Every day, scientists work to further man’s understanding of the world around us, attempting to devise solutions and further comprehension in planning for the future. At major technology centers and national laboratories around the world, companies like Battelle conduct research and development, design and manufacture modernized products, and deliver services critical to government and commercial customers. To talk about the company’s presence in the industry and what exactly it is that they do to successfully stoke the flames of science, ExecutiveBiz spoke with Lewis “Lou” Von Thaer, Battelle’s ninth President and CEO in the company’s 87+ years since its inception in 1929.
“The nice conversations are always nice to hear; the tough conversations are the ones that really teach you.”
EM: What attracted you to Battelle? What background and experiences led to where you are today?
Lou Von Thaer: I started at Bell Laboratories as a kid, coming out of college and it was a remarkable organization back in those days. It was a place where as a young engineer I had the opportunity to learn about research and development from those who literally wrote the books that I studied in college, brilliant people that were generous with their time to mentor and train. That really shaped me and who I am today. After 13 years, my division at Bell Labs was purchased by General Dynamics which brought more of a business focus to the organization. I then got to learn business from the person who redefined the aerospace industry, Nick Chabraja, the former CEO of General Dynamics. When I think of what shaped me over the years, it was probably that first thirteen years of doing program management, design and research and development at Bell Labs, learning how to make big systems and do complicated things. I then learned from Nick what really matters in business and what drives value over time. Working over the next 17 years on the GD team, we were able to take the labs-focused group and turn it into a successful competitive business. I also received quite a bit of experience combining and merging companies, bringing diverse cultures together into a common focus and business model. After 30 years, I went to Leidos for a couple of years and then DynCorp. Those added new experiences in restructuring large organizations, taking organizations’ public, and private equity financing. I’ve seen a lot of different things and had many different experiences, which I believed have prepared me well for this position.
You are an executive of 30+ years. Do you have any highlights or challenges that you encountered that are notable?
Whenever you go through those experiences, everything that happens shapes you. The nice conversations are always nice to hear; the tough conversations are the ones that really teach you. The things that I remember the most fondly are the things that were tough. At General Dynamics, I was given the opportunity to take over a business in Minneapolis that was struggling. I found a fantastic organization with great people, but they were on the wrong leadership track with the wrong strategy. We had the chance to turn that around, eventually into the most profitable part of the company for the majority of the time that I was president years later. Having also had the chance to integrate five or six organizations that came from different places into a common well-operating company was valuable. Those things are hard but also extremely rewarding. When you are successful, and the game is all over, you build lifetime relationships because you did something special together. As far as the people I am meeting and have had the chance to interact with, everyone at Battelle has been outgoing and wonderful to be with.
Battelle has a reputation in the industry for solving complex challenges and delivering high-quality results to clients. Where do you see Battelle building on that in the future? What’s next?
From everything that I have seen in my (relatively) short time here, that reputation is well deserved. When you look at the history of the company, we have customers who are loyal fans because the team has done a great job serving their needs and providing amazing science and capabilities that are not very well understood across the broader market. We are a fantastic physical sciences company. The company has been around for nearly 90 years, starting from humble beginnings as a metallurgy company. It has evolved over the years as technology and what is most relevant to society has changed. We are heading forward taking our physical depth and combining it with digitization to speed our innovation processes and be able to learn from the massive data sets that we have from decades of research in areas of bioscience, life sciences, addiction, chemical and biological weapons, and the nuclear enterprise. We have been doing this for so long and have deep experience that will help us learn and accelerate how we go forward.
Where do you see Battelle adding the greatest value to the federal marketplace?
There are a couple of basics about Battelle that you need to know first to truly understand what has made the company what it is today. We are the largest independent, not-for-profit organization in the world today. That independence puts us in a unique position in the industry. If you read of the things happening today, we see examples where scientific results are maybe not as high-integrity as they should be. Through that independence, our company has been able to maintain high integrity in our research. That coupled with the company’s long-standing history of innovation are our greatest strengths. When I look at how we apply that deep understanding of science at the subatomic and chemical levels to the new capabilities and threats that are coming to the world, that is where I expect we can make our biggest contribution in the future. In the areas of DNA manipulation, food safety, bio-security, and working to accelerate drug regulatory approvals through science and study of work that has been done in the past to develop new paradigms. Those places are the tip of the iceberg today for the nation and industry. Battelle is well-suited to have a large impact on the world providing a better understanding of these emerging technologies and their impacts.
Among the new technologies and capabilities going forward, what do you find to be the most interesting?
I’m still learning about the company. If I had to talk about one of the coolest things that I have seen so far, it would be our biosecurity. One can order new materials by mail today that are built on an assembly line of DNA strands for new molecules and new chains of elements. That is both an exciting and a pretty dangerous, scary thing for society. We have to make sure that you are not delivering the next Ebola virus, not supporting an actor that does not have the world’s best interest in mind. We have some great capabilities we will be rolling out to a few select partners early next year that can actually automate that process, leveraging very large data sets. Battelle understands DNA strands and the how chemistry works at an atomic level. We started decades ago in the nuclear enterprise focused on how those radioactive elements affect the environment and are dispersed in the atmosphere, and more recently applied that knowledge to biological and life sciences work with drug and medical device companies. We think we can automate activities that are being done today by hand and are probably not as strong technically as we can provide for complicated processes like these.
Another one is what we call NeuroLife: In working with a paraplegic volunteer, we placed sensors directly in his brain, so he can control through his thoughts a band on his arm. By stimulating electric pulses through little metal electrodes in the band, he can control the muscles in his hand and arm, so he can pick up a cup and drink from it; he can play a Wii guitar. He can do things that he was not able to do with the lack of internal communication from his spinal cord to his brain. Once again, just by thinking. If you think about the potential of a capability like this for large sections of society that are impacted by these types of afflictions, accident, stroke, etc., it is remarkable early research.
What is your vision for the company going forward? What does it look like?
It’s too early to talk about specifics but I know we are going to continue to be a science and research-focused organization doing impactful work. Our team has more work to do to get our specific strategy boiled down and further the discussion around the organization to build consensus on solving society’s most challenging problems is underway.
Lewis “Lou” Von Thaer, who has extensive leadership experience in diverse markets including engineering, intelligence and other federal contracting sectors, started his role as CEO on Oct. 1, 2017. He comes to Battelle from Dyncorp International, where he served as CEO since July 2015 and held responsibilities ranging from operations and maintenance support to driving growth across several federal market sectors including aviation services, intelligence solutions, logistics and contingency operations. He serves as a member of the Defense Science Board and participates on the Board of Directors for the National Intelligence University Foundation and the Transition Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). He also serves as a trustee at Kansas State University.
Check out Battelle’s NeuroLife™ Neural Bypass Technology in action:
This story was originally published on November 29, 2017.