Kodak – A Picture of Nano-Driven Innovation
As the Eastman Kodak Co. moves from the analog world of silver halide films to today’s world of digital imaging, many nanotechnology applications are playing key support roles.
“The change from film to digital imaging has had a dramatic impact on high-margin businesses at Kodak and throughout the industry,” said Dr. Brian Johnston, a Director of Kodak External Alliances. Johnston facilitates relationships between Kodak’s research staff and top researchers with outside universities and start-up firms. Increasingly, nanoscience-related research projects are hot topics for his group.
More than 25 years ago, Kodak scientists were among the first to experiment with digital imaging technologies –the first digital camera was actually invented at Kodak in 1976. Today, that same instinct for finding the right innovations for the right products is driving Kodak to line up research projects, partners and funding to explore potentials for MEMS and nanotechnologies in imaging, commercial printing, electronics and even computational modeling.
Kodak’s Growing List of Nano-Commercial Success
Over the past year, Kodak has quietly assembled quite a list of nano-commercialization successes. In Feb 2007, Kodak debuted an ‘all-in-one printer’ which uses nanoparticulate pigmented inks and MEMS in its printheads, Johnston said. In May, Kodak launched a new business, dubbed Kodak Security Solutions, offering to secure applications with the company’s new “TRACELESS’ technologies that use submicron materials. And, just last month, Kodak unveiled a new color filter array technology that will improve digital image capture under low light conditions.
Into the future, Kodak researchers are optimistic that nano-related research will help Kodak’s OLED organic solid-state displays technology regain some important display market share (now dominated by LED and LCD). OLED displays comprise thin films of organic materials that emit light when stimulated with an electrical charge. Unlike conventional liquid crystal displays, OLED displays do not require a backlight.
“We realized we needed to show we could be innovators,” Johnston said, and that nanotechnologies could be one of the enabling areas.” He added: “In the digital world, competition comes from everywhere. It’s not like the days of silver halide, where we competed with a handful of chemical companies. Today, the competition can be from all sides: imaging, semiconductors, optics, electronics, you name it. Now, it’s a much more complicated and challenging marketplace,” Johnston said.
“To succeed in this new dynamic, Kodak is adapting by taking a closer look at two key questions: ‘What are we are good at?’ and ‘What do we want to be good at?’,” Johnston said. There too, nanotechnologies in chemistry, electronics, imaging, devices and mathematics are all playing important roles.
Kodak’s Talent for Commercialization — A Great Fit for Nano Research, Partnerships
It turns out, Kodak is good at a lot more than simply inks, papers, emulsions and imaging. Kodak has discovered it is also very good at lab-to-marketplace commercialization. While the “lab-to-marketplace” label has become a slogan in places, when Johnston uses the phrase, he has some very definite elements. They are:
- The tough job of uncovering important and valuable discoveries,
- Hewing discoveries into valuable processes or technology components,
- Designing cost-effective techniques that bring technologies to scale, and
- Perhaps most importantly, finding unique high-margin areas where these technologies can be used to build a differentiated product, or discover other places where these new technologies can be used in other consumer or business products.
Johnston puts it this way. “Kodak is good at design and commercialization of new technologies. And, that means we are especially good at finding parts of the value chain where we can best able extract margin.” Based on some earlier successes, a wide range of nanotechnologies have cemented themselves onto the short list of target technologies Kodak intends to invest in for the company’s future, Johnston added.
“Over the course of time, Kodak had made strong investments in electrical engineering and applied mathematics. So, Kodak now has more of a balance between chemistry and engineering and design, which lets us focus on designing innovative products and handing them over to manufacturing,” Johnston said.
As a result, Kodak now has an impressive and growing portfolio of nano-related technologies focused in 3 key areas: Materials Science, Micro- and Nano-scale Devices, and Computational (Modeling) Sciences. The list includes:
- Atmospheric pressure thin-film deposition
- Additive patterning for semiconductors and electronic devices,
- Alternatives to nanomilling (i.e., self-assembled layers)
- Barrier layer technology
- Low-temperature dielectrics
- Novel light-emitting materials
- Transparent conductors (ITO alternatives)
- Novel semiconductor architectures
- Novel image output
- Microfluidics for printing
- Novel polymer and dispersion compositions
- Inkjet printing (colorants, materials, media, and processes)
- Electrophotography (materials, media, and processes)
- Micron and sub-micron resolution printing
- Novel digital capture
- Enhanced image sensors
Looking at the list also provides a view into Kodak’s Big Picture for nano. Johnston describes the picture with crystal clarity: “Any intersection with materials and image sciences would be where Kodak could be world-class,” Johnston said. “In fact, we feel we can be the very best at this intersection.” And business-caliber printers are a case in point. “Anything that takes digital information and needs to create and produce output to a printed copy is a perfect combination of digital sciences, device engineering and computational sciences.”
Kodak’s Nano Agenda Also Embraces a New Partner Strategy
But, for all that Kodak is focusing on becoming a leader at this intersection, that doesn’t mean that Kodak does it all on its own. Kodak ascribes higher value than ever to partnerships with both universities and private sector start-ups. “Kodak can lead in innovation, but we cannot do it alone, we need to work with complementary expertise,” Johnston said. “Even though we’ve hired the best and brightest scientists , there are still ten times as many scientists working outside our labs as inside. So, the question for us was: ‘How can we tap into that expertise?’ ”
One way was to get rid of the friction so that collaborations can work smoothly. And an important step in that direction was Kodak’s ‘Master Sponsored Research Agreement’ (designed by Johnston’s team) which Johnston says “takes IP issues off the table, lets us focus on the work, establish a Statement of Work, and figure out who will do what, and by when.”
Johnston and his team also took steps to change the research culture at Kodak. “Our [research] people clearly need to understand what our business proposition is today. Researchers that have a preference to engage with our [outside] partners and business managers have plenty of opportunity to do so, and those that have a preference to just stay in their labs are encouraged to at least do some [outside engagement],” Johnston said.
Thirdly Kodak offers tangible assistance to university or venture-funded partners in the form of outright grants, sponsored research partnerships and even fellowship grants to individuals.
Today, Johnston is involved in several nano-related projects between Kodak and top research universities, centers and private start-ups. Among Kodak’s current collaborators are: Cornell University, Penn State University, University of Massachusetts, and the Department of Energy’s Molecular Foundry (at Lawrence Livermore National Lab). These agreements bring Kodak a number of important benefits, Johnston said, including: (a) Accelerated project development; (b) Ability to learn more quickly about emerging technologies; (c) Ability to reach goals by working with complementary skills, and (d) faster time to market.
Johnston has also devised a set of Best Practices for handling IP controversies and encouraging communication between partners. “When you ask a researcher, ‘How is that project with xyz going?’ and they say, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them in 6 months.’ … well, you know you may have a problem.” So, Kodak encourages project leaders and managers to take responsibility for keeping in touch with collaborators. The same goes for working with venture-funded start-ups, he added.
Kodak’s recent product announcements and on-going relationships all point to the company’s growing commitment to nanoscale sciences, Johnston said. “There are many innovations in the nano space that will work their way from the lab into commercial products in the coming years, and Kodak will certainly have a part to play there.”