Profile: Dr. Alexander Koukoulas, President and CEO of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center

Charlotte Nauert

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

We all have our morning rituals that wake us up and get the day going. For some it’s the steam curling off that first cup of coffee; for others it’s a jog in Forsyth Park just as the sun peeks through the Spanish moss. For Dr. Alexander A. Koukoulas, president and CEO of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center, it’s the hum of equipment in motion. “Some of our operations run on a 24-hour basis, so my day starts early,” he explains. “From the moment I step into the office, I am energized.”

The Herty Center is a world-class applied research center right here in Savannah, founded in 1938 in honor of renowned Georgian chemist Dr. Charles H. Herty. “Simply put, we help inventors, small businesses, and large companies develop new products by minimizing the risk from the often expensive business of new technology development,” Dr. Koukoulas explains.

By creating a platform on which companies can develop, test, and manufacture product concepts, Herty empowers companies to prove their products on a small scale—before making profits on a large one. As Dr. Koukoulas puts it: “Because we have a staff ranging from experienced operators to PhD scientists and engineers, we can provide our clients and partners with a breadth of technical services and expertise that is second to none.”

Dr. Koukoulas joined the Herty Center in 2012, the logical next step of a successful career as a corporate executive, industrial scientist, consultant, and entrepreneur. “Most of my career has been centered on technology development and managing large teams,” he says, “so when given the chance to join the Herty Center, I was really excited by the opportunity to lead a great organization and take it to the next level of performance.”

Indeed, opportunity abounds at Herty—and no two days are alike. “Herty is a very lean organization, so I am involved in every aspect—from operations to new business development and research, marketing, staff development, and community outreach,” Dr. Koukoulas says. “My days are full of diverse tasks, but I love what I do and enjoy the people I work with, so every day leaves me with a sense of accomplishment.”

And the accomplishments of Herty are vast. “We have several exciting areas in which we are working, including high performance materials, such as fiber-reinforced composites, that are light-weight compared to their overall strength,” Dr. Koukoulas explains. “We support Georgia-based forest products companies, develop new products, and conduct research in bioenergy products that offer renewable environmentally-friendly energy sources.”

The areas in which Herty works are ever-expanding. Having become a research center of Georgia Southern in 2012, Herty provides the university with a solid foundation for applied research. “Now that we are part of Georgia Southern, we are also developing our own research programs,” Dr. Koukoulas says. These range from the development of a new form of biomass processing, to working with advanced fuels and lowering the production cost of cellulosic ethanol, to producing nanomaterials. Dr. Koukoulas’ excitement for these projects is infectious: “We have a number of announcements on the horizon related to large collaborative research projects, so keep your ears open!”

In the meantime, the positive effects of the Herty Center are already apparent. “Through our work with industry and our involvement with local, national, and international organizations,” Dr. Koukoulas explains, “we can expand the university’s impact on regional economic development.” It’s just one of the ways Herty makes a difference.

In fact, the Herty Center’s vision statement puts making a difference front and center, aiming to “stimulate economic development within the State of Georgia.” It’s a mission they don’t take lightly.

“Contributing to Georgia’s economy is important to Herty and we look to enhance it through a variety of strategic ways” Dr. Koukoulas explains. In everything from employing local talent, to improving the technology of local companies, to attracting national and international businesses’ attention to the region, Herty excels. “Through our products and services, we are establishing Herty as a world leader in applied research and creating a reputation that will attract investment,” Dr. Koukoulas says—and that means more commercial investment to the state.

But how does the Herty Center do what they do? With outstanding resources. Herty has over 120,000 square feet of laboratories and pilot facilities on an 8.5-acre site. “This space houses a range of equipment that allows us to produce high-performance materials and structures, including short-fiber composites, and a variety of bio-based materials such as cellulose fiber, lignin, and energy pellets,” Dr. Koukoulas explains. “What is most impressive is that we support both bench-scale investigations and large-scale pilot plant operations, in which we can process materials at the tons-per-hour scale.” Not only that, but Herty operates under an ISO 9001-certified quality management system—an elite standard of quality assurance that is very unique for a university center.

While the world of applied research seems like an exclusive club, Dr. Koukoulas has words of wisdom for those who would like to follow in his shoes: “If you’re starting out in your career, focus on a leading edge of research, work relentlessly to demonstrate your passion and love for the field, and do not be afraid to be creative and think outside the box—innovation is key.” He also advises finding a good mentor, and being a team player—come to think of it, that’s good life advice in any arena.

With a successful 75-year history as a leader in applied research, Herty is now looking toward the future. “Herty is at a really exciting juncture in its history,” Dr. Koukoulas says. “We are reaching out to stakeholders to understand their needs. We are expanding our capabilities and services, repurposing our facilities, and hiring research staff.” It’s a future as full of promise as the hum of the equipment, early in the morning—”and I am proud to be part of it,” Dr. Koukoulas says.