Video: Kimberly-Clark’s Chief Scientist on Virtual Prototyping and R&D’s Future

By Collin Robisheaux, Scott Kirsner |  January 21, 2022


Scott Kirsner: Hey, I’m Scott Kirsner, CEO and Co-Founder of InnoLead, and really glad to have Pete Dulcamara with us today from Kimberly-Clark. Pete, I’d love to just hear a little bit about your role at the company, and the team that you oversee.

Pete Dulcamara: Yeah, absolutely. Hey Scott, it’s great to be here, thanks for the invitation. Yeah, first and foremost, I’m a husband and father, so I’ve got two college-age kids, but my day job is Chief Scientist of Kimberly-Clark, and my role at Kimberly-Clark is really to discover what’s next for Kimberly-Clark. And so, as Chief Scientist, my role primarily is to build a foresight capability so that we can really amplify weak signals to identify opportunities and risks for the company, two is really to lean in on our top projects to make sure that they’re advancing, three is to build a global technological ecosystem so that we can turn the world into our laboratory, and four is to make sure that we’re really developing top talent for innovation, so that’s a little bit about my role. 

Pete Dulcamara, Chief Scientist & Technical Vice President at Kimberly-Clark

Scott Kirsner: You look like maybe you’re in a home office today.

Pete Dulcamara: I am.

Scott Kirsner: So, when I’ve been talking to people in R&D organizations, they have been really rushing amidst COVID to get people back into the lab, you know, it’s very hard to replicate a lab bench in someone’s garage or in someone’s basement. As you think about 2022, are there ways that people in this larger R&D organization can be working remotely in different ways? Or for K-C, is it really a priority to say, “Hey, how many people can we have in the lab, how many days a week?” And that’s where productivity and breakthroughs come from?

Pete Dulcamara: It is a combination – from day one since COVID started, we’ve had people in the laboratories, people who have business-critical reasons, so we’ve been running our pilot plants, we’ve been running our prototype labs, we’ve been running our analytical sciences laboratory. But one thing that we found that’s really been interesting is through COVID, we’ve really increased the amount of virtual R&D that we’ve done in the computer. It’s probably increased by 10X, the amount of virtual prototypes that we build versus physical prototypes, and really to do that synthesis in the computer before we build the first real prototype. So one of the things that we’ve been working towards is almost generative design thinking, the intersection of generative design with design thinking. We still have the empathetic understanding of what the consumer needs, but rather than building a physical prototype, let’s build a virtual prototype first, get feedback on that before we build our first physical prototype.

We still have the empathetic understanding of what the consumer needs, but rather than building a physical prototype, let’s build a virtual prototype first, and get feedback on that before we build our first physical prototype.

Scott Kirsner: Are there ways that you’re plugging into technology in new ways? I mean, I would guess a lot of the core science that you think about is material science is improving production, improving packaging, but are there ways you think about connecting with technology products as a potential for future growth of the company?

Pete Dulcamara: Yeah. Part of my vision is today most of our revenue is generated from atoms, physical products, but how do we move from atoms to bits and bytes of information? And then how do we use those bits and bytes of information to improve the atoms that we manufacture and sell? So this whole area of connected wellness… I think historically Kimberly-Clark has advanced products through mathematics, physics, chemistry, but I think the future is really interdisciplinary sciences, the integration of neuroscience, IT, biotechnology to really develop holistic solutions for consumers, and that’s really where we’re moving as Kimberly-Clark is, how do we embed intelligence and sustainability into everything that we do as a company? How do we become a smart and sustainable enterprise?

A version of this article appears in our latest research report, “Retooling R&D for a New Era.”

It’s interesting Scott, Kimberly-Clark has actually completely transformed itself every 50 years as a company. So if you go back to 1872, our founders basically said, “Hey, could we turn recycled rags into newsprint?” And that’s what they did. And for the next 50 years, we were a paper company, not only based on recycled rags but on lumber as well. And then in 1922, the question we asked was, “Hey, do you think we could turn a tree into cotton?” And we developed CelluCotton, that led to Kotex and Kleenex, and another 50 years of being a consumer based paper company. And then in 1972, the question we asked is, “Do you think we could make paper out of plastic?” And we developed non-wovens and introduced superabsorbents, and that led to Huggies, and Pull-ups, and Depend, and Poise, and another 50 years of being a personal care company. And 2022 is going to be our 150th anniversary as a company, and it’s time for us to think about the next 50 years, and I think that 50 years is all about embedding intelligence and sustainability into our products, processes, services, and packaging so that we can really provide better care for a better world as Kimberly-Clark, that’s the vision.

I think that [the next] 50 years is all about embedding intelligence and sustainability into our products, processes, services, and packaging.

Scott Kirsner: Maybe one last question for you, Pete. And you talked about recruiting being important, how are you recruiting scientists, engineers, R&D folks, designers in 2022? I’m guessing a lot of your jobs still do require physical presence, and so you can’t say, “Hey, this is a job you can do anywhere in the world.” How are you playing that hand of cards?

Pete Dulcamara: Yeah, no, I mean, we still see the importance of being associated with a Kimberly-Clark location. I think that at some point we are going to return back to the office, there’ll be some type of hybrid between working from home, but… a lot of times people think the next great innovation happens in the laboratory, but as Steven Johnson talks about in Where Good Ideas Come From, it actually happens by sharing your idea with somebody else, and they help make that idea better, and so really fostering greater connectivity, and collaboration is going to be key just as it always has been. And so, part of our recruiting efforts is… we used to spend a lot of time on physical campus, but today, we’re accessing multiple campuses. Campuses that we might not have ever visited physically, we can now visit virtually and help students understand the value proposition for Kimberly-Clark in recruiting that talent.

Our vision is a company from a diversity perspective is we want to look, think, and behave like the people that use our products – and everybody uses our products, right? And so we want to make sure that we access talent that looks, thinks, and behaves like the consumers that use our products. And so, we have a pretty wide aperture as we think about talent and how we acquire that talent, but at the end of the day, we do feel they’re going to have to be associated with a physical location of Kimberly-Clark.