NISKAYUNA — General Electric Global Research is moving to expand its research staff as it expands its role from being GE’s in-house R&D lab to also doing contract work for government agencies and other companies.
Vic Abate, the senior vice president who runs GE’s Niskayuna research campus and serves as chief technology officer for the 283,000-employee conglomerate, said it is a significant change for Global Research, but a change in organization rather than mission.
“When you look at GE, we’ve gone through many chapters of reinventing ourselves in many ways,” he said Friday. “The one thing that stays constant is that basic platform of technology.”
Hundreds of scientists and researchers at the Global Research Center are working on multiple projects at any given time, building technology vertically or horizontally. Vertical research is focused on building up a specific product or application in the shorter term, Abate explained, while horizontal research builds technology and knowledge that will have multiple long-term applications.
He said the breadth of horizontal knowledge and the ability to take the vertical process from concept to completion in-house are Global Research’s competitive advantage.
Abate was honored Wednesday with the 2019 Business Leader Award, one of seven awards presented to companies and people by the Chamber of Schenectady County.
The Williamstown, Mass., native followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, earning an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Abate’s father worked for GE in Pittsfield but Abate looked west to Schenectady, where he joined GE as a bench engineer in 1990.
When Abate succeeded Mark Little as GE’s chief technology officer in 2015, he’d already had two major leadership roles within the company: president of Gas Power Systems from 2013 to 2015 and president of GE Renewable Energy from 2005 to 2013.
Along the way, he earned master’s degrees from RPI and Union College. He and his wife, Karen, have four children and live in Saratoga Springs.
BULLISH ON SCHENECTADY
Abate considers the region home and said his company has a strong future here, despite its financial struggles and cutbacks globally and locally.
“I’m here 30 years and I’m bullish on it,” Abate said of Schenectady and GE’s presence there.
The campus at the foot of Erie Boulevard was the longtime home of GE Power, long the company’s marquee business. But the GE Power division has sustained recent workforce reductions as the financially troubled conglomerate tries to get GE Power back on track.
Current fiscal problems notwithstanding, Abate said, GE Power builds excellent products to fill a critical need of modern life. Also, Schenectady is the home of GE Renewables’ land-based U.S. wind power business.
Amid the restructuring, downsizing and cost-cutting across GE’s 180-nation footprint, Global Research operates under a different model than GE's component businesses, Abate said. It turns ideas into workable reality rather than turning working products into money. Its bottom line is not revenue but the creation of knowledge and technology needed to develop The Next Big Thing, improve The Current Big Thing, or devise a dozen Little Things that are part of a larger whole.
The funding stream that Global Research uses to accomplish this is where the significant change has occurred amid General Electric’s restructuring.
Previously, Global Research was an in-house operation — 90 percent of its research was performed for GE’s component businesses, such as Power, Aviation and Healthcare. Half its budget came from those component businesses commissioning and paying for work on a per-project basis, and half came as an annual allocation from company headquarters.
The headquarters allocation has been reduced, and replaced by payments for work Global Research does for government agencies and private industry. The per-project fees charged to GE component businesses remain in place.
Those component businesses are free to do research and development themselves or hire an outside lab, Abate said, but usually choose Global Research for the efficiency of the one-stop shopping it can offer, with so many years of research in so many fields, all under one roof.
Also, Abate said, “Many traditional research centers don’t have an industrial arm.” GE Global Research can take a concept, develop it into a working theory, build a prototype and test it under real-world conditions — all within the GE footprint, if not within Niskayuna itself.
“That gives you a skill set a lot of [competitors] don’t have,” he added.
If research and development were a 10-step process from concept to market, Abate said, it would be divided roughly into three steps each of discovery, then demonstration, then industrialization, followed by the 10th — completion. Academic labs excel at the start of that process, manufacturers excel at the end of the process. The Global Research Center pitches itself as equally good at all three.
“GRC bridges that gap,” Abate said. “We’re a very unique lab.”
As it seeks outside work, the Global Research Center has had to delve more into marketing, trying to strike a balance of salesmanship and science in a team approach that combines the principal investigator working on the project with a business development manager who’ll pitch it.
“These individuals are really the key,” Abate said. “They have to have the knowledge but they also need to be able to string the sentences together. There’s a secret sauce there.”
At stake are contracts for some of the $94 billion the federal government spends each year on science and technology research and development, he said.
“We care about things like the future of flight, the future of healthcare, the future of energy,” Abate said, referring to both GE and the government. The difference, he added, is that the feds are often looking decades ahead while the company usually has a more immediate timeframe. “The government is thinking about problems that are well beyond where GE is today.”
So government-funded research is a good fit for Global Research, Abate said, and moving into that space has been “very exciting.”
Just last month, Global Research announced it would be part of a $12 million project with NASA to develop a compact electrical inverter that may someday be a small but critical part of a hybrid jet-electric airliner.
NASA has been researching electrical aircraft since the early 2000s. GE built its first jet engine in the early 1940s.
Some of the major initiatives Global Research is currently pursuing include precision medicine (such as using ultrasound stimulation instead of drugs to treat chronic inflammatory diseases), industrial artificial intelligence (including faster/smarter 3-D printing), trusted autonomy (so that the artificial intelligence does what it is meant to) and hypersonic flight.
This last initiative, super-rapid transport of people across broad stretches of sky, is one of those efforts that ties together multiple disciplines on multiple projects, from reduction of the noise generated by flying several times the speed of sound to managing the tremendous heat it would generate to developing materials that can withstand the stresses that would result.
All of this will require a larger corps of researchers.
General Electric no longer discloses workforce numbers at its individual facilities; when last it did, it said the Niskayuna campus had about 1,500 employees. That was after a few small rounds of job cuts there, and after the nine other Global Research research facilities around the world were reduced to just one, in Bangalore, India.
Because of the time it takes to hire top-caliber researchers, and the competition for them, Global Research is always recruiting. It’s seeking to increase its Niskayuna research staff now, not just hold steady with the regular rate of attrition.
“In 2020, we need to build that number from where it is, not just hold on,” Abate said, predicting increases of 5 to 10 percent in each of the next two years.
“These people are highly sought-after,” Abate said. “It's not an overnight thing.”