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Research giant Battelle flies under radar, but reach is worldwide

Battelle, The business of Innovation. Photos submitted and by Ben French
Battelle, The business of Innovation. Photos submitted and by Ben French

Like an iceberg with only a small portion visible above the water, Battelle is a $6.5 billion company located right in the middle of Ohio that most of us only know a little about. Yet the research and development giant has been responsible for many of the innovation breakthroughs that make our lives more comfortable today and is working on the science that will keep us comfortable tomorrow.

Headquartered in Columbus near the campus of The Ohio State University, Battelle employs more than 22,000 workers around the world (about 2,800 in Ohio) who research cutting edge innovation in energy, national security and health and life sciences.  It has been responsible for more than 120 unique patents that include such products as xerography, white correcting fluid,  cruise control, armor plating, and photovoltaic cells for solar energy, to name a few.

If you've never heard the name Battelle associated with these products it's because the company is not involved in the commercial sale or marketing of its innovations, only in the research and development.  This is in part because of its status as a 501(c)(3) charitable trust established by Columbus industrialist Gordon Battelle in 1929.  It is also because the company doesn't seek the limelight. 

Battelle's mission is to use science and technology as a positive force for change in people's lives.  With more than 1,000 R&D programs taking place at any given time, Battelle works with both government and private companies to develop empirical science from its global network of labs into working technology.  

"Basic science takes a long time before it becomes applied science," says T.R. Massey, a Battelle spokesman.  "We're after the hard answers that take time and money."

Its laboratories include six Department of Energy labs and one Department of Homeland Security lab that it manages for the federal government.  In addition, Battelle manages several labs around the world.

These are locations where billions of dollars in research is conducted in areas such as renewable energy, subatomic physics and medical isotopes, leading to innovation that becomes the products of future.

Another important mission is giving away money.  Gordon Battelle's will specified that the trust donate a portion of its proceeds to charity.  Last year, that amounted to roughly $16 million, more than two-thirds of which must stay in Central Ohio and is primarily used to boost science education.

Besides its philanthropy, Battelle's impact is felt here on many levels.  The company is developing new uses for Ohio soybean crops that include printing toner, biodegradable diaper filling, and bio based alternatives to petroleum chemicals for polymers.  It is also working on bio based fuels for jet engines at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, innovating education with its Metro High School in Columbus, and next month is producing the Governor's 21st Century Energy and Economic Summit on the OSU campus.

Battelle's partnership with OSU is growing, says Caroline Whitacre, vice president for research at the university. 

"You've got two of the biggest research organizations in the country side by side here," she says of Battelle and OSU.  "We will be doing more and more together."

The Metro High School in Columbus is one effort the two institutions have collaborated on that has shown success, with roughly half the graduating class choosing OSU for college, says Whitacre.

Metro School is part of the Ohio STEM Learning Network, which Battelle manages as part of its philanthropic giving and support of education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, which the company says are critical skills to drive innovation and economic growth both locally and nationally.

Whitacre says Battelle also chose OSU's John Glenn School of Public Policy for its Center for Science and Technology Policy.  Recently the center received more than $1.4 million in federal grants to study education policy in science and technology.

She also pointed to a longstanding relationship between Battelle CEO Jeffrey Wadsworth and OSU's Dean of Engineering David Williams as a source of future research partnerships on a broad scale.

"If I had to use a crystal ball to predict the future, I'd say you'll see some big materials collaboration between us," says Whitacre.  'These would be more large scope projects in the next few years."

Battelle's importance in Columbus and in Ohio can hardly be understated, says Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a civic organization that includes more than 30 corporate members, one of whom is Battelle's Wadsworth, who work to improve the economic and cultural base of Central Ohio.

"Battelle is really one of the region's differentiators," says Fischer.  "The breadth and depth of Battelle is an asset that any other community would die to have.  Battelle in combination with OSU really forms a genesis of innovation here.  It rivals Silicon Valley and Boston."

Fischer says it is ironic that such a large and scientifically advanced company would be somewhat obscure in its home state.

"They are probably better known around the world than they are here in Columbus.  But they are certainly a powerful magnet for our reputation nonetheless."

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