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July 28th, 2014

Interview: Robert Thompson of the Mississippi Polymer Institute

Robert Thompson is interim director of the Mississippi Polymer Institute (MPI). Thompson is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in polymer science and has played a guiding role in the growth of the Mississippi Polymer Institute over the past 19 years. We spoke about MPI, The Accelerator and the role of polymer science in Mississippi’s economy.

The Accelerator
The Mississippi Polymer Institute, located within The Accelerator at the University of Southern Mississippi

How did the Mississippi Polymer Institute get started?

Thompson: MPI was established by the Mississippi legislature in 1983. Funding came in ’93, so we really started up activities in 1993 and have been going strong ever since then. Dr. Shelby Thames, who was instrumental to the polymer science program at USM, also started the Mississippi Polymer Institute.

What’s MPI’s mission?

Thompson: We’re here to help grow Mississippi’s economy using the resources and capabilities we have here at MPI, as well as those available at the school of polymers and high-performance materials at USM. We make those technical capabilities and resources available to businesses here in Mississippi to help them grow. We provide our technical expertise in polymers for businesses, as well as for startup organizations and inventors.

In layman’s terms, what is meant by polymer science, and how is it important to Mississippi as an economic development driver?

Thompson: Polymer science is the study of the development and use of polymers. You know how you can form a chain with paperclips by hooking them all together? Well, the paperclip is a basic building block of that chain. With polymers, we have what are called monomers and those are the basic unit. You can hook many of those together to form a polymer. For example, polystyrene – everybody’s familiar with polystyrene coffee cups – the monomer is styrene and polymer is polystyrene.

The thing about polymers is they’re basically everywhere around you. They’re in paint, on automobiles and housing, in clothing – cotton is a natural polymer – but you also have things like polyester spandex, Gore-Tex, which is Teflon. They in your shoe soles and automotive tires. There are also polymers in personal care products like toothpaste and makeup. You have Boeing and their Dreamliner, the 787 – it has a large bit of composite materials, which also use polymers. So polymers are everywhere you look.

What kind of technical services does MPI provide to Mississippi companies?

Thompson: When we first started out in ’93, we were largely utilizing the capabilities at the Department of Polymer Science at USM. Over the years, we’ve added capabilities. So now we utilize both the resources that MPI has internally as well as those that the polymer science research center has. We have a lot of highly scientific equipment for physical and analytical testing. It helps you identify stuff, figure out how strong something is, where it breaks, what it’s made of – those sorts of things. MPI has been in the prototyping business since around ’95 or ’96 in earnest, really. And more recently, we’ve switched over from prototyping to what everyone’s referring to now as 3D printing.

On the consulting services side, we offer personal expertise, which I think is just as important as the equipment. We offer those capabilities to help companies, whether they’re startup companies or established companies, and we also do a lot with economic development agencies. If there’s a prospect or a group that’s interested in the area, they want to know what kind of technological support they can access. For those folks who are interested in moving to Mississippi, we can help them through our consulting services.

Aside from economic development, why is polymer science and the polymer industry so important for Mississippi?

Thompson: Polymers are everywhere. They’re ubiquitous. The companies producing these polymeric materials – whether they’re making the plastic itself or a coating or composite materials – their products touch so many areas. If your  product is metal, for example, you’ll need polymers to coat that metal to keep it from rusting. Polymers are important for all of the manufacturing processes. The science associated with it and the skill sets and the type of individuals who work in polymer science all contribute to the economic growth of our state. 

How does MPI support innovation in our state?

Thompson: From the start, MPI has been involved, largely through prototyping, with inventors. We see inventors come in who are looking to have a prototype part produced so that they can approach investors. Or sometimes, the inventor has their part and their investors, they’re just looking for help for how to make their widget, as we like to say.

Four years ago, we moved from the Polymer Science Research Center at USM to The Accelerator in The Garden at USM. The main reason for that move was to help support startup businesses here in The Accelerator. USM has an effort underway to support the research coming out of the university and help those companies that want to be closer to the university to access that research. So we support companies here at The Accelerator, as well.

We have outreach efforts looking at bringing new industry into the state. On the existing industry side, with which MPI plays a big role, we’re helping to grow the folks that are already here. But also there’s that third effort – the organic growth portion. We’ve started playing a role with events like Startup Weekend and the New Venture Challenge. I applaud all those efforts, and I think they’re great way to help the state of Mississippi through economic development.

Does MPI have any programs to reach out to students before they get to college?

Thompson: We’re very proud to have helped establish nine high school polymer science programs in Mississippi. We started out this effort around ’97 or ’98 at Petal High School. Since that time, we’ve added eight additional high schools across the state. Those schools are Alcorn County, Madison County, Simpson County, Marion County, Hattiesburg High School, Hancock, Moss Point and Pascagoula. And, I’d like to make a plug for the program – I want to work with interested school boards across the state to expand into more schools.

I think one of the important things about this program is that students get to experience our industry through job shadowing. They have the opportunity to visit companies in their area and they see what those folks do every day.  They can decide to go straight to work when they graduate high school, or go to the community or junior college to develop that additional advanced skill set, or they can go to the university and get that engineering degree or polymer science degree. I think it’s very important that we give high school and younger kids the opportunity to learn about our industry to help them set their direction in life.

Can you talk about some of your favorite success stories that you’ve seen come out of the Mississippi Polymer Institute?

Thompson: I have a lot of favorites. Most recently, on the workforce development side, I would have to say [MPI Workforce Development and Technical Leader] Ty Posey’s efforts building up the composites program with GE Aviation. GE Aviation has a production facility in Ellisville. All of their production employees come through the Mississippi Polymer Institute, as well as Jones County Junior College. There are four classes they take, which give those employees a good foundation in 1) what are high-performance composite materials, 2) what are some of the ways that you manufacture and produce these things, 3) what’s the science behind it. I’m really excited about that program and we’re proud to have GE Aviation as a partner.

MPI has been doing commercial development for several years. We started out initially working on a project with the James Rawlins’ research group at USM for a coating for Marine Corps uniforms. That was probably the start of that effort. Since that time, we’ve had a lot of successes along the way. Of course, I can’t mention a lot of those things because of confidentiality agreements.

On the physical and analytical testing side, we’ve done thousands of projects in Mississippi. But, recently, last year, we became ISO 17025 accredited.  For a university lab to become accredited is very unique.

Why is that?

Thompson: When Dr. Thames helped set up MPI, his intention was that we would exist to help industry. That’s our focus. So we’re out there, every day, working with industry, visiting them, talking to them about the problems that they’re seeing. The ISO accreditation is very important to those folks because their customers are asking, “How are you having this checked?” They want to know who’s checking it and who’s checking the people that are checking it.

The ISO accreditation means a third-party coming in and, more or less, says the processes that MPI has in place, as well as the techniques that we’re using, are what they say we’re doing. Part of it is proficiency testing – our test results are compared against numerous other labs’ test results and, basically, you’re looking for all the labs get the same results. It’s a third party stamp of approval, you could say. It gives some legitimacy to the process you’re using when your laboratory’s testing is accredited.

What else would you like Mississippians to know about the Mississippi Polymer Institute?

Thompson: First and foremost, I’d like everyone to know that we’re here to help. Our whole purpose in being is to help grow Mississippi – to help further our state. 

I would also encourage business folks to come out and take a look at The Accelerator and visit with [Accelerator Manager] Robbie Ingram. And I would encourage people to let us show you around the Mississippi Polymer Institute to see all of the exciting things that we’re doing here.

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