When science is the answer
2007 Top 100 | Not-for-profits meet the need for complex research and development projects
- By Doug Beizer
- May 12, 2007
Guarding against chemical attacks is a high priority for the Homeland Security Department, but until recently, it had no quick and comprehensive way to detect and identify a dangerous plume in the wake of an attack or accident.
So the agency set out to develop a mobile laboratory capable of analyzing 1,000 samples a day.
Hamilton Sundstrand, a unit of United Technologies Corp., No. 20 on the Top 100, won the contract to build the lab and brought in the Midwest Research Institute, No. 88, to do chemistry work, develop methodology and build the laboratory's integration capabilities, said Thomas Sack, Midwest's regional vice president and director of operations.
Unlike the majority of its colleagues on that project and others, Midwest is an independent, not-for-profit organization. The institute specializes in areas of research that include national security, defense, energy and food safety. Four not-for-profit organizations made this year's Top 100, including Battelle Memorial Institute, which cracked the top 20 by coming in at No. 12.
Being a not-for-profit group can sometimes be an asset when competing for federal contracts, Sack said.
"We're not burdened by having a product line or shareholder that we have to either promote or satisfy," he said. "In the mobile lab project, we weren't constrained with designing methods only using equipment that is made by one vendor. We were free to find what was the best solution."
That freedom helped Midwest develop a self-contained laboratory called the Portable High-throughput Integrated Laboratory Identification System. The project was funded by the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, the external research-funding arm for DHS.
Having the freedom to consider any option in the project was important because of the difficulty of detecting a broad range of chemicals.
"We were looking at chemicals that behave totally differently from one another," Sack said. "In addition, some of the chemicals were agents, meaning there are a number of government requirements on how you even handle those, adding additional challenges."
Such complex research projects illustrate the kind of work Midwest is well-equipped to handle.
"In many cases, we're called in to do an assessment where government customers have a problem and are looking for the best way to solve it," Sack said.Best of both worlds
Meanwhile, other not-for-profit organizations are vying for federal contracts. For example, Research Triangle Institute, which is No. 78 on the Top 100, relies primarily on federal contracts to support its not-for-profit work, said Jim Gibson, executive vice president and chief financial officer at the institute.
RTI has a staff of about 2,600 and revenue close to $600 million. The institute is dedicated to improving the human condition.
RTI's research areas include health and pharmaceuticals, education and training, surveys and statistics, advanced technology, energy and the environment, and economic and social development.
"I think we offer a unique solution to our clients because we strongly believe in our independence and objectivity," Gibson said. "In many of the areas we work in and in research policy evaluation, we think that is clearly a strength for us."
RTI competes with fellow not-for-profits and for-profit companies.
Gibbson sees RTI as an organization that can straddle the worlds of business and academia ? a factor that attracts many of its employees.
"One thing we do that signifies the uniqueness about RTI is we publish; we publish significantly," Gibson said. "Hundreds and hundreds of articles and journals are published each year, and we celebrate that. We spend a lot of time and resources on promoting and fostering that, and I think that is unique. You're certainly not going to see that in for-profit corporations."
Although RTI will work on projects as a prime contractor, the institute often finds that teaming with several organizations is advantageous.
"From the complexity of issues that our customers face, there's a growing need to team," Gibson said. "It is very difficult for one entity to have all the capabilities it needs to solve a particular issue or work on a large, complex request for proposals. It is ironic because we've become larger and more diversified, but at the same time, more so than ever, we find ourselves teaming with other partners to be able to provide solutions to our customers."Global Reach
RTI's Iraq program is an example of its reliance on teaming. It is a massive project that had a quick start-up. A team of subcontractors was put together to help RTI establish field operations to support local governance efforts.
The project is supporting U.S. efforts to establish local governments throughout Iraq. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the project aims to develop governments that are transparent, accountable and efficient.
RTI trains newly elected council members and other local officials in the fundamentals of leadership and helps local institutions manage and deliver public services.
The institute sees international work as a growth area as federal agencies' budgets tighten.
"Throughout most of our segments, we're seeing a slowdown," Gibson said. "We're seeing flat budgets and declining budgets. So it is important to show we can also serve commercial needs as well."
One service RTI provides is complex survey work, and one of its largest
projects is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted annually
for the Health and Human Services Department.
For that project, RTI gathers information and evaluates trends related to drug use ? including alcohol abuse and the use of illicit drugs ? and other health issues that affect various segments of society.
RTI's work on complex projects could be an example of the kind of approach not-for-profits will need to emulate to continue being successful.Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.