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First Delaware DNA conference draws big biopharma crowd

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Delaware DNA BioScience Conference

About 350 people attended the Delaware DNA conference at The Waterfall in Claymont on May 11 in a strong inaugural turnout. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

CLAYMONT – The first Delaware DNA conference hosted by the Delaware BioScience Association drew about 350 people to hear about the successes in the state’s biopharmaceutical industry and the challenges that it faces in the near term.

With a who’s who of the state’s biopharmaceutical industry, including leaders from AstraZeneca, Incyte, Prelude Therapeutics, the University of Delaware and many smaller companies and other organizations, the conference is believed to be a first in recent memory for an entire state industry. It also attracted dozens of out-of-state attendees, especially from the greater Philadelphia area.

“It’s appropriate that the name of this conference is Delaware DNA because science and innovation is clearly in our DNA,” Gov. John Carney said in kickstarting the program.

Gov. John Carney Delaware DNA Bio Conference

Gov. John Carney told the attendees of the Delaware DNA conference that bioscience was the industry of the future for the state. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The governor recalled meeting about two decades ago with Dr. David Weir, a veteran of DuPont’s agricultural division who was arguing that bioscience was the state’s future. Then-Lt. Gov. Carney, Weir and then-UD President David Roselle visited the National Science Foundation to explore what the industry’s promise could be, and they ultimately started the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, a partnership between industry, government and academia to advance biotechnology.

“Today, we see the fruits of Dr. Weir’s vision in UD’s STAR Campus,” Carney said, noting the presence of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals on the campus and the forthcoming $500 million WuXi STA Pharmaceutical campus in Middletown. “You can almost draw a straight line from Dr. Weir’s vision to this project.”

Today, the industry supports 11,000 jobs and is responsible for $2 billion of the state’s gross domestic product – both about 2% overall.

In many ways, the conference served as a statement of Delaware’s burgeoning sector and bringing outside attention to the First State. The association’s annual gala dinner, which the conference replaced, used to draw interest from around the region and organizers expect that interest to grow, said Michael Fleming, president of Delaware Bio.

Throughout the daylong program, attendees heard panel discussions on capital funding, advanced manufacturing, workforce development and cancer treatment advances as well as a keynote chat with Incyte CEO Herve Hoppenot. In the evening, a pitch competition awarded funds to Delaware bioscience startups.

Kris Vaddi Prelude Therapeutics Delaware DNA Bio Conference

Kris Vaddi, president and CEO of Prelude Therapeutics, said the inaugural Delaware DNA conference was an important way to support the state’s bioscience ecosystem. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

For Kris Vaddi, president and CEO of Prelude Therapeutics, a public cancer drug firm, the conference was a welcome opportunity for industry stakeholders to come together, especially after COVID canceled so many networking prospects.

“We have to do more of this, because it’s a great way to nurture the ecosystem,” he said, noting the fellowship could lead to new collaborations in funding or in drug trials. “I think these kinds of events have opened doors for those communications.”

Charles Saller, president and CEO of ABS, a small biologics firm in New Castle, said he thought it was a good chance to network with those in the local industry.

In terms of whether the conference helped change any opinions or beliefs about Delaware as a bioscience destination, most said it likely wouldn’t in a single instance and they hoped that the event returns next year.

Mike Wojewodka, president of MRA Group, a Pennsylvania-based real estate developer that focuses on the life sciences industry and is redeveloping the former DuPont Chestnut Run campus, said he thought the event was an effective showing but wouldn’t change the opinion of Delaware by many of his Keystone State neighbors.

“I think to create that momentum you have to repeat [the conference]. Building upon it year after year is really important,” he said.

Vaddi, of Prelude Therapeutics, said that he didn’t believe that Delaware had to compete with other areas, but could coexist and grow.

“I think what we have in Delaware is somewhat unique from what other places are doing,” he said, noting that he came to Wilmington after spending time in the biotech hotbed of Boston. “I think we really have a lot to offer, and that’s very underappreciated. Events like this – where the governor shows up and people can participate – are all the right steps.”

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