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World’s diplomats get fresh look at Delaware in tour

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A tour of foreign ambassadors heard about the innovative teaching and research being done at the University of Delaware STAR Campus on July 21. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD/KATHY ATKINSON

Last week, 41 ambassadors from around the globe came to Delaware to spend a day learning about the state’s educational, research and business capabilities and to see if there were mutual areas of interest worthy of exploration. But in many ways, the excursion also served as an instructional update – an interesting self-examination – into how the state has reinvented itself over the past 20 years. The Delaware of today is not the Delaware of the turn of the century, although the state still finds that certain elements of its past history remain useful.

It marks the second major diplomatic trip to Delaware after a group of European Union ambassadors visited last fall, leaving little doubt that the world sees Delaware as a window of sorts into President Joe Biden.

The visit was a revival of a COVID-interrupted program operated by the U.S. State Department’s protocol office called “Experience America,” which has taken diplomats from more than 100 countries to about 20 American locales since its inception in 2008. The Delaware visit was led by Chief of Protocol and former Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, who explained in an interview, “When I was overseas and was taken on a tour, I always asked myself, ‘What are the opportunities for cooperation, how can I bring this technology back home?’ Hopefully, these ambassadors are doing just that.”

After an Amtrak ride from Washington, D.C. – a nod to President Joe Biden – the first stop for the ambassadors was the University of Delaware STAR Campus in Newark. There, they were welcomed by the president’s sister and chair of UD’s Biden Institute, Valerie Biden Owens, and new UD Provost Laura Carlson. But it was an overview by Kelvin Lee, interim vice president for research, scholarship and innovation at the university, that served as the meat of the program.

A campus open to opportunity

More than 40 ambassadors made the trip to Delaware as part of a rare State Department-led tour of an American state or city. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD/KATHY ATKINSON

Lee’s overview painted a picture of a thriving, multi-purpose campus, one bringing together business, government, research and educational facilities, but he examined in one occupant which he also leads, the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), which occupies its own six-story building.

The STAR Campus occupies an abandoned Chrysler manufacturing facility, the last hurrah for Delaware’s once-potent automotive industry and perhaps a farewell for its heavy manufacturing in general. Lee traced the decline of U.S. manufacturing, noting that the country had a trade surplus up until the turn of this century. While America is still a potent innovator and inventor, Lee said, today “we tend to import the things we invent,” apparently well aware that represented in his audience were many of the countries that now manufacture what we import.

He explained how NIIMBL – one of 16 governmental institutes located around the country focused on addressing various industries– provides a path to restoring America’s manufacturing capability, hopefully on a more-elevated level than the production now being done abroad.

Rotating tours viewed selected university research projects, many of them cooperative, as well as including a presentation by another STAR tenant and event co-sponsor, Chemours. Once part of the sprawling DuPont company, Chemours has its research facility at STAR. Several ambassadors queried the hub’s site manager, Brian Coll, about the company’s African engagements and markets as well as opportunities for interns from their country.

Jean-Claude Félix do Rego, ambassador to Benin in West Africa, asked Kathy Matt, the dean of the College of Health Sciences at UD, for details about how the university built the 10-story Tower @ STAR, where the meeting was being held. Matt explained how she convinced private enterprise to build and own the structure, then lease a part of it back to the university, noting she had done something similar when she was at Arizona State University.

“I’m in love with that model,” she told the impressed diplomat, while noting that public health clinics were included both to serve patients and to provide educational instruction.

An involved government

U.S. State Department Chief of Protocol Rufus Gifford addresses the tour of diplomats during a luncheon at Banks’ Seafood in Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY SABRINA GONZALEZ

The tour then moved up to Wilmington’s Riverfront for a lunch-and-learn at Banks’ Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar. There the visitors got a tutorial of an engaged government that sets favorable working rules, but which then steps aside to let business play the game.

Although the Delaware business economy has changed drastically from the post-war era when DuPont was Delaware, state and business leaders still value the retelling of the origin stories about it being the first to ratify the Constitution and how the 19th century mills along the Brandywine River launched the state’s manufacturing economy.

Secretary of State Jeff Bullock and Kurt Foreman, CEO of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the state’s public-private economic development agency, tag-teamed in describing various government initiatives that first lured the country’s business to incorporate in the state and to take advantage of a Chancery Court where judges know their business and where trials, heard without a jury, are rarely delayed. When Foreman noted, “The Elon Musk-Twitter case is being heard a few doors down,” an appreciative murmur ran through the audience.

Those remarks led Ambassador Wendall Jones of the Bahamas, who noted his country was also famous for its “financial services,” to later ask whether Delaware “adheres to [European Union] and [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] guidelines.” Foreman replied, “I’m on the marketing team and not the compliance office, but I’ll be at the meeting tonight and have an answer for you then. (The state does adhere.) A diplomat from Africa inquired how the state was getting ready to take advantage of the continent’s free-trade agreement, which recently went into effect – another topic for the private evening meeting.

 Foreman also described how the state took action in 1980 to create a credit-card-friendly environment. Like a financial “field of dreams,” once it was established, the major banks located here, adding thousands of jobs and an axis for financial technology research, including a new FinTech Center recently constructed on the STAR Campus. Auto manufacturing in Delaware may have evaporated, but, because of government action, it was replaced by credit cards and other financial businesses. Foreman also noted how the state created his agency and a World Trade Center Delaware as business-inducing initiatives.

A rejuvenated DuPont

DuPont CEO Ed Breen explained the company’s history in Delaware and where he wants to take it in the next generation. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

The final public session of the day – a presentation and discussion in DuPont’s Global Innovation Center within its historic, century-old Experimental Station – promised to be an homage to the company’s historical place the Delaware firmament, but it turned out not to be a nod to the past but a glimpse of the future. It was led off by an engaging presentation by DuPont CEO Ed Breen, who talked about the business necessity of changing to survive, perhaps referencing the major turmoil and restructuring the company experienced as a chain reaction set off by activist investor Nelson Peltz a few years ago.

In fact, although DuPont’s presence in Delaware has diminished in recent years, it is quite possibly more of an international company than it ever was, in terms of its facilities, where its employees are located and where its markets are. According to Breen, 50% of DuPont sales are in Asia/Pacific, 30% in the Americas, and approximately 20% in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). And there was nothing backward-looking about the innovative platforms it showed to its visitors.

A private evening reception with state officials at Hagley Museum and Library brought the day’s events full circle, perhaps a necessary return to what was centuries ago as exciting an industrial valley as Silicon Valley is today. At the end of the day, Delaware presented itself to the world as a state that had a refreshed view of where its business future lies, but, at the same time, has no intention of forgetting where it came from.

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