Bill Morris is a tinkerer at heart. During his early teens, his grandfather owned a salvage yard in western Kansas, where Bill helped customers hunt for parts for repairs. “I learned mechanic skills, tearing apart cars, tearing apart equipment and running heavy equipment,” he says. He also became adept at finding uses for seemingly useless objects.
With degrees in biology, chemistry, mechanics and business, Bill ran his own environmental investigations chemistry lab. He later obtained a patent for a machine that could predict oil and gas discovery with better than 90% accuracy. “I get bored pretty easily, and I don't watch TV,” he jokes. In 2011, when he received a job offer from Koch company Flint Hills Resources to expand a lab for crude oil analysis into an innovation center, he jumped at the chance.
Now the head of Flint Hills Resources (FHR) Technical Center in Wichita, Kansas, he has built the FHR Technical Center into an applied sciences laboratory dedicated to unearthing new ways for Koch companies to utilize resources and reduce waste. With a team of 15 to 20 broad-based scientists who conduct studies in disciplines ranging from chemical engineering to electronics, he explores how to make the most of what Koch has — a task not unlike what he did at the auto salvage. As Morris puts it: “We come to work, and we play.”
To him, the ability to play — pursuing ideas with a childlike sense of wonder and fun — is what unleashes the most creative solutions. “Play allows you to adapt when faced with uncertainty and the unknown. I use the words ‘play’ and ‘resourcefulness’ as almost the same,” Bill says. “We experiment and we fail. Then we learn, and then we move forward.”
He aims to instill this same joy of learning — and the self-actualization that comes with it — in future generations as a mentor not just for his employee team, but for various Koch outreach programs too. Every year, Koch invites high school students from Camp Destination Innovation, a career development program focused on STEAM and entrepreneurship, to spend a day touring the lab. While there, students are presented with the opportunity to try out small, hands-on experiments to understand what “commercial science looks like.” During one experiment this year, the students were able to try out an XRF gun, a tool that identifies alloys and metals, and were pleased to discover much of the jewelry they wore was real silver or gold.
Bill says he’s reaped his own share of rewards from these experiences. “That's our future, you know. That’s how we grow. I learned from them, just as much as I hope they learned from me.”
And when Koch Industries sponsored national television docuseries "Make48" to host a competition in Wichita for the show’s 2021 season, Bill was invited to work with leaders across Koch to craft the Wichita challenge. He was mildly disappointed he wasn't competing until he learned he could serve as a judge — a job the onetime entrepreneur found exhilarating.
During the competition, Bill applied his business and scientific expertise to help aspiring entrepreneurs compete to invent a commercial product in two days. Bill saw it as an opportunity to help young makers hone their skills under pressure. Teams of two to four adult competitors were challenged to “do more with less,” by coming up with a product that uses water for one of three functions: to reduce/reuse/recycle; for productive work; or to minimize damage that can come from water. The challenge itself consistent with Koch’s own Stewardship Vision — create more value while consuming fewer resources — involved leaders within Koch's environment, health and safety group, operations group and engineering group. The teams had just 48 hours to build a prototype, create a promotional video and pitch their idea to a panel of judges at GoCreate, on Wichita State University's campus. Then the clock began ticking.
Bill was bowled over by how quickly each team translated the concept into a physical product. “It was clear these contestants spent some time in the hardware store, figuring out how to use a tire for something else,” he says. He was also struck by the competitors’ collaborative nature and willingness to learn. That’s a big reason why, after the winners were announced, Bill gravitated to those competitors who had not been so lucky, offering them feedback and a chance to examine what they could change next time.
Nevertheless, at the end of Make48, everyone — winners and losers alike — erupted in cheers of glee, and people were jumping around and hugging one another. The experience made Bill believe that the spirit of playfulness is alive and well in the world of innovation. “Once [the participants] found successful ideas, it became fun to them,” he says. “And that was obvious in the end results of these projects.”
The national Make48 competition is set to take place in Wichita in March 2022, where Wichita challenge winners "Veni, Vidi, Vici" (pictured above) will compete against seven other teams for the $10,000 national grand prize. The series will air on PBS in late 2022 or early 2023.