Center predates high-tech boom


December 03, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

When W. R. Grace & Co. decided to locate its main research center on 147 acres in Howard County in 1957, many of the company's officials questioned why the company would put such an important facility in such a remote area.

"There was a big fight in the company about it," said F. Peter Boer, executive vice president and chief technical officer for Grace. "Today, it looks brilliant."

Nestled in the high-tech corridor between Baltimore and Washington, the center is now in the thick of a research community that includes the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Westinghouse Corp.'s Electronic Systems Group and the National Institutes of Health. The facility is also on the outskirts of the comfortable, planned community of Columbia -- a big draw for the professionals whom Grace hires. "It helps to attract people," Mr. Boer said.

From this campus-like setting, Grace coordinates its $50 millioncorporate research operation, which includes smaller laboratories in Lexington, Mass., and Atsugi, Japan. The research efforts range from such mundane matters as improving the adhesive that holds a soda can top to the can's body to developing an artificial pancreas.

Another $100 million in research money is spent annually by various operating divisions of Grace, which has its corporate headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla.

The research budget for the diversified chemical, energy and health care conglomerate may not be as high as other large Fortune 500 companies, but it gets more patents for the bucks, Mr. Boer claimed. Last year alone, the company filed for 132 patents, he said.

Grace is generally better known in the region for its other Maryland operations, which include the Davison Chemical Division in downtown Baltimore, its silica plant in Curtis Bay and the American Cafe restaurants in Harborplace and Towson. It also owns Grace Culinary Systems in Laurel, which provides food for the American Cafe and its catering operation.

In total, there are about 2,000 Grace employees in Maryland, said Bruce C. Robertson, senior research engineer, technology and planning, at the center. The company has a worldwide work force of 50,000.

During its 35 years' existence, the research center has grown to 29 buildings with 522 workers -- 80 percent are either scientific professionals or technicians -- and an annual payroll of about $25 million. The company is constructing a $4.2 million process building, which will be used to make large-scale working models based on center research.

The five main buildings in the complex house the center's laboratories and process engineering operations. The other buildings are for support operations, according to Mr. Robertson.

Since the early 1980s, the work force has been expanding, primarily because of increased research in catalysts and biotechnology. The center's process engineering operation also expanded as the company put emphasis on moving discoveries from the laboratory to the factory.

While some of the research involves industrial processes rarely seen by the public, some of the work at the center and affiliated laboratories could have dramatic effects on people's lives.

One such project is the effort to develop an artificial pancreas that would control glucose levels in the body. "It's smaller than a hockey puck and much lighter," Mr. Boer said of the artificial pancreas. So far, a team of surgeons at the Harvard Medical School has successfully implanted the device in a dog for more than a year. Mr. Boer said he expects the device to be ready for clinical trials in one to three years, followed by experimental implanting in humans.

At the same time, Grace is working on an artificial liver machine that would operate outside the body. The center is also involved in improving dialysis equipment, used to purify the blood of people with kidney problems.

Besides developing chemical and biological products, the Grace center is also encouraging new scientists and technicians through a partnership with Atholton High School in Howard County.

Through this relationship, the school has received various types of electronic equipment, along with faculty training from Grace.

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