Globally renowned brands have the power and influence to steer the world towards a sustainable lifestyle through responsible fashion and environmentally friendly products !

Anand Kanchagar (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Materials Researcher at Nike, explores the use of new materials in different products to ensure they meet consumer expectations.

Anand talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his journey in the world of Textile Chemistry addressing challenges in Healthcare, Manufacturing and Water Conservation before moving on to his current role at Nike.

For students, textile materials have a wide range of applications ranging from fashion to healthcare, but the chemical nature of textile materials, the chemicals used in processing textile materials as well as interaction of chemicals and textile materials remains the same. Focus on the fundamentals !

Anand, tell us about Your background?

I grew up in Mumbai in a lower middle class family that always stressed upon the importance of getting a good education to be successful in life by being successful in school, especially in Mathematics and Sciences. 

I was always interested in the field of science; initially I wanted to be in the field of medical sciences. I was really interested in biology and zoology as a school kid. 

I studied Chemistry and graduated with a Bachelors degree and then enrolled in a Bachelor of Chemical Technology program to specialize in Textile Chemistry. 

My father worked as a fitter in a textile company in Bombay. Having seen the downfall of the textile industry in Bombay, I did not want to study Textiles. However, I was able to connect with some people who had studied Textiles and were successful. Interestingly, these people were my father’s acquaintances and friends. Based on their advice, I went ahead and enrolled in the Textile degree program. 

My mother was a schoolteacher and taught drawing and arts to high school kids. Every summer my mother would bring the final exam drawings submitted by the children in her class. I would help her with entering the grades and finishing up the class reports etc. I got a chance to see what my mom would look for in the creative work of kids. 

So, though I wanted to become a doctor as a very young kid, I studied chemical technology and became a Material Scientist. I did work in the field of medical products for a small period which was very interesting. After working on medical products, I realized how materials can be very helpful in the field of medicine – I felt very good about it. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After I graduated with a degree in Textile Chemistry from UDCT (ICT), I worked for about 6 months as a Management Trainee at Coats Viyella. After that, I decided to go back to the university to do my Master’s degree in Textile Chemistry – this was a tough decision as I had a job in hand that paid very well, with the promise of a good job after completing the Management Trainee program. 

I completed my Master’s degree at UDCT and was admitted to the PhD program in Textile Science at The University of Georgia in 1998. I completed my PhD in 2003 and then went on to work as a Postdoc at Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) for 1.5 years before taking up a full time job at a company.  

What were some of the key influencing factors that led you on this career path?

I was studying for my 12th grade with the goal of going to either medical school or an engineering school after HSc. But, my grades were not competitive enough to get a seat in a government engineering college in Bombay and my parents did not have the financial strength to send me to a college outside of Bombay. Though I might have gotten into an engineering school, I did not feel like getting an engineering degree just for the sake of getting it. 

So, I took my chances and enrolled in a B.Sc. program in Chemistry. 

During my BSc, my Chemistry teachers at the college had told me about a Chemical Technology program which gave me another shot at getting a professional degree such as an engineering degree. 

My goal was to give it my best shot and enroll in the Chemical Technology program – a 3 year program at the University of Mumbai. 

One of my good friends and I had the same goal – so it was good to have a friend who was focused on the same goal – it helped me to study as well as be on top of things that were important to get enrolled in the program.

I feel that being unsuccessful in getting into a professional degree program after my 12th grade was a turning point – as a few of my high school friends got into engineering programs and I could not go. I was more determined to make the best of what I had. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

When I was at UDCT in the Textile Chemistry program, my goal was to always try to be among the top students in my class. I had set this goal for myself so I could apply for different scholarships at UDCT for which my application would be competitive. I was lucky to get a small scholarship every year in the 3-year program at UDCT – this paid for the books and any other supplies needed for school. 

After completing my bachelor’s degree at UDCT, I got a job as a Management Trainee – this would be the goal for a person graduating with this degree. But while at UDCT, I had seen people doing research projects and I had developed an interest in research. Though I took up the job, my interest in research kept bugging me. So, I finally quit my job and came back to UDCT. I think this was a turning point for me – as I had not planned anything for my future and I had just quit a very good job. I think this is when I made a transition into being a researcher. 

I worked as a Research Assistant during my Master’s degree program and completed my degree. During my master’s I worked on a project sponsored by a local textile equipment manufacturer to study the impact of the roller coverings on textile materials during processing. I was able to learn more about textile machinery, materials such as rubber and PU coatings on textile rollers and their impact on textile materials. In addition, as I was also working as a research assistant, I worked on small projects that the professor would get from the industry. These years really helped me understand the importance of solving problems that helped the industry. 

After my Master’s, I applied for admission to PhD programs at textile departments at different universities in the United States. 

Luckily, I was admitted to the PhD program at The University of Georgia which this was another big lucky break in my career. I felt that this gave me the confidence that I will be OK in life and will be able to find myself a good career. 

At the time of admission, the textile program at The University of Georgia also provided a teaching assistantship as well as a tuition waiver. This was greatly helpful for me to come to the US. 

My focus in my PhD project was to study the adsorption of cellulases on cotton fibers in order to optimize formulation for treatment of cotton fibers. 

Cellulases are a mixture of enzymes used in industrial treatment of cotton fabrics as well as in laundry detergent formulations. Cellulases help to remove the topical short fibers and biopolish cotton textiles. Biopolishing helps to maintain the color of textiles as well as make them soft. My curiosity was to understand how the mixture can be optimized to get the best biopolishing effect.

In my project, I learnt biochemistry techniques that I had never learnt earlier which was very satisfying. 

When I completed my PhD degree, the job market was reeling from a recession and it took me a while before I got a Postdoctoral position at ERRC. I always knew that the postdoctoral position was a temporary stint since I was interested in working for a company. I finally got a job as a Textile Chemist at Cranston Print Works. 

Cranston Print Works is a 200+ year old company that still exists. Cranston is involved in creating, manufacturing and selling print designs on textile materials. At the time when I was working as Textile Chemist, Cranston had a printing facility in Webster, MA where they prepared print cloth, formulated different textile print systems and printed on cotton textiles using rotary screen print machines. I was involved in formulating of print pastes, finishing the formulations and ensuring the quality of incoming raw materials. Over the years, I got involved in other areas such as environmental reporting, waste water treatment, new product development and also worked with local universities on projects.

I still feel that this was the best thing that happened to me as I was able to learn a ton at this job – more than what I would learn in another normal job. The company was downsizing because of drop in sales and increase in competition from Asia and I was asked to do a lot of different jobs at the company – I was more than happy to do them as I learnt a lot doing these jobs. But it did not last long as the financial crisis was the last straw and the company shut down. But I got the confidence that I could learn new areas of work very quickly. I was focused on medical products since I knew that medical products use a lot of textiles – this was another turning point in my career. Working in a medical device company was a completely different experience compared to working in a manufacturing environment. I loved it.

After Cranston shut down their print facility in Webster, MA., I started working as a research engineer at Covidien. Covidien had spun off as a health care company from Tyco Health care. They were looking for a person with a textile background and hired me. 

At Covidien, I worked in a business unit called Medical Supplies. Medical supplies includes Wound Care products, Urology and Incontinence products. My work was focused on wound care and incontinence products. I worked on products such as cotton gauze, wound care bandages, antimicrobial products, adult diapers, underpads and many other disposable products used in hospitals. 

In my later years at Covidien, I also worked on other products such as hydrogels used in defibrillator pads and compounding devices used in pharmacies. The work was very interesting and got to learn a completely different aspect of textiles.

Over my career at Cranston and Covidien I realized the significance of knowledge that I gained during my UDCT days studying textile chemistry. I was working on textile materials that were used for entirely different purposes – one was used for make quilts and the other was used for saving lives. But the knowledge of chemical nature of textile materials, the chemicals used in processing textile materials as well as interaction of chemicals and textile materials remained the same – this was very fundamental and did not change. 

After 7 years, I realized that I wanted to explore new ideas. I have always been interested in thinking out of the box but at the same time making sure that the idea is something that can be adopted on a commercial scale. This motivated me to look for a position that allowed me to do this full time – that is how I ended up at Nike. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break when I got a job at Cranston Print Works. I feel that there were many turning points until then in my career, but this was my first break with respect to a full time job in the industry after my PhD. 

I think I got this job only because I was ready to learn anything and everything that came my way. I still remember, during my interview, my hiring manager was sitting with me in the office. While talking to me, he got a call regarding a problem at the print machine. He asked me if I wanted to come along and I said yes – I feel that this attitude gave him the confidence that I was ready to learn the job especially as I was transitioning from a PhD degree to a plant chemist job. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Uncertainty – I think that I always focused on the things at hand and tried to do them well instead of just focusing on the future. 

Challenge 2: 

Inexperience – I feel that I was always ready to learn anything new and did not hesitate to take on new responsibilities. I feel that this has helped in my career – as I did not know some areas, but was always ready to learn. 

Challenge 3:

Learning – I feel that in a work environment, there is an exchange of knowledge and at times it can be tough to learn from your seniors or teach your juniors. I think being humble about my knowledge and always being respectful has helped me learn new things and build relationships.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

As a Material researcher, I work on different projects. In some projects, there are a lot of definitive requirements – for example, trying to see if a new material can be used in place of an existing material that is used in our products. If so, whether the new materials perform as well, i.e, there is a set of specifications that the new material needs to meet and we need to do different tests to make sure that the new material meets these specifications. 

In other types of projects, the specifications are not well defined, but there is a desire to achieve certain properties based on consumer feedback – in such projects, I have to develop technical specifications, develop the material and test the material to prove that it meets the consumer’s expectation. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

I think that two types of skills are required for the job – technical and personal skills. I feel that I have acquired the technical skills from my past experiences, and I am constantly learning by interacting with my team members at the current job. I also feel that I am learning technical skills by reading technical literature and talking to people from other companies – I feel that this has helped me to think out of the box when approaching a problem. 

I feel that personal skills are the most important skills in a work environment. Ironically, these skills are not taught at universities. I learnt these skills by interacting with people at work. I feel that being humble and flexible has helped me a lot to build good relationships at work. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day includes meetings with my team members. On some days, it may include interacting with other Nike employees on a 1:1 basis just to learn about their work and sharing my learnings with them. This has helped me to form my network within the company. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I like this job because there is no monotony in the job. I am always trying to solve a problem by understanding or learning about materials or trying to answer questions by troubleshooting. This keeps my brain busy!

How does your work benefit society? 

I feel that we humans have been using too many environmental resources. I am hoping that if I can reduce our dependencies on natural resources even by a small amount, my work can benefit society.

I am still trying to figure out how I can help society. I feel that people will always use shoes and clothes. So the focus of my work is to make a difference in their lives.  At some point in my career, I would like to make shoes for people who cannot afford them. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I was working on a project to reduce the use of water in bleaching of textiles. I feel that this project was very close to me as I was able to use my knowledge in textiles to reduce the usage of a lot of water in a bleaching process, thus making it environmentally friendly. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Based on my experience, my advice to students would be:

  1. Be humble and try to learn as much as you can – you never know when the knowledge will become useful.
  2. Be ready to learn new things and don’t be afraid to fail. 
  3. Be flexible in your approach – don’t be set in your ways. 

Future Plans?

Hopefully, some day, I will be able to teach at a university. I feel that I have a responsibility to share the knowledge that I have gained with the next generation.