broaden its engagement with colleges and departments across campus. He said new research collaborations were already underway in the Poole College of Management and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Following Armentrout to the podium, Vice Chancellor Alan Rebar, who leads NC State’s Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development, said the relationship with Eastman has proved to be exceptionally rewarding for the university. Not only has the company hired nine Ph.D. graduates since 2011, it’s invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in graduate student recruitment, undergraduate ambassadors, student organizations, journals and lectures at NC State. Plus, the partnership with Eastman is helping to advance interdisciplinary research on campus, a key strategic goal for the university, he said.

“Our product is our students, and this relationship has allowed Eastman to have deep engagement with our students,” Rebar said. “We regard the relationship as the gold standard for university-industry engagement.”