Michigan Molecular Institute (MMI) is an advanced polymer research and education organization based in Midland, Michigan. Most of MMI's 35 scientists focus primarily on materials science, with specialties in the fields of photonics, membranes, specialty coatings, unique delivery systems, sensors, analytical testing and other areas. The institute's mission is dedication to advanced research and development, industry problem solving and advanced education in the broad, interdisciplinary field of polymer science and technology. MMI was founded in 1971 as an independent, nonprofit research and education organization for the purpose of conducting basic and applied research in polymer science and technology. In recent years, the Institute has emphasized technological development with a commercial orientation in mind. In addition to its research intiatives, MMI has served as the launching pad for several spinout businesses, including Dendritech, a commerical dendrimer production facility; Impact Analytical, which provides analytical testing to a wide variety of companies; Oxazogen, a commercialization company in the development and manufacture of coating materials, production of specialty polymers and ongoing polymer research; and the Midland Information Technology Consortium (MITCON), which provides IT services and support to more than 35 local non-profit organizations.
MMI officially opened its doors under the name Midland Macromolecular Institute in the fall of 1972, although the facility had been in operation for the previous year. The building had broken ground in the spring of 1970, and it, like many of Midland's buildings from that era, was designed by prominent local architect Alden B. Dow. The institute hosted a three-day dedication beginning Sept. 28, 1972 with opening ceremonies that featured more than 400 scientists from throughout the world, chamber music from the Cleveland Quartet, several presentations and public tours. The featured speakers for the ceremonies were Dr. Herman Francis Mark, considered by many to be the father of macromolecular sciences, and Dr. Paul J. Flory, who two years later would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Other luminaries on hand included Dr. Melvin Calvin, the 1961 winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; Dr. Charles Overberger, then the vice-president for research at the University of Michigan; and Herbert D. "Ted" Doan, president of the Michigan Foundation for Advanced Research (MFAR), which was MMI's primary financial backer in its early days.
MMI's first director was Dr. H.G. Elias, who came to Midland from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Beyond funding from MFAR, early financial supporters of MMI were the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation, The Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation and the Charles J. Strosacker Foundation. In the institute's early days, Elias said MMI would be run much like a university department, although its founders expected MMI would advance macromolecular science knowledge in a way that universities could not. One similarity: MMI opened its doors as a not-for-profit organization, which it remains today.
MMI's first 15 years of research of advanced composite materials and polymer technology contributed to Michigan's ability to entice plastics- and composite-related industries to build in the state, and its affiliation with Central Michigan University and Michigan Technological University allowed it to offer master's and doctorate degrees in related research fields. In the early 1990s, MMI began to shift its focus toward creating technology that could be licensed for commercialization.
Over the years, six men have led the institute as President and/or CEO, including Elias (1972-83); Dr. Robert E. Hefner (1985-85 and 1990-92); Dr. John Hoffman (1985-1990); Dr. James D. Allen (1992-1994); Dr. Robert M. Nowak (1994-2009); and Dr. James H. Plonka (2009-present).
MMI is located in an area of Midland, Michigan known as "Discovery Square," a cultural-scientific complex inspired by the late noted architect Alden B. Dow. The Midland Center for the Arts, Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, Dow Gardens, and MMI are located adjacent to each other in this wooded area. The MMI building contains 35,000 square feet of space and includes both chemical and physical polymer research laboratories, extensive state-of-the-art polymer characterization equipment, a library which boasts one of the most extensive polymer collections in the nation, and lecture and meeting room facilities.
Today, a significant portion of MMI’s research activity is aimed at solving problems relevant to industry and the national interest. MMI has research ties with industry, universities and federal laboratories in joint collaborations with the goal of developing technology with commercial significance.
MMI’s current staff numbers around 50, about one-fourth of which hold PhD degrees. Principal areas of R&D activity today include dendrimers and hyperbranched polymers; plastics recycle; sensor materials for Chemical Weapon Agents, toxic industrial chemicals, and explosives; high-performance optical coatings; PIBO film; anti-fouling and anti-biofouling membranes and coatings; membranes for fuel cells and lithium-air batteries; nanoparticle toughening agents for advanced composites; bio-friendly oxygen carrier materials; and programs in electronics and photonics. The Institute’s annual budget in recent years has been in the range of $5 million.
At present, two for-profit companies are affiliated with MMI. These are Dendritech, Inc., founded in 1992 for the purpose of manufacturing commercial quantities of dendrimers and other specialty materials, and Oxazogen, Inc., founded in 1995 and focused on R&D developments in high-performance coatings and PIBO film. In addition, Impact Analytical, a division of MMI established in 1998, provides a wide range of chemical and polymer analytical characterization services to more than 200 companies across the US and globally. Also 'incubated' under MMI's auspices is the Midland Information Technology Consortium, or MITCON, which provides IT services to more than 35 Midland-area organizations, the majority of which are non-profit health and human service organizations.
The Turner Alfrey Visiting Professorship
MMI's emphasis from the beginning on the education portion of its mission led to a steady stream of outside experts through the institute, including the visiting professor program, established in 1973 and renamed in 1981 as a living memorial to the late Dr. Turner Alfrey, Jr. Each year, a leading scientist is invited to teach a short course, visit sponsoring organizations and deliver additional research seminars, benefitting many people by providing a point of connection between local scientists and engineers with the world leaders of the polymer science field.
TAVP speakers from around the world have been invited to present the latest, most up-to-date information in their particular polymer expertise areas. Typically, these courses are delivered in an intensive, one-week, daily lecture format. Visiting professors also spend additional time at MMI, participating in one-on-one and research group discussions at the Institute, and in collaborations and discussions with other nearby industrial and academic researchers. They also prepare and deliver a set of on-site seminars for many of the sponsoring organizations that parallel and supplement the formal course lectures. Financial co-sponsors of the Turner Alfrey Visiting Professor program in recent years include The Dow Chemical Company, Dow Corning Corporation, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State University, the Mid-Michigan Section of the Society of Plastics Engineers, and the Midland Section of the American Chemical Society.
The list of Turner Alfrey Visiting Professors includes a Nobel Prize winner.