Innovation Driven by Science and Purpose

A Q&A with Karen Nelson, chief scientific officer, Thermo Fisher Scientific

A pioneer in the human microbiome field, Karen joined Thermo Fisher in 2021. She has authored more than 220 peer-reviewed publications, edited three books, and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the journal Microbial Ecology. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.


With a focus on innovation, Karen leads R&D teams in designing and developing top-performing products while also prioritizing environmental sustainability.


In this Q&A. Karen shares her insights on Thermo Fisher's approach to Designing for Sustainability.

Q: What is “Design for Sustainability” and why is it becoming increasingly important at Thermo Fisher?


Design for Sustainability means taking a comprehensive approach to consider the environmental effects of our products and services throughout their entire life cycle. Thermo Fisher’s objective in this design approach is to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive outcomes, whenever possible, for all stakeholders, including our customers and the environment. It’s a balance of remaining always hopeful, while staying ever grounded in the science.


For Thermo Fisher, the importance of sustainable design is emphasized by the urgent calls from scientists worldwide to address climate change. We have made a commitment to becoming net-zero by 2050 and have joined the Business Ambition for 1.5°C campaign led by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Moreover, our customers rely on us to assist them in meeting their own sustainability commitments, as we work together to reduce overall emissions.

Quotation marks
"Design for Sustainability has become a core pillar in our R&D strategy, with clearly defined and measurable objectives, indicators, and targets that reflect the environmental impacts of our R&D outcomes."

Karen Nelson
Chief Scientific Officer
Thermo Fisher Scientific

We strive to incorporate R&D objectives that reduce the presence of hazardous chemicals, minimize waste generation, enhance energy efficiency, adopt responsible packaging practices, and promote product longevity. However, we always balance these objectives with our primary goals of developing products that offer the highest quality and performance.

Q: How would you describe our approach to sustainable design?


It’s all about innovation and the inherent passion our scientists have for keeping the environment in mind as we design world-class products. We foster a mindset of continuous improvement and learning, always striving to stay at the forefront of innovation and industry trends. In implementing Design for Sustainability, we have established a company-wide framework for sustainable design thinking. We have also integrated environmental considerations into many of our well-established product development processes.


To ensure that our design decisions align with sustainability goals, we actively listen to our customers and are starting down the path to using life cycle assessment more broadly to gain a deeper understanding of the context and environmental implications of our product design choices.


Our approach not only enhances our commitment to sustainability but also drives greater creativity and problem-solving within our organization. By incorporating sustainability factors into the design process, we encourage teams to think outside the box and explore innovative solutions – for our instruments, chemicals, reagents and plastic consumables.

Q: What would you say are some of the benefits and challenges for R&D teams when implementing Design for Sustainability principles?


Implementing Design for Sustainability principles in our R&D teams brings a number of benefits. It encourages collaboration, creative thinking and generates diverse ideas, leading to innovative solutions that address environmental and customer needs. It can also increase customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy, as customers increasingly value more environmentally responsible products. This approach also has the potential to reduce costs and risks by promoting efficient resource use and minimizing negative environmental impacts.


There are also challenges. It is crucial to strike a balance between sustainability goals and project timelines and performance requirements to ensure that the implementation does not impact new product introductions. Sustainable design thinking also can require teams to adapt to evolving knowledge, which may necessitate continuous learning and improvement to stay up to date with the latest sustainability practices and technologies.

Quotation marks
"Overall, while there are challenges to overcome, the benefits of implementing Design for Sustainability principles in R&D teams generally outweigh the obstacles."

Karen Nelson
Chief Scientific Officer
Thermo Fisher Scientific

Q: How do product-level R&D teams implement sustainable design in their own projects/products?


They start by establishing a shared vision of what sustainability means for their specific product. This helps align the team's goals and objectives with the broader sustainability objectives of the organization.


Next our R&D teams, working closely with our product management colleagues, conduct thorough research and analysis to identify opportunities and generate new ideas. This may involve conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups to gather insights from relevant stakeholders. By involving end-users in the process, the teams help ensure that the ideas are tested and refined to meet their needs and preferences.


The R&D teams also seek guidance and support from other team members who have accumulated knowledge and expertise in sustainable design. This collaborative approach allows for the integration of diverse perspectives and insights, leading to more robust and effective sustainable design solutions.


We routinely engage key stakeholders throughout the entire R&D process, including customers, suppliers, and regulatory bodies. This helps to ensure the final product aligns with the stakeholders’ expectations and requirements.


Q: As you have rolled out this program, how has this been received by the R&D organization?


The formalization of the program has been well received and has tapped into the existing passion of our R&D teams to develop products with sustainability in mind. We understand that it is a process and a journey, and we strive to balance it with other key priorities. 

Quotation marks
"It is widely estimated that 80% of a product's environmental impacts are locked in at the design phase. As an R&D organization, we are aware that the decisions and actions we make today can have long-lasting consequences on the environment for years to come."

Karen Nelson
Chief Scientific Officer
Thermo Fisher Scientific

Q: What has been the interest from customers in having options for greener products?


Customer demand for greener products is growing, driven by their desire for safer materials, waste reduction, energy efficiency, and longer product life.


Thermo Fisher and our customers are mindful of growing environmental regulations and seek products that align with these regulations. Our customers want to ensure that their purchasing decisions contribute to their own sustainability objectives and comply with relevant standards. Thermo Fisher recognizes the importance of meeting these customer demands while ensuring that our products deliver on performance and functionality.