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DESCA: The heart of state’s chem-based ecosystem

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Bryan Tracy

Bryan Tracy carefully deposits samples into a gel receptacle//Photo by Ron Dubick.

By Christi Milligan

The next big thing in the chemical sciences space could emerge from one of the state’s chemical giants or university-based research hubs, thanks to decades of research and million-dollar funding.

But in the wings are smaller scale technologies available for new applications and researchers who simply need a primer on championing their work.

Enter Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA), a 501 (c) (6) founded in 2010 that aligns resources between small and large companies and universities to accelerate innovation in sustainable chemistry.

“Delaware is exceptional at discovering technologies,” said DESCA’s president and chairman Bryan Tracy. “But Delaware hasn’t refined the system to take discovery into enterprise, into a company.”

Birthing that sustainable business isn’t easy. While the state is home to a wealth of Ph.D.-level researchers and scientists, the strategy to market it to potential investors, or pitch it to global companies requires something more, according to Tracy.

Originally focused on early state ideation, original founder Lori A. Palmer said the organization pivoted toward smaller companies that already offer a multiple use chemistry concepts and innovation.

In the last six years, the company has hosted three separate Sustainable Chemistry Summits, grown its tech and workshop events and earned the support of state officials and the science and technology community.

Later this year, Tracy said the organization will establish wet lab space for early stage technology development at the STAR Campus in Newark.

The space will create a pipeline of proof-of-concept projects while DESCA’s Domain Expert Network will offer guidance to early-stage entrepreneurs as they develop their technology.

But DESCA’s centerpiece is its Innovation to Invoice (I2I) focus, marketed through workshops and lunch and learns and designated panels designed to give small companies the vision for new applications of their existing core competencies, then a plan to market it.

“We’re not going to plug 2,000 jobs into the Delaware,” said Palmer, a partner at Trellist Marketing and Technology, in reference to the downsizing of DuPont and others. “But we can keep a close pulse on local business entrepreneurs, startups and smaller companies and resources, and connect them to business opportunities so they can commercialize faster.”

Erica Nemser

Erica Nemser is CEO at Compact Membrane Systems.

Erica Nemser is CEO at Compact Membrane Systems in Newport, an advanced material company that specializes in membrane separation solutions using perfluoropolymers.

The technology is featured in a range of chemical separations, including olefin and paraffin, solvent recovery, and oil and Environmentally Acceptable Lubricant (EAL) dehydration.

It was the dehydration technology that Nemser brought to the I2I workshop earlier this year, where the panel of DESCA volunteers helped her identify adjacent applications for the company’s separation technologies.

“The virtue of a small company is 28 amazing brains that can sometimes get stymied by a “˜group think’ mentality,” said Nemser, who was brought on board to expand the company’s commercial footprint. “For tech-driven companies, they get attached to the original application, but there may be other adjacent markets to create value.”

The DESCA panel scrutinized CMS’s technology and brainstormed roughly 25 different applications that were grouped into four categories.

The end result could be growth in the semiconductor industry, according to Nemser, who said the fresh perspective was critical.

“We’re not saying not to do your original idea, said Tracy, CEO at White Dog Labs, a biotechnology company that creates renewable chemical technologies. “But a scientist might have spent 30 years looking at one application of something.

“We literally bring in high-schoolers and marketing professionals and nonprofessionals thinking outside the box.”

Tracy’s passion for DESCA and Delaware’s chemical space comes honestly.  He cofounded biotechnology firm Elcitron, and has built a growing business as part of White Dog Labs, which purchased Elcitron last year.

But Tracy was armed with more than a Ph.D. from Northwestern when he cofounded Elcitron, and then White Dog Labs; he had a vision for raising capital and the marketing drive and wherewithal to tap into industry advisors and mentors.

White Dog Labs Inc. has raised over $10 million in venture capital and non-dilutive financing over the past three years to accelerate the development of zero-CO2 emission fermentation technology, according to Tracy.

The technology is used for the production of acetone and several other commodity chemicals and biofuels. All work is based in Delaware.

But, he admits, marketing and business strategies aren’t natural skillsets for most researchers and scientists. DESCA marries the two.

“Now that you have new technologies, you need to ask what are the barriers, what am I missing, how do I access capital and build the bare bones of a business strategy,” said Tracy.

“DESCA has done two significant things,” he said. “We are very focused on the industry, specifically chemical core competencies in this region.  We are tapping into a broad array of executives, high-level industry experts from not just DuPont but other companies to assist the focus of what we’re offering.”

But Tracy said the DESCA team also took considerable time to survey the landscape and to make sure the organization is additives to other resources.

The program also helps startups identify revenue sources, and leverages relations with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and Small Business Association, according to Tracy. And the organization has carved a niche in the broader Delaware network, including Delaware Technology Park, the Venture Development Center and OIS.

Daniel Eliot, manager of Technology Business Development at the Delaware SBDC, said organizations like DESCA are critical to sustaining technology-based business in Delaware.

“They have deep industry experience, and our organizations act as referral services back to each other,” said Eliot.

Eliot administers the Small Business Innovation Research (or SBIR), which helps certain small businesses conduct research and development (R&D). He said tech and chemical companies not ready for SBIR are referred to DESCA.

And DESCA  funnels small companies toward Eliot.

“As Delaware we can’t rely on big business, we have to focus our attention on startups,” said Eliot. “Tech startups can scale quickly and be large enough to have an impact on the community and produce high-wage jobs.”

Pei Chiu is a researcher and professor with the University of Delaware’s Civil and Chemical Engineering Program. His research efforts have focused on developing technology for drinking-water treatment, efforts that were confined to lab-based research, until he connected with DESCA in 2012, and began to consider the market value of his work.

Paul Imhoff, Julia Maresca and Pei Chiu

Paul Imhoff, Julia Maresca and Pei Chiu, researchers at the University of Delaware, are co-investigators of a storm water treatment technology.

DESCA helped Chiu earn a Sea Grant to train undergraduate students to test some of his ideas; it connected him with a French-based company with an office in Delaware that matched those funds and has expressed interested in his team’s work.

“They are an important bridge which many people do not know exists,” said Chiu, who recently earned a grant from DelDOT and one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture toward research in the development of treatment of irrigation water.

“We teach classes and conduct research,” he said. “We’re not trying to develop a chip that is faster or market something worth billions in technology.

We serve the public, so we don’t always think of research that we do as commercial or that it has market value.”

Interest in DESCA has accelerated with the recent DuPont layoffs, as former employees have expressed interested in volunteering their expertise or inquired about spinout ideas and companies.

In the last year, Palmer said DESCA has doubled its workshop plan and its volunteer network has tripled with 30 active volunteers and 1,200 interested stakeholders in database – people who have put their hands up and said they’re interested in sustainable technologies.

“Delaware is a mecca for chemical talent, it’s second to none in terms of concentration and level of competency,” said Tracy. “Chemicals is where it’s at and there is a huge network of chemical experts out there.

“But at the end of the day, the challenge in Delaware is not money. It’s creating investable companies, companies investors want to put their money into and investors, in my experience, want to put money into interesting technologies.”  

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