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Southwest Research Institute Invents the Future

Filed Under: 
Science & Health

 

At the foot of the Hill Country of south-central Texas, at the Southwest Research Institute, a thousand scientists try to solve a thousand problems every day.

They’re working on behalf of the U.S government, American corporations and other clients from around the world. Since the San Antonio-based Institute was founded in 1947, its researchers have built instruments to measure particles in outer space, made cars run more efficiently and helped laundry detergents do a better job of cleaning clothes.

Scientists at press conference 1997.
Dr. Clark Chapman and other scientists of the Southwest Research Institute discuss discoveries on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa at a news conference in 1997. Photo by Reed Saxon.

The Institute’s history is a tale of post-World War II gumption and the space race, the energy crisis and corporate cutbacks. Through the years, it has shed some specialties and added others, soliciting private-sector customers when government spending declined, picking up jobs from overseas and building a $3.5 million internal-research program of projects designed eventually to generate corporate contracts. Its sprawling green campus west of downtown San Antonio has grown to encompass 2 million square feet of building space.

Fundamentally, however, the Institute’s focus is still much as a second-generation oilman named Thomas Baker Slick Jr. imagined it: tackling tough scientific questions to help people understand more about the world.

“Any history of this place needs to say something about the pleasure and satisfaction of solving problems,” said Charles T. Hare, director of emissions research, who, like many of his colleagues, has spent his working life at the Institute.

A short list of projects developed at Southwest with the potential to change consumers’ lives:

• Fire-extinguishing garbage can liners;
• Germ-killing paint;
• Better cellular telephone systems;
• Work on a “smart” highway system capable of providing real-time traffic information;
• Liquid paper;
• Longer-lasting, safer tires;
• Air bags;
• Bar-code readers;
• Fire-proofing buildings and materials;
• Time-released medicine;
• Bright colors and fresh scents in detergents and cosmetics;
• Instant heating, cooling and lighting packages for comfort and emergency use;
• Polymers for better dental appliances; and
• Computer-based training systems for civilian police departments and military security forces.

California’s Silicon Valley gets the lion’s share of the credit for American innovation in the late 20th century. Southwest Research Institute could hardly be a more different place.

Its researchers aren’t here for the stock options that make so many Silicon Valley computer programmers millionaires overnight. The nonprofit Institute sharply limits employees’ ability to build fortunes from the programs they work on. Research belongs to the client, and so do the profits the projects produce.

A few researchers leave to start competing, private-sector labs, but most stay. “Many of these achievements are not something that are going to be in the history book, . . . but they can keep a scientist excited for his whole career,” Hare said.

At any given time, the Institute’s scientists work on about 1,000 projects for business or government customers.

Some past projects sound dated, such as the optimism that once surrounded nuclear-powered airplanes. Other internal research, such as a way of coating individual popcorn kernels so that they could be microwaved in whatever quantity a customer desired, never made it to market. (The popcorn looks like white gravel in its coating, and companies didn’t think they could sell it.)

Tom Slick founded the Institute on property adjacent to his Essar Ranch, named for the first letters in the words “scientific research.”

Slick, a Yale graduate, once considered becoming a scientist but instead chose to use his fortune to fund other researchers. The Institute was created Sept. 19, 1947, as a sister entity to his Foundation of Applied Research, now the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, and Institute of Inventive Research, which was envisioned as a place where inventors could bring their ideas. The Institute of Inventive Research closed its doors in 1957.

Southwest’s first offices were in the Cable House, a remodeled three-story, 18-room mansion that was once the winter home of railroad tycoon P.L. Cable.

Harold Vagtborg, president of Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Mo., became president of all three of Slick’s research organizations in 1948.

Dozens of similar organizations, most associated with universities, had sprung up around the nation since World War II. Some built on the military research that helped the Allies win the war; others focused more sharply on regional concerns or individual sectors.

Southwest’s mission? “The scope of its objectives is as broad as the immense industrial potentials of the Southwest itself,” the Institute’s first promotional brochure states. “Great factories and plants are contributing increasingly to the wealth produced by the Southwest’s vast agricultural, forest, livestock, petroleum and other resources.”

Southwest’s first sizable contract, in 1948, was to help a Texas Gulf Coast chemical company treat its factory waste. Other early programs included automotive fuels and lubricants research, chemistry and chemical engineering, fire technology, radio direction finding, materials research, nondestructive evaluation and inspection, microencapsulation and services for the natural-gas industry.

“No problem or plan is too small or too large for consideration by the Institute,” reads the brochure, illustrated with black-and-white photographs of scientists at work over microscopes and around conference-room tables.

From the outset, leaders linked the Institute’s work with Texas’ growing petroleum and agricultural sectors. Evaluating and testing lubricants, computer simulation of pipeline-pumping systems and other energy-related projects provided a steady source of income that helped fill gaps when other research areas were forced to cut back.

In 1957, Southwest researchers began working on some of their own projects in an internal research program designed to eventually create applications corporate customers might fund.

By its 10th anniversary, the Institute employed more than 430, with revenue of more than $4.5 million.

Martin Goland, hired in 1955 to head Southwest’s technical program, succeeded Vagtborg as Institute president in 1959. The move was a turning point for Southwest.

Goland, an aerospace engineer who had been director of engineering sciences at Midwest Research Institute, encouraged the Institute’s scientists to take on increasingly ambitious projects, raising Southwest’s profile.

“He raised the sights of people working here so they thought more broadly,” said General Austin Betts, a consultant to the president and former senior vice president for operations at the Institute.

More frequently, projects involved integrating scientific disciplines, and the Institute began to break away from its early regional focus.

Enclosing substances in capsules designed to dissolve or break up under certain conditions was becoming one of Southwest’s specialties — and one of the few research areas where it not only performed research and testing functions but also produced the end product.

Institute researchers began microencapsulation work within a few years after the Institute’s founding. One project had patients with nerve damage wear socks treated with encapsulated dyes. The patients could tell whether their shoes fit by the way the color appeared on their feet.

About a dozen companies compete in microencapsulation, and many clients find it more feasible for Southwest to build the products.

Another high-profile research area at Southwest is fire technology. Institute researchers can test virtually everything in a building, ship, aircraft or automobile for their ability to resist fire.

Fires are ignited in a two-story building with cinder blocks on two sides, the materials to be tested on the others. Each test costs about $35,000, measuring factors including fire temperatures, flame spread and the time it takes a substance to burn. Computer testing is in the near future, and tests now gather information to develop computer models accurate enough to be accepted in industry standards.

After Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1963, Institute researchers developed vehicle-emissions tests and control strategies that became part of federal rules.

New research areas in the Institute’s second decade included communications and geoscience instrumentation and electromagnetic compatibility research — in addition to developing instrumentation, and later designing engines, for space flight.

Goland restructured the Institute’s management in 1972, giving more authority to director-level employees. The move engendered a “fish-or-cut-bait” mentality, that led researchers to accept more responsibility for their projects and accelerated Southwest’s growth in the years ahead, General Betts recalled.

The energy crisis of the 1970s was actually a boon to the Institute, creating a need — and needed funding — for programs to find alternative energy sources.

Institute researchers explored a range of possible energy supplies, including petroleum and natural gas, coal and lignite, nuclear energy, oil shale, tar sands, direct solar radiation, geothermal and geopressured formations, wind power, biomass-derived fuels and ocean thermal energy.

In 1974–1975, an impact sled test facility studied crash-restraint systems, including an “inflatable belt system” that “performed exceptionally well in a series of human-volunteer tests,” according to an Institute report.

Southwest researchers also designed and built highway containment barriers and bridge rails. They developed a sulfur-based paving material that could substitute for asphalt, which is derived from petroleum.

Testing adds credibility and builds a steady base of customers, but the Institute limits that work to focus most heavily on research and development.

Southwest only occasionally builds final products for its clients. Exceptions have included the microencapsulation products and direction-finding equipment for ships.

By 1977, revenue topped $46 million, and the Institute employed nearly 1,500.

But when oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, many of the Institute’s clients suddenly ran short of money to fund research. Financial results fell below projections, and some contracts dwindled.

The last decade of the 20th century has been a challenging time for the Institute.

In some cases, clients have pooled their resources to support joint projects. Southwest also beefed up its internal research program, taking on more of the burden of early-stage testing in the hope that clients would fund projects further on.

The institute gained some mega-contracts, including a program to monitor air quality on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific as the U.S. Army disposed of outdated chemical munitions. Institute scientists also were hired for a multiyear contract with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission center to help plan how to dispose of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government sharply cut military-research budgets. Corporate cutbacks and layoffs added to the “tumultuous” R&D environment Goland described in the Institute’s 1993-1994 annual report. Income fell 25 percent that year, causing Southwest to cut about three percent of its jobs.

Space exploration has become a major focus for the Institute. “We’re the guys who build cutting-edge instruments for measuring particles in space,” said David T. Young, Institute Scientist in the Instrumentation and Space Sciences division.

The Cassini spacecraft, launched in Oct. 1997 for an 11-year mission to the Saturn system, carries two instruments built under Institute leadership that will study the chemical make-up of the system. Other missions carrying Southwest equipment have included Deep Space One, IMAGE and Rosetta.

In the last decade, the Institute’s financial reports increasingly have discussed “acceptable” results, not fast growth. The Institute measures success by how much “good science and engineering” it develops and transfers to the public. New contracts continue to pour in. The fiscal 1998 figures show that the nonprofit Institute for the first time topped the $300 million mark in total revenues, up 12 percent from fiscal 1997. Net income was $7.6 million, little changed from the previous year.

After Goland’s death in October 1997, J. Dan Bates, formerly the Institute’s executive vice president for finance, was named to succeed him.

“The work that we do is very competitive, and there are fewer dollars around to do what we do. It’s more difficult to get research dollars today as compared with 20 years ago,” said Bates. Corporate clients tend not to fund fundamental industry research, because such projects don’t necessarily pay off.

He believed some new opportunities for Institute projects will come from Asian countries, despite the economic crunch in the late 1990s, because of the need for new technologies in the region. In the fall of 1998, for example, the Institute delivered to Chinese clients the design for a huge, 6,000-horsepower diesel locomotive engine.

Besides funding shortfalls, the Institute also is chasing a shortage of talented employees. One department that depends heavily on computer scientists was 70 people short in 1998, and the Institute competes not only with Silicon Valley start-ups but with giant Fortune 500 corporations.

“We’re somewhere between a university and an industry,” Bates said. “We fill an important niche for the country, and I think we will continue to do that.”

— written by Jennifer Files for the Texas Almanac 2000–2001.

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