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As life sciences boom, Delaware seeks to land prospects

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The Chestnut Run Innovation & Science Park, being developed by MRA Group, is expected to lead a new wave of life sciences investment in Delaware. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – A recent state report underlined the growing importance and impact of pharmaceutical, biotechnology and health care research firms collectively known as life sciences in Delaware, an industry that accounts for 11,000 jobs and $2 billion of the state’s gross domestic product.

The First State isn’t alone in that boom though, as regions around the country are seeing an accelerating growth of such firms and venture capital funding behind them. The greater Philadelphia area is one of the Top 10 regions nationwide for life sciences growth, driven by pharmaceutical giants like AstraZeneca as well as gene and cell therapy startups like Prelude Therapeutics.

According to a recent report by commercial real estate brokerage CBRE, biotech R&D jobs are growing at their fastest pace on record while the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is also approving more than two times as many novel drugs annually compared to a decade ago.

One challenge for the industry though is the lack of available lab space, with the vacancy rate under 5% nationwide and even lower in Philadelphia. In New Castle County, there currently isn’t any available space.

That is soon to change though, as the Delaware Innovation Space on the DuPont Experimental Station campus is set to get back more than 60,000 square feet of space in early 2022 and DuPont’s former Chestnut Run labs undergo a major redevelopment into a multi-tenant innovation park.

That $500 million project, led by MRA Group of Horsham, Pa., will create the Chestnut Run Innovation & Science Park (CRISP), offering 780,000 square feet of modern lab space. The project already scored a major win by securing more than 80,000 square feet for the future headquarters of Prelude, which had been operating out of the Innovation Space.

The future headquarters of Prelude Therapeutics will open at CRISP in the second half of 2022. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MRA GROUP

“Since our founding in 2016, Prelude Therapeutics has proudly contributed to the growth of an evolving biotech hub in the Wilmington area,” said Kris Vaddi, CEO of Prelude, in a statement announcing the move. “We believe our planned state-of-the-art office and lab space, and centrality to a life sciences campus, will enable us to continue attracting top-tier, diverse talent to our exceptional team. We look forward to establishing our new headquarters in Chestnut Run as we continue to advance our pipeline of potentially transformative medicines for people living with underserved cancers.”

Mike Wojewodka, MRA Group executive vice president and partner who is leading the CRISP project, said his firm is already having “meaningful discussions about a few companies potentially relocating to the campus.”

While much of the interest has been Philadelphia-area companies considering a move to Delaware, Wojewodka also said MRA has heard from West Coast firms looking for an East Coast presence and even companies based in Ireland and China looking to establish a U.S. base.

“The Prelude announcement definitely moved the needle significantly as far as making the site real,” Wojewodka said. “I think once Prelude opens later in 2022, we’ll see more activity too.”

While life sciences is the buzzword for the explosion of industries expanding in the region, MRA intentionally did not call CRISP a life sciences park because it intends to attract all manner of scientific firms, Wojewodka said. They anticipate leasing as much as 200,000 more square feet of space this year, with a three to five-year window of redeveloping the site.

Even after the existing renovated space is exhausted, CRISP could continue to spur additional economic development as the 164-acre site has room and proper zoning to conceivably build another 1 million square feet of space, should the market demand it, Wojewodka said.

The interested callers are evidence to Wojewodka that CRISP will be able to draw new prospects down to Delaware. Joe Colletti, an executive vice president at the brokerage JLL who focuses on the life sciences market, and Blaise Fletcher, managing director for JLL’s Wilmington office, agree.

“Everything I’m hearing and seeing from my clients and people around the industry is that [life sciences] will be the future for greater Philadelphia,” Colletti said. “What we need to do is deliver more space to allow these companies to meet their growth expectations. We’ve seen companies leave the region because they don’t have anywhere to go.”

That’s where developments like CRISP will play an important role, added Fletcher, who worked on the sale between DuPont and MRA.

“[Delaware] hasn’t had a true lab campus where it’s an ecosystem for these companies to be surrounded with other companies and grow together and have resources together,” he said. “So, I think what CRISP is doing is a major leap forward for Delaware.”

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