With 50+ years scaling chemical processes, Joel Shertok, President of Process Industries Consultants has spearheaded numerous projects in innovation and development consulting, bringing a unique perspective to the forefront. Joel joins host Victoria Meyer this week on The Chemical Show to share his valuable insights into the shifting trends in chemical education, industry research, and the challenges faced by startups in scaling chemical innovations.
From the evolving educational landscape to the challenges faced by startup companies in commercializing their intellectual property, Victoria and Joel discuss the future convergence of chemical engineering and biology, shedding light on the green revolution’s potential and the necessity of sustainable technologies.
Killer Quote: “Extreme weather events are waking people up to the reality of climate change. We only change our habits when we’re scared—lack of fear about climate change is hindering widespread adoption of green and sustainable technologies.” – Joel Shertok
Join us to learn more about the following this week:
- The chemical industry’s evolution over a 50 year career
- Challenges faced by new startup companies
- Key milestones signaling a product or process is ready for commercialization
- What it will take to ensure green technologies thrive across industries
- Identifying potential environment impacts as new technologies go to commercialization
Gain a high-level understanding of the trends, challenges, and future predictions in the chemical industry, on this episode of The Chemical Show. Join us to learn more about navigating the ever-changing landscape of chemical engineering and innovation.
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Listen to the Episode with Joel Shertok Here:
Victoria and Joel Discuss Bringing Ideas from the Lab to the Industry on Youtube Here:
Scaling Chemical Innovation: From Lab to Industrial Scale with Joel Shertok
Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week, I am speaking with Joel Shertock, who is the president of Process Industries Consultants. Joel has decades of experience in the chemical industry, helping companies highly specialized biotechnology, chemical materials, and formulated product environments implement process improvements and commercialize new manufacturing operations. Joel’s seen a lot in his time in the chemical industry, and we’re going to be talking about that today. So Joel, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here.
I’m excited to have you here. So what’s your origin story? What got you interested in chemicals and what brought you to where you are today?
That’s pretty interesting. So it’s 1966, I’m a junior in high school. The looming question was, what do you want to do when you grow up, the typical coming of age question. I was a pretty practical guy, I was not going to go to India and join a guru or something like that. So I said, what’s a good way of making a living and doing something I enjoy? I was good at physics, I was good at chemistry, I was good at bio, so there was lots of bandwidth there.
I liked chemistry a lot. One day I was browsing in the library of my high school, I found a book called, “So We Want To Be A Chemical Engineer.” I thought, that looks rather interesting, so I leaf through it. And I said this is very interesting stuff. Then I found out that chemical engineers made a lot more money than chemists and being a very pragmatic person, I said, chemical engineering it is! By the time I got to June or July of my junior year, I said, okay, I am going to look for an engineering school and become a chemical engineer.
Then, as I got more into chemical engineering in an engineering school, I said, to do anything really interesting, you’ve got to get a PhD. So I said, okay I’m going to get my PhD. I went to Cooper Union for my bachelor’s and Princeton for my PhD. That’s how I got to where I am now.
That’s awesome. There’s always this trigger moment, that somehow gets you into where you are. And as you say, I think then and now chemical engineers tend to make a little bit more money than chemists. So it’s a path with an economic business case.
It’s about the only degree where you can get a good job with a bachelor’s. In most cases, you need a Master’s or a PhD, but get a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and you’ll do very well for yourself.
So you’ve been in the industry now for 40 plus years?
About 50 years.
Wow. That’s crazy and awesome, all at the same time. You’ve seen a lot of change throughout your career. What do you see as the most striking differences between the chemical industry today versus where it was when you started your career?
There’s about three or four things. I think the most interesting thing is safety. When I started working for for Union Carbide in 1975, safety was a consideration, but not THE consideration. Things went on then that today, would probably get you fired or in serious trouble. In that era, Union Carbide had a big petrochemical plant in South Charleston, West Virginia. It was on an island in the middle of the Kiwana River. The fuming was so bad, people kept their headlights on during the day. Because you couldn’t see otherwise, it was that thick.
My 1st project was working with the cumin funeral plant in Puerto Rico, and we had to have samples of human hydrogen peroxide, which is raw material shipped up for analysis. All they did was they took the viles of human hydrogen peroxide, which is 30 percent at that point, put in a plastic baggie, threw it into a picnic basket and shipped it to me with some dry ice.
Shove it in, ship it up, and you got it.
Yeah. I think that safety aspect is a good one because we take it for granted in some ways now. That this is the way that we are, the environmental consciousness, the personal safety, the recognition of hazards, but it’s evolved. It’s evolved tremendously in my career and I know that it’s obviously evolved in your career as well.
MSD sheets didn’t exist until 1980. Lockout tagout procedures in plants didn’t exist. What finally got Union Carbide’s attention, was a horrible accident. There was somebody cleaning out a paint blender in one of the plants. He just turned off the power and he went in to clean it and the foreman came by and said, why is this thing shut off?
The guy was instantly killed, obviously, but that was before lockout tagout. My God, you didn’t do that you’re gone.
It’s fundamental these days. So what else is different? You mentioned safety as being maybe the most striking difference between then and now. What else do you see?
When I was beginning chemical engineering the emphasis was on petrol chemicals. All the chemical companies were involved in petrochemicals in one way, shape, or form. Now, the chemical engineering that I studied is a relic. It’s all biomedical engineering, almost all of it. Almost all chemical engineering departments are now chemical and biomedical engineering. For instance, I get Princeton’s graduate school news every year. Really, none of the graduate students are doing what we consider classic chemical engineering.
They’re all doing some form of biology, biochem, biomedical, the emphasis has completely changed. And when I studied, everyone had Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot, Transport Phenomena, that little red book was like the Bible. I said to my grandson, “Where’s your Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot?” And he said, “What’s that?” Because you’re not doing distillation, and you’re not doing mass transfer anymore. So transport phenomena, as we studied it, doesn’t really exist.
Although that’s interesting, Joel, because it still does exist. So obviously, there’s an emphasis now on newer technologies. I think we’re going to talk a little bit later about green chemistries and how that’s evolving. A big part of our chemical industry still relies on some of those traditional technologies, whether it be distillation, catalytic reactions, understanding fluid transfer or heat transfer. That’s not necessarily different. I do think that there’s obviously more of a focus on green and bio innovations, but some of the core fundamentals aren’t going away.
You still have legacy chemical plants. But I wonder what it’s going to look like in 10 years when today’s graduates are veterans.
I guess time will tell.
Time always tells.
You started your career working with some major corporations, and you’ve evolved to more of an innovation and development focus as you go out and you consult with companies across the industry. Tell me a little bit more about what you’re doing today, and what’s the role that you bring in as you participate with these newer younger companies,
Well, as you pointed out, there’s a lot of startups these days. green-tech is really big, and it’s being funded. So what you’ll find now, which is another big change from when I went to school, is a lot of graduate students and a lot of professors, they’re going out to found their own companies. They’ll take the PhD thesis and make it the basis of a company. When I went to school, a professor doing some consulting work during the summer, it didn’t exist. They had no interest.
Now, there’s a lot of interest in starting your own company.
What’s driving that change from your perspective?
A whole bunch of reasons, universities at some point began to lose their funding. The era of throwing dollars at schools came to an end. They said, geez, where can we get a cash stream from and I said, wait a second. We got all these patents that our professors have generated over the years. Let’s monetize them. So suddenly industry went into these universities to see a patent portfolio.
Since the professors were the experts, naturally, they were engaged by these companies to begin to commercialize their intellectual property. That made professors in the industry a lot more acceptable. Now professors go out and form their own companies, or the graduate students form their own companies, and they become an ethic, they go out there and raise their own funds. It’s not that rare. Almost every professor at some point is running a company on the side.
Yeah, and it seems like there’s just more money available, more venture capital available to make it feasible.
It comes and it goes like anything else in the world. I think biotech now is being squeezed. There’s not as much money as there was say a year ago, but in green-tech there’s plenty of money. Everyone’s into green-tech. So most of my startups are green tech. They’re doing very innovative technology in the green-tech area.
When you’re working with these companies, I know that you’re going in and you’re doing a lot around process improvements and helping companies commercialize operations. What are the big biggest challenges that you see that new startup companies are facing in the industry today?
To a certain extent, it’s lack of perspective. Which makes sense. These are graduate students who have not been in the industry. It’s professors who may not be as experienced in the industry as somebody like me, who’s been around. They have a glassware process and it’s good, they make grams of something.
What exactly do you mean by a glassware process?
So they’ll have a process and it’ll be beakers and test tubes and buchner funnels. It’s basically a laboratory process using laboratory type instruments and they’ll make 10 or 20 grams of processed product X, whatever that happens to be. The challenge, and they’re aware of that, is how do I make pounds? Then how do I make hundreds of pounds to begin to make this profitable? And of course, that’s the expertise I supply. Things that you can do in a beaker are not things you can do in a stirred reactor. Your heat transfer is going to be much different. Your stirring is going to be much different. You can’t use the buchner funnel to do your solids recovery.
But that’s fine because there are analogs in the industry that correspond to what the person is doing in glassware, but they’re not one to one. That’s why scaling up is such a challenge and such an interesting thing, as you scale your relationships break down. It’s highly nonlinear. So going to pounds is one set of challenges, going to hundreds of pounds is yet another challenge. Each step, your scale of equations change.
And getting to millions of pounds, which is where it needs to be to be commercially viable.
Yeah, and then you have waste to worry about and you have heat transfer worry about. How am I going to heat this steam, I’m not going to use hot oil. It’s what you expect and what’s more, when you’re running a process you’re running it continuously. You’re not starting it up and shutting it down, and now you’re building up impurities, and you don’t see those impurities in glassware, because you’re not running it long enough. You can be in for a big surprise.
To a certain degree, it’s about understanding the risks that take place at different scales and different parts of the process, and having a much clearer perspective on process. Risk in the sense of not necessarily hazards, but truly the risks about how you actually get your product to be an effective product at scale or at spec.
Yeah. Taking into account, you need safety relief now, you need you need all those things that you don’t have to worry about in a chemical lab. Once I was asked to scale up the capital lactone acrylic monomer for the car industry. The chemist was putting it together in a hundred milliliter flask. When they said, “Joel, I got the process, we’re set to go.” Oh, great. So I ran upstairs and he described it and it seemed interesting, not necessarily hard.
And I said, “Okay, that seems pretty straightforward. What should I watch out for?” And he said, “Oh, I gel batches now and then because you’re cross linking. So I gel batches.” “And what do you do when you gel a batch?” “Oh, I throw out the beaker.” I said, “Okay, What’s your rate of gelling?” He said, “75%.” I said, “No, you can throw out a beaker. I can’t throw out a 500 gallon stainless steel reactor. I’m going to have to dig out that cross linked material, which is going to take weeks.”
“So go back, and when you get to gelling down to 10%, then we talk.” 10 percent is a sporting average, like you can tolerate that. She went back to work and she said “Okay, I’ve got a methodology for suppressing the cross linking,” We did it, we made it. Eventually, they scaled it up into a real commercial production and everything was great. But if I hadn’t asked that question about what else should I know, we could have had a really nasty surprise the first batch we made.
Yeah, especially as you start investing more money in bigger equipment and more expensive equipment.
The other interesting story I have is, we produce caprolactone for the coatings market. In a certain coating application for a big customer, it turned green. It was the most beautiful green you’ve ever seen in your life. It was a beautifully iridescent kelly green. Of course, you’re millions if you wanted to do it deliberately. The customer found a way of getting around it, and we convinced him this was capitalized on chemistry, and couldn’t be avoided. Then the Japanese came in, used a different process, and it didn’t turn green.
The customer said, “Fix this or else you’re going to lose the business because I can’t afford to spend my time working around your mistake.” So we had an absolute crash program to stop this discoloration. In the lab, I found that if you treated the caprolactone with 30 percent hydrogen peroxide, you could cure the problem. Now this is in a 500 milliliter beaker.
My boss said, “Great, we’re going to commercialize it. I want you down in South Charleston tomorrow to commercialize this process.” How much? 10,000 gallons. I said, “You want me to go from 500 mils to 10,000 gallons?” He said, “It absolutely has to get done. We have to save the business.” And that’s what we did.
That was a real calculated risk. The plant manager got everything set up overnight, and we did it. The yield was horrible, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to make a tanker of good stuff.
What are the key milestones, triggers and indicators that let a chemist or chemical engineering company know, that a product in a process is ready to move the bench to commercialization?
The first thing is, you have a chemical process in a beaker. The kinetics, the heat generation, the basic purification steps, if you’ve got those nailed, then you’re ready to go into a semi pilot operation. A 50 gallon reactor or 25 gallon reactor, and that could be within two to three months. It depends how difficult the process is. You’re going to run it in a 50 gallon reactor, and you’re going to run four or five batches, and say, I think I’ve got this kind of nailed. I see the heat transfer. I see the kinetics. I see the separation. The question is, are you going to run this batch?
If you’re running a continuous, now you have to design a tubular reactor that’s going to do the continuous reaction, or a CSTR that’s going to do the continuous reaction. Then you have a whole bunch of other problems. You have heat transfer, you have your mixing issues, is back diffusion a problem, have you been making byproducts that you didn’t realize? That could take another couple of months to really straighten out. Then you’ve got all your documentation, which means you have to have all your heat transfer, all your mass transfer, everything nailed down. Then you may turn off the plant engineering to commercialize the process. That could take six months.
Yeah, and that sounds really fast actually, from what I’ve seen.
Anywhere from a year to two years for a typical start to finish. It depends on pressure. If it absolutely has to be done, you can get that down to six months. With the understanding that you’re taking certain risks here.
That also assumes then, that you’ve got a viable product that has a viable market and that you understand the market and the use.
Yeah, but that’s a marketing issue too. The one thing you don’t want to do is spend all this time making something nobody wants. Sometimes that happens, you make a great product and people say it’s nice, but they don’t really want to buy it.
Yeah, I’ve certainly seen this. I think not so much, do people want the product? That’s a question, because the world is littered with great ideas that did not have commercial viability. Nobody saw the need or the end use, or the economics were wrong. But I think sometimes when we talk about green chemistry and this focus on sustainability, often these innovators, the people that are starting this from a lab scale, have a certain view of what the value is and why it’s a great idea, which is a gap from what current producers may say or what current customers may say.
The question I have for you is how do you close that gap? Do you end up playing a role in that gap or do you say, that’s when you need to take it out to the market?
No, my observation and it’s pretty cynical, is people love green until it costs them more money. Then they don’t love green so much. I worked for a company, they were an absolute pioneer in green chemistry. We developed a floor finish, a really novel floor finish. It didn’t contain zinc or calcium. All the curing was done by surfactants, it was really a great advance. It gave you four times the performance of a standard floor finish, but cost twice as much.
You do the calculation, that means you’re getting twice the value. Four times the use, twice the cost, and customers could not get their arms around that. They heard twice as expensive, and they basically shut down.
At the end of the day, somebody has to pay for it.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
If the end-user doesn’t see the value, because at the end of the day, it’s all about the end-use. I’ve talked sometimes about the field of dreams, there is a field of dreams, if you feel the day will come, but you have to show the value.
You always have to tell the customer what’s in it for them. Like it or not, there’s a self interest there. You’ve got to articulate to the customer what’s in it for them. If you use this product, these are the benefits. It really can’t be touchy feely stuff, it has to be stuff that they see on the ground. So that they can justify it.
So I think this ties back to, this whole focus on green chemistry. Is there really a green revolution, and from your perspective, Joel, what is it going to take to get the green and sustainable technologies to be a real player and a strong player across these industries?
People change their habits only when they’re scared. So right now, people aren’t scared yet. They’re apprehensive. This summer has been a pretty extraordinary summer when you think about it so far, but it’s not affecting the average person. It’s affecting people at the periphery. People read about it, they understand things are not good, but they still say I’m going to go about my regular business.
Yeah, and so you’re talking about just the climate change, and the temperature change we’ve seen this summer.
Yeah, all green chemistry, it’s saying we’re going to do things without generating CO2 or without generating pollutants and things like that. People hear that, and they like it. But there’s not the great incentive yet. When something really happens to catch their attention, then they’ll understand. When you generate 180 mile an hour hurricane that goes up the East Coast and causes billions of dollars of damage, people will say, now I understand. We get a really nasty heat wave, which 100 degrees or 110 degrees. Then people say, Oh, I understand.
That will drive them. The good thing is you’re getting a foundation now, so you’re not going to be starting from scratch.
Are people willing to change their behaviors? Because at the end of the day, I think a lot of this is around behavioral change and personal expectations. I’m a personal believer, that this is not the 1st time we’ve seen extreme weather events. It’s an issue because we’ve built in places that we shouldn’t have built in.
We’re much more conscious just in the world that we’re in. We’ve got a lot of data points. We’re looking at all the data points, rather than anecdotes. So I think part of this is about human behavior and individual behavior.
It all goes back to human behavior. The cumulative effect has to be an individual change in behavior. But a lot of the things that we have are hardwired in. People who drive cars. America is a car culture, unlike Europe, and people are not going to give up their cars, because in some case you have no choice. Public transportation outside the big cities, doesn’t really exist. So the question is, okay, you’re not going to tell people don’t drive, because they’ll starve or can’t get to work. Therefore, what is the best way of driving that at the same time is preserving the environment.
I’m seeing the debate now between electric cars and hydrogen, and in a couple years that’s going to be the big fight. The big fight is not going to be over internal combustion engines, that’s settled at this point.
I’m not sure its. I don’t think it’s settled.
We will see, but the question will become, are we going to go battery power or are you going to go hydrogen power?
Right now, batteries are winning because it seems more easily attained. It’s there, you have Tesla, and you have electric cars. Hydrogen, people think Hindenburg or it’s explosive. It’s a different distribution chain, but someone’s got to sit down and say, if we make it have a battery culture, this is our entire system, not just the car, but the mining of the rare earths and the pollution that comes from there. Okay, they have hydrogen. They have to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, that requires a lot of electricity. Oh, we’ll do it sustainably. How? Where?
I think that’s exactly right. I think the challenge is that it’s easy to say something else is different and better. Yet they also have some very significant environmental impacts that I don’t think people have come to grips with yet. We’re in denial about that.
My take is you can’t make A go to C without B. I mean that anytime you do something, just like people talk about fusion power as a fantasy in the future. I’ll bet you good money that when we finally develop commercial fusion power, they’ll say, we didn’t see this coming. There’s a side effect. Oh no.
I guess that’s human nature. We have blinders on to the side effects.
Sometimes you’re not even aware. When the internal combustion engine became endemic in the 20s, people said, no more horse manure. Hooray! Really the car was an answer to the horse manure problem. If you read the literature they did a study in London in about 1890, and they said, God, if this keeps up, London will be 10 feet high in horse manure. Just projecting where things are going to go. So this is a great panacea. We got a car, no more horses, no more oats, no more this, no more that. Guess what? 50 years later, 60 years later, whoops, there’s another oops.
So Joel let’s bring this back to commercialization of new technologies, how do, how could and should companies be identifying those potential impacts? So these maybe unrecognized risks or the side effects. How do you advise companies to identify those?
The best thing they’re doing right now is something called a TEA, a technical economic analysis, and they are incredibly detailed. A couple of my staffs have gone through that in detail, and it can be an incredible pain to put that together. It really forces you to think by having a rigorous methodology saying, okay, you want to go from A to B to C. Once you sit down, figure out what that’s going to entail in terms of energy, in terms of byproducts, and in terms of efficiency, it forces you to confront things that maybe you wouldn’t confront if you did the standard chemical engineering study. So a TEA is not a bad way of going about it, if you’ve got the time and the resources.
Yeah, makes sense. I think it’s probably an appropriate thing to do before you start making the big investments to understand what those impacts are.
Yeah. The old days of building a plant and saying, oh. No, it’s not going to fly anymore.
So this has been great. What’s next? What should we be looking for on the horizon? You’ve been in the industry for 50 years now. What’s your prediction for the next 10 years or the next 50 years?
I think it’s pretty clear we’re going to be seeing a convergence of chemical engineering and biology. I think that’s going to be the next thing. We’ve pretty much kicked the standard catalyst as much as we can kick them. So now the next phase is, you can genetically engineer bacteria to make enzymes, you can genetically engineer bacteria to make a whole wonderful bunch of products.
So the old days of, taking petrochemicals and throwing them through a catalytic reactor to make something, I think that’s going to be the next victim. The kings of the chemical industry are going to be those schools and those people who can take biology and chemical engineering and put them together. I’ve got several of my staffs who are doing just that.
It fits with this green revolution.
It’s a conversion of trends and you can see the schools now are not, as I said, producing the old traditional chemical engineer, they’re producing biochemical engineers.
Interesting. All right. We’ll see where it takes us the next decade and more.
It’s like Yogi Berra said, it’s difficult to make predictions about the future.
That’s right. The crystal ball is cloudy.
All the time.
Absolutely. Joel, thank you for joining us today on The Chemical Show.
I enjoyed our conversation and thanks everyone for joining us today. Keep reading, keep following, keep sharing, and we will talk to you again soon.
About Joel Shertok:
Dr. Joel Shertok is a Hands-on Process / Product Development – Commercialization / Executive, who builds and revitalizes organizations within highly specialized Biotechnology, Chemical, Materials, and Formulated Product environments. He is able to leverage engineering, external tolling, and his own operations expertise to implement process improvements and commercialize new manufacturing operations. He has led innovative product development teams to full commercialization and has driven multimillion-dollar organic and inorganic growth via internal development and mergers/acquisitions.