Spotlight on Top 100 Global Innovators – A 3M Scientist’s Journey from Diamond-Like Coatings to Diapers – transcript

Ideas to Innovation - Season Two




Intro: Ideas to Innovation from Clarivate.

Neville Hobson: A passion for cutting edge scientific research, groundbreaking discoveries and transformative technologies are hallmarks that define 3M as one of the world’s most innovative and successful manufacturing companies. 3M was founded at the beginning of the 20th century and during its first 100 years, was known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. A legal name change to 3M came on its centennial anniversary in 2002.

Today, 3M produces over 60,000 products under several brand names. With worldwide awareness of, and dare I say love for, iconic consumer brands such as Post-It Notes and Scotch brand Tape, not to mention the N95 respirators during the COVID pandemic, 3M can rightly claim that science and innovation are at the heart of what we do. 3M invests more than $2 billion annually in research and development, and has been awarded over 131,000 patents over the course of its 120-year history.

Today we’ll learn how 3M is continually pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with science and innovation, where the power of science and the spark of human ingenuity come together in perfect harmony.

Hello and welcome to season two of Ideas to Innovation, a podcast from Clarivate, with information and insight from conversations that explore how innovation spurs incredible outcomes by passionate people in so many areas of science, business, academia, sport, and more. I’m Neville Hobson. Our guest today started her career with 3M in 1993. Today she holds two roles that allow her to combine her technical expertise and creativity with her love of science. She’s a corporate scientist working with other engineers and scientists to break down complex problems and find solutions that stick. And she’s an accomplished engineer and innovator.

Let me welcome our guest, Dr. Jayshree Seth, who also holds the post of 3M’s Chief Science Advocate, a title that I’m looking forward to learning more about. Welcome, Jayshree, thank you for joining us.

Jayshree Seth: Thank you for having me.

Neville Hobson: It’s my pleasure. This year, you’ll be celebrating your 30th anniversary at 3M, I understand, in which case, let’s start at the beginning. What brought you to 3M? Tell us about your journey and how you became Chief Science Advocate.

Jayshree Seth: Well, I did my undergrad in India, and I came to US for graduate school. And during my PhD program, one of my lab mates ended up at 3M for a summer internship because his brother worked there. And after he came back to the lab, he encouraged some of us to also apply. And so two of us got accepted in the following year. And I did a summer internship in 1992. And that’s when they offered me a full-time position. I wrapped up my thesis and joined 3M full-time in 1993. And that was, like you said, 30 years ago. And during this time, I worked on many different projects and products and platforms and processes and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to steadily rise up the ladder.

I’m currently at the highest level you can attain as a scientist at 3M, it’s called Corporate Scientist. And I also have this additional role that you mentioned of Chief Science Advocate for the company. And this role was instituted in 2018 when some of the results from a study that 3M had commissioned to understand the public perception of science came.

And it was very clear that science needed advocates. Science was sort of invisible, underappreciated, taken for granted. And we at 3M care about science so it was important for us to stand up for science and I was asked to take on this role, and we basically advocate for STEM fields, you know, science, technology, engineering, and math through many initiatives that we have taken on. And our initiatives are guided by the results of our research that I mentioned into the public perception of science and that continues. It’s called 3M State of Science Index and listeners can check it out at slash science index.

So that’s my story how I ended up here at 3M in the business of innovation and my journey to the role of Chief Science Advocate, and it all makes sense because science is our most distinguishing characteristic. It has been a foundational strength behind our brand, and it’s really what fuels our innovation.

Neville Hobson: Yes, that’s a strong impression I got from reading up about all of this, in which case I it’s perfect because it seems to me and I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on this. Innovation is everything. Is that a fair comment, do you think?

Jayshree Seth: Yeah, just about. Innovation is very important at 3M and we do take great pride in it and we foster it. Just as an example, we have 15% culture, which empowers us to work on projects which we think are good for 3M. And these can be outside of the scope of our own regular work. So I can be in the area of adhesives, let’s say, but I have an idea about abrasives. I am empowered to work on it and bring in my sense of initiative and my creativity.

We have also many ways to pull our technical folks together to bolster collaboration. We have, for example, Technical Forum, which is a forum that is run by the technical people for the technical people. We also have entrepreneurial grants that we can get to pursue ideas.

So many examples, you know, at 3M there’s this constant socialization of the idea of being innovative and these are all elements that encourage us, they empower our sense of initiative. They give us a license to innovate, if you will. You know, our very purpose is to unlock the power of people, ideas, and science to reimagine what is possible. So we have innovative employees, a culture of empowerment, it’s got an emphasis on collaboration and that context of improving lives, all of that inspires us. And I personally believe that now more than ever before in our lifetime, innovation is a lifesaver for business. Inspiration is the lifeblood of innovation and purpose is the lifeline for inspiration.

Neville Hobson: I think it’s quite clear that innovation really does drive everything you do. Just look at the patents that I mentioned earlier, the 131,000 plus in the last century that have been awarded to 3M and that’s the people. Clear connection to what you just mentioned, unleashing the power of people. If that’s one outcome from that, that is truly something. And indeed, you are also in that area with 77 patents to your name at the last count I believe,

Jayshree Seth: Mm-hmm. That’s true!

Neville Hobson: Something I find truly amazing, frankly. I certainly apply the word innovation to these when I was looking at the list of your patents, Jayshree. Some of them are pretty significant, it seems to me. For instance, one of your early patents in 1994 was for a rounded corner fastening tab diaper closure. Now I guess that means it was a super easy way for a parent or caregiver to securely put a diaper or a nappy on a baby and then take it off. Better than products that were on the market at the time right?

Jayshree Seth: I can’t believe you looked that up! It’s actually interesting, you know, for my doctoral research, I worked on hard diamond-like coatings that could be used on, let’s say, tools, et cetera, to make them more durable. And when I came to 3M, I started in the business that was involved in tapes for keeping diapers on wiggly babies. So I always joke, I went from diamonds to diapers, and I hadn’t seen a diamond. I hadn’t seen a diaper, so what’s the difference? I mean, I really didn’t care that I knew nothing about this area. I was inspired by the context of keeping babies comfortable with soft tapes and fasteners. And one of the things that was really kind of bothersome to me was the idea of a sharp rectangular corner digging into the baby’s belly. Now, I didn’t have children back then, but I really thought that would be not so ideal. So what that particular patent, Neville, that you read is actually one way to make our tapes and create a rounded corner tape tab so that it would be more comfortable for the baby. And I was just someone who didn’t know much about the area, just looking at that diaper and saying to myself, boy, that must really dig into the baby.

So the thing to note here is that we at 3M like to keep that fresh eyes perspective, despite my having been here now for 30 years, because that is another thing that is critical for innovation and we appreciate that diversity of thought. And that is what we do as a community of innovators. We think about the entire mosaic, if you will. It’s about scientific breakthroughs, it’s about technological advances, it’s also customer and end user needs, market trends, and then come up with ideas to solve problems and drive the commercialization of those innovations.

Neville Hobson: I can understand that. So looking through the list of all the patents, all those 77 that you’ve been awarded over the past 30 years, I have to ask, if you had to pick just one, which one would you hold up as the most compelling example of innovation and well, science?

Jayshree Seth: Pick a favorite. You never ask a mother that question. I tell everyone it’s not about the number of patents, it’s about the problems you solve and the people you work with and the progress you really make in creating the building blocks to facilitate innovation. And my trouble in naming a favorite is that over the last three decades, I have worked with many, many different people on many different projects and on problems in vastly different areas.

And many of these patents turned out to be critical for those particular areas. So it’s hard to pick one. Like I have patents on diapers, face wipes, packaging, energy conservation, nanomaterials, and nonwovens, and elastics, and hook and loops, and adhesives, and tapes. So, well, let me tell you about the latest one. How about that?

Neville Hobson: Great.

Jayshree Seth: This is an important one, granted on February 14th this year, Valentine’s Day, and it was truly a labor of love. We developed it through the pandemic and we launched the product last year. And it is an amazing technical breakthrough and really a truly sustainable innovation.

So what it is, is a liquid pressure sensitive adhesive that can be printed by our customers. They can use techniques like screen printing and they can apply it exactly where they need it for bonding two parts in their process.

Instead of having to take a tape, let’s say, having to die cut it and throwing away a lot of that as converting waste. So it is groundbreaking and for the customers who want to bond parts, they now have the option to buy this printable PSA and print it and eliminate all the waste while still meeting their bond requirements. And I absolutely loved working with our team on this project; it is a disruptive innovation and it was a very tough technical challenge and so the excitement and the momentum, the setbacks, the struggles, and finally getting it across the finish line after all the trials and tribulations. So it was truly about people, ideas, and science that unlocked the power to reimagine this whole thing. So that is exactly what allows many of us in the technical community at 3M to really flourish as innovators.

Neville Hobson: That’s a really good example. A nice intro, in fact, to the next point I wanted to raise with you or talk to you about, which is that every year, as you know, Clarivate publishes a list of the top 100 global innovators, companies and organizations which sit at the very top of the global innovation ecosystem with the most consistent above-the-bar innovation performance. And since starting this annual listing in 2012, so just over 10 years ago, 3M is one of just nineteen companies globally that have been on this list every year including this year. So what does this recognition mean for 3M would you say? Indeed what does it mean for you?

Jayshree Seth: Yeah, I mean, it’s for 3M being recognized as a top innovator is a significant achievement, and it really reflects our ongoing commitment to developing cutting-edge solutions and driving progress across a range of industries. It’s a testament to 3M’s long-standing tradition of innovation and really research excellence, and that excellence has enabled the company to develop some of the world’s most impactful products and technologies. So it also underscores the importance of investing in R&D, in research and development, which is really a cornerstone of our approach to innovation.

So I think it’s also an affirmation of 3M’s collaborative approach to innovation. That’s what we do internally, as well as externally. We partner with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders to identify their unmet needs and then develop solutions that deliver value.

And personally I would say as a 3M inventor and innovator being part of a company that is recognized as a top innovator is a source of great pride and validation. It reinforces our commitment to our culture of innovation and culture is something we all build every day and so pushing the boundaries of what’s possible exploring new technologies and markets, creating new opportunities for growth, developing solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. So that recognition is a testament to the hard work and dedication and creativity of everyone at 3M.

And innovation is not just a buzzword to us, it’s a core element of who we are and what we do. And we also recognize that innovation is a continuous process and we must never rest on our laurels. We need to push ourselves to be even more innovative, to explore new frontiers, to leverage our diverse perspectives and to develop solutions that have an even greater impact on the world in the future.

Neville Hobson: So keeping on doing great work in science innovation is what I’m taking from what you said. That brings me to the point where I’d like to look ahead a little to see what possibilities there are to push boundaries in some new and significant way over the coming decade. There are so many things that are on our minds, I think, today in 2023, ranging from things like climate change through to feeding a growing global population in new and better ways than our current. What are you and your colleagues most excited about? What types of technologies can you point us to in the next three to five years? So really on our immediate horizon, what does it look like to you?

Jayshree Seth: Yeah, I mean, you know, what excites me, I can tell you, is that 3M, at 3M, sustainability really anchors purpose-driven innovation into our products and in our manufacturing process and in any of our new technologies. So we’re always trying to do more, be it science for circular, science for climate, or science for community. So to your question, as we look to the future at 3M, we are tackling some of the most pressing opportunities in climate change. Decarbonization, renewable energy, electrification, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and sustainable infrastructure.

We already have products like cool roofing granules for residential homes that are solar reflective, so they redirect heat and sunlight that other normal shingles would absorb. We have passive radiative cooling films. So these are films that reflect solar energy so they can give you passive thermal management 24-7. We have natural pozzolans. These can be used as partial cement replacement to help lower the carbon dioxide emissions of concrete production.

And we continue to make investments in next generation climate technologies, you know, innovative materials, let’s say for green hydrogen and low carbon intensity energy separation.

I’ll just give you an example. You know, a material 3M has been working on for decades can actually be key to unlocking cost-effective production of green hydrogen. It’s a nanostructured supported iridium catalyst powder and every 10 grams of this stuff can help make 10 tons of hydrogen and prevent 100 tons of carbon emissions. It is still in the early stages of commercialization but we’re excited to bring it to the market as we look to the future.

Jayshree Seth: Our efforts in advocating for science are also exciting. We are aligned with sustainable development goals and we’re committed to inclusive innovation and we really want to create a diverse science community. The world requires innovation. Innovation needs science. Science demands diversity. Diversity warrants equity.

Neville Hobson: Right. That point you made about green hydrogen and lowered carbon intensity and that powder you talked about that could create so much hydrogen and save carbon emissions. Can you give me a use example? Is this to do with automotive or what would make a listener understand immediately a use of that?

Jayshree Seth: I would say we need the hydrogen, right?

Neville Hobson: Yeah.

Jayshree Seth: So the green hydrogen, as I understand it, is produced by using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through the process which is called electrolysis. And this method has very low or zero carbon emissions and is considered the best and most clean way to generate environmentally sustainable energy.

Neville Hobson: Got it. Okay, that adds some clarity to that, I think. So that’s an interesting future look, a short snapshot, I think. But clearly, I think this would resonate with many people who peripherally pay attention to stuff like this. But these sorts of topics are front of mind to many, many others. And I think knowing what you’re looking at, what you’re working on in this short time frame in the future is encouraging. To me, certainly, I think this is a great sign of things that are happening.

I’ve got a final question I wanted to ask you about, which was your two books, The Heart of Science, Engineering Footprints, Fingerprints and Imprints, and The Heart of Science, Engineering Fine Print, published by the Society of Women Engineers. All sales proceeds go towards a scholarship for black, Latina and indigenous women in STEM, which is terrific. Where can listeners get ahold of your books?

Jayshree Seth: Thank you for bringing that up. Yes, I do have the two books and both books are collections of my essays. The first one is, you know, STEM advocacy, importance of humanities and social sciences in STEM fields, leadership, innovation, etc. And the second book goes deeper into the topic of tough transitions, deep reflections, harness them to create much needed change.

And like you said, it goes to the scholarship for underrepresented minority women in STEM administered by Society of Women Engineers. And it’s very exciting, Neville, we have two scholars pursuing engineering already from the sales proceeds. So I encourage the listeners to buy the books. They are available on Amazon. And it’s not just what you take away, you will give the gift of education, and I think it’s the best gift you can ever give.

Neville Hobson: That’s really terrific. That’s excellent. I’ve learned quite a bit in this conversation, Jayshree, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights with our listeners. Thank you.

Jayshree Seth: Thank you very much.

Neville Hobson: For information about Clarivate’s Top 100 Global Innovators 2023, visit Ideas to Innovation continues with our next episode in a few weeks time. Visit for information. Thanks for listening.

Outro: Ideas to innovation from Clarivate.