In 2013, Eastman identified the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a strategic research partner based on its academic strengths. They negotiated a six-year master research agreement to work on projects that benefit UNC students and faculty while accelerating Eastman’s innovation strategy.

Today, after an investment of $2.5 million in that strategic partnership, both groups say the collaboration has paid off. Eastman is extending the master research agreement for another six years for a total commitment of $5 million.

Research that gets results

Eastman’s collaboration has focused on work with the Department of Chemistry but has also expanded to the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The partnership has resulted in an issued patent as well as 22 conference presentations, thesis chapters and journal articles, one of which was a cover article for the ACS journal Organometallics. And the research has informed major industrial processes at the heart of Eastman operations that make products for a variety of markets.

“Insights from UNC have benefitted Eastman across the company, whether that’s improving our reaction pathways or gaining insight into polymer properties,” said Scott Armentrout, director of external innovation for Eastman. “UNC faculty, students, and Ph.D. hires are positively impacting us and our products at many levels.”

“When I say Carolina is the leading, global, public research university it’s because of examples like our work with Eastman,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Collaborating with Eastman – across multiple schools and units – is a model for partnering with industry. Eastman has access to our innovative and dynamic, leading-edge research and brilliant faculty. Working with Eastman provides Carolina with opportunities ranging from hands-on experience in product development with a global company to career advice and job coaching for our students. The extension of this successful relationship will create new possibilities for Carolina and Eastman collaboration.”

Putting learning into practice

Not only has the company funded an extensive amount of research, it’s also hired over a dozen Ph.D. chemists from UNC-Chapel Hill, including postdoctoral and graduate students. The Eastman’s presence in the department has raised its profile as a potential employer, enabling the company to attract more Ph.D. hires from UNC since 2013 than any other institution.

Javier UNC
Javier Grajeda-Martinez collaborated closely with Eastman scientists while he completed his PhD in Chapel Hill – and then he joined Eastman as an advanced research chemist.

Javier Grajeda-Martinez is one of those former UNC doctoral students who collaborated with Eastman scientists while in Chapel Hill and went on to join the company. Grajeda-Martinez received his doctorate in inorganic chemistry from UNC in 2018 and now works as an advanced research chemist at Eastman’s Kingsport site.

“Collaborations like the one Eastman has with UNC enable researchers at the university to work on more tangible projects than what usually goes to academic publications,” Grajeda-Martinez said. “Although strictly academic work is very important and serves as the foundation for innovation, these industrially relevant projects are very exciting in that they may end up in a commercial process that generates revenue for the company. Both faculty and students benefit from interacting with industrial scientists, learning the constraints placed on chemical reactions from a cost and scalability perspective. In many cases, Eastman scientists also support young scientists at the university with career and interview advice and, beyond that, even recruitment.”

Dawn Mason
Dawn Mason, external innovation manager for Eastman in the Research Triangle, has worked closely with the UNC Department of Chemistry.

Eastman is also exploring new ways to work with university partners and embarking on a joint research agreement with UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. The research project, spanning both universities, will explore methodology to enable new chemical reaction routes for the company.