By Raymond Jones
Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi has many titles at NC State, but his work as executive director of the Nonwovens Institute (NWI) recently earned him an award that put him in truly rare company. He is now a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors.
This prestigious award represents a distinct milestone in a career path that began long ago in a place far away. When Pourdeyhimi was young, his family left Iran to escape political upheaval and settled in the northern part of England, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Leeds.
He moved to the U.S. in 1982, initially to explore the possibility of a faculty position at NC State. He ended up leaving for Cornell University, however, and later distinguished himself as a teacher and researcher at both the University of Maryland and Georgia Tech. Ultimately, the stars did align for a move to NC State, where he has been since 1998.
Being in a field of endeavor that is heavily dependent on grant support, Pourdeyhimi accepted his position at NC State at a somewhat precarious time. On the one hand, the College of Textiles (as it was named at the time) had a long, successful track record winning National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. A major NSF grant was set to expire at that time, however, with no guarantee of renewal.
The move required a leap of faith, but Pourdeyhimi has never looked back.
“I recognized,” he says, “that the best long-term solution for the Nonwovens Institute was to become less dependent on any single funding source. We needed to expand our corporate grants and partnerships as well as our governmental support.”
NWI’s resulting strategic plan included several “pillars” that have contributed to steady growth and success ever since.
One pillar, Pourdeyhimi says, is the ability to instill “knowledge and know-how” in future leaders. The Nonwovens Institute currently has a network of some 300 alumni working in widely varying positions throughout higher education and private industry.
“Producing capable leaders is fundamental to success,” he says, “because people remember you for your alumni.”
NWI also provides industry training programs on a scale unique to NC State. For example, more than a dozen webinars were offered during 2020, despite COVID, with some programs attracting as many as 800 participants.
A third success factor, Pourdeyhimi says, is having “the right set of tools and toys.” At the time of his start, NWI had little in the way of manufacturing capacity. Now, NWI has upwards of 80,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
“No one else can touch that. Our corporate partners know they can come to us to test new ideas and develop new products.”
Also, as the result of their involvement in Leaders in Innovation and Nonwoven Commercialization (LINC), NWI’s personnel mix and mingle regularly with counterparts representing nearly 70 other companies and organizations.
A final important role, Pourdeyhimi says, is that of incubator for start-up enterprises.
“One of the things we really do well” he says, “is help develop new technologies and push them to market.”
As a result of all these achievements, NWI was ideally positioned to step up when the outbreak of COVID led to a nationwide shortage of masks and personal protective equipment.
“Those of us in the nonwovens industry recognized immediately that there was no way supply could keep up with demand,” Pourdeyhimi says. “We had peacetime capacity and wartime demand.”
It took a lot of ingenuity to develop materials that would meet then-current specifications, but Pourdeyhimi is proud to point out that Institute engineers accomplished in weeks tasks that would normally require many months of research and development.
“By March of 2020,” he says, “we were mass producing two classes of urgently needed masks.” In addition, the University’s rapid adaptation to the needs of the pandemic resulted in numerous new patents and licensing agreements.
Ultimately, NC State produced more than 10 million square meters of fabric, enough to manufacture 200 million masks. The Institute also provided materials-testing for local healthcare providers.
“Systems like UNC Health and WakeMed were forced to acquire supplies from non-traditional sources” Pourdeyhimi says, “and they were anxious to get their purchases safety-checked.”
Because of his leadership during the COVID response, Pourdeyhimi might seem like a natural for recognition by the National Academy of Inventors. He’s quick to emphasize, however, that the Academy’s goal is not so much to honor individual innovators as to honor individuals who foster a broader culture of innovation.
“The referees like to highlight the importance of collaboration,” Pourdeyhimi says, “and this is very much a team award. I’m just the one lucky enough to have my name on the plaque!”