Source: | Dave Ghose | May 9, 2015

battelle-innovation11-620x225Since it was founded in Columbus in 1923, the nonprofit research organization has grown into a $5.2 billion organization with 22,000 employees at 130 locations around the world, including seven laboratories it runs for the U.S. Department of Energy and Homeland Security (one of those is the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington).

Battelle engineers and scientists are responsible for an astounding array of technological advances, including the copy machine, cruise control, the compact disc, dimples on a golf ball and the barcode.

Yet those achievements haven’t made Battelle a household name. The anonymity is partially the result of the nature of its work. Government agencies and corporations contract with Battelle to conduct sensitive and classified research. Plus, Battelle has historically had an aversion to advertising and self-promotion, which makes sense since its partners largely pay it to stay in the background.

“Some combination of those things has led us to be a quiet company,” said Battelle CEO Jeff Wadsworth.

But Battelle has opened up somewhat in recent years, a transformation that began under Wadsworth’s predecessor, Carl Kohrt, and has continued since Wadsworth took over the company in 2009. On Friday, Wadsworth gave an audience gathered at Columbus Startup Week a rare peek behind Battelle’s curtain.

Battelle invests broadly in the areas of national security, energy and environment and health. For the federal government, it’s leading massive billion dollar-projects, such as building the world’s most powerful supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the world’s most advanced X-ray at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the world’s most powerful laser at Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The company also is involved in a groundbreaking effort to build a technology that decodes brain activity. Working with Ohio State University, Battelle developed a device that allowed a paralyzed man, Ian Burkhart, to move his fingers and hands for the first time. “Now he can pick up a cup and pour it, and he continues to develop skills,” Wadsworth said.

How does Battelle decide what to focus on?

Its decision-making is guided by the vision of its founder, Gordon Battelle, an industrialist who bequeathed $1.5 million in his will to create a research organization dedicated to “doing the greatest good for humanity.”

But don’t think that mission prevents Battelle from making money, even if the organization is a nonprofit, a term Wadsworth dislikes. “I prefer tax-exempt,” he says. “We want to make a profit so we can make investments in research and development.”

Here are more insights Wadsworth shared during his Startup Week talk about how Battelle operates. Plus, he revealed a perk he receives as chairman of the Ohio State Board of Trustees: a national football title championship ring.

On prioritizing projects: “The government or some commercial entity will have a need, and we will go seek out that need and then figure out how we can address it. We get our scientists together, and they dream up interesting ideas. They compete with those ideas, and we will fund the best one or two.”

Whether Battelle is a big company or a bunch of startups: “I would argue that we’re both. In fact, we do spin out ideas that look like small businesses, so we are very acquainted with small businesses.” (GeekWire wrote about one of these spin offs earlier this week.)

The importance of system analysis: “I love electric cars, but I do ask the question when you plug them in, where is the energy coming from. You plug them in in Ohio, it’s probably coming from coal. So you got to be really careful. System analysis on energy production needs to be addressed.”

What small business can learn from Battelle: “It takes a village. When Herb Bresler, a Battelle medical researcher who’s developed a more effective cancer detection machine, puts out his acknowledgement pages, he’s got about 40 names on there: People in contracts, people in finance, people in HR and administrative, everyone. You don’t do this with one or two people. If you’re a small business, then you need help. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, because nothing gets done without networks and help from other people.”

On how the full-body scanners now used in airports to detect illicit materials originally were designed to create perfectly fitting clothing: “We could make jeans so tight, if you put them on, you couldn’t take them (off). Nobody was interested. But when 9-11 happened, they were interested.”

Why he wasn’t wearing his national title ring: “For some reason, (OSU football coach) Urban Meyer decided football players needed their (rings) first. So I’m still waiting. I have been measured for it.”