[caption id="attachment_233716" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Vance Kershner's long career in growing LabWare and many entrepreneurial pursuits resulted in his recognition with the Freedom Award. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
WILMINGTON – It’s quite hard to fathom just how Vance Kershner finds the time to embrace his many passions in life, ranging from scientific innovation to foreign land development to small business entrepreneurship and even race car driving.But somehow Kershner, the founder and CEO of world-leading laboratory software company LabWare, does find the time and has quietly become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Delaware.At a Tuesday night gala at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington, he was awarded the 2023 Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Award, which recognizes an individual or organization who has championed a successful idea that has led to economic growth or brought innovation to the private sector.
[caption id="attachment_233717" align="alignright" width="300"] LabWare CEO Vance Kershner credited his education with sparking a career of varied passions. | |DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Kershner perhaps summed up his life’s pursuits best Tuesday when he said, “I like to stick my nose in all kinds of things.”Born in Georgia but raised in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., Kershner learned the value of entrepreneurship from his parents, driving their family’s soft pretzel truck during summers growing up. He first arrived in Delaware in 1974 to attend the University of Delaware – an alma mater that he has continued to serve to this day at the College of Engineering.His experience at UD “changed his life,” Kershner said, explaining that learning the principles of engineering and the problem-solving process help to inform his life’s varied work.“It really helped me to look at the world in a different way,” he said.Kershner grew a reputation at UD after completing advanced research on what is today commonly known as geothermal heat pumps, which use the temperature difference in soil and groundwater to more efficiently heat and cool buildings. It drew the attention of DuPont, who recruited him to join its engineering department in 1979.Not long thereafter, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania drew the nation’s attention and DuPont was called upon to consult, having been involved in the government’s Manhattan Project just a few decades earlier. The young guy out of college wasn’t called upon to help, but he couldn’t resist getting involved. He developed a quick solution to a buildup of hydrogen in the containment center that was troubling regulators.“I ran some partial pressure calculations and came up with a simple solution for the problem. I recommended that they turn on the fire sprinkler system in the containment building so the water absorbed the hydrogen. It actually worked,” he said.After nearly a decade with DuPont, Kershner left to found LabWare in 1987, recognizing that he could develop software to better streamline workflow and track lab processes. In doing so though, he took a goal with him from the Delaware corporate titan.“I’ve always been impressed by how long DuPont was a family-owned business and how they also have created such high-paying jobs for the region. I've always wanted to emulate these characteristics,” he said of LabWare, which he continues to own today.
[caption id="attachment_233715" align="alignleft" width="300"] A crowd of hundreds turned out to the Hotel du Pont to celebrate Vance Kershner's recognition. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
The mechanical engineer spent his nights and free time teaching himself advanced coding and database administration to help establish the company.“Some of my earliest memories growing up were him typing away at that TS500 orange-and-black-screen laptop, usually while also helping me build whichever Lego set was favored that week,” recalled Kershner’s son, Kyle, in remarks Tuesday. “How little did I know that the piles of paper source code sitting next to him would change lives forever.”Today, it is claimed that a product that has been affected by LabWare is always within 6 feet of us – ranging from medicines to foods, gas to chemicals. More than 1 billion samples go through LabWare software each year from 2,500 customers in 125 countries.Over the last 30 years, LabWare has captured about 25% of the overall laboratory information management systems’ market share, making it slightly bigger than the second and third largest competitors combined.His success with LabWare allowed him to assist others, and he co-founded Leading Edge Ventures, a venture capital firm that supports entrepreneurs in the region. Among its greatest successes was an early investment in Carvertise, the outdoor advertising company whose CEO Mac MacLeod has become a mentee.Kershner also purchased a longtime favorite Centerville establishment, Buckley’s Tavern, and more recently opened the retro Goober’s Diner and Garage near Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood.Overseas, he took over Scrub Island, an uninhabited island in the British Virgin Islands, and has developed a resort, marina and many private villas using only local workers.In South Africa, Kershner worked with partners to buy up overgrazed farmland to be restored to its natural state. Today, it is the Madikwe Game Reserve, covering about the size of Manhattan, and home to lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and rhinos, among other animals. He’s also developed a resort lodge and blueberry farm that employ up to 700 local women during harvest season. Each of the 50 full-time employees is given a home and computer training – and for many it’s their first time having electricity.“All of this progress really does seem unbelievable even as I say it,” Kyle Kershner said.Even outside of his business pursuits, Kershner has found time to pursue a personal passion: race car driving. A lifelong car enthusiast, Kershner has restored many classic cars, but sought to combine mechanics and analytics in a race car team. The venture was recorded for a YouTube documentary and earned an Emmy nomination. Amid it all, he even broke 200 mph in his own Ford Roadster.At home, Kershner said that he remains committed to helping the next generation of students and entrepreneurs, stressing the importance of a good education. He supports First State Educate, Teen Sharp, First State Robotics, the Delaware Foundation for Science and Math Education, UD and more to get resources into the hands of students who need it most.“I am so honored to be your recipient of this Freedom Award, but also so humbled. The goals of the foundation to reinvent Delaware by fostering education, scientific innovation and entrepreneurship are truly special. And I make a promise that I will do whatever I can to help this mission to succeed and further Delaware for the benefit of everybody,” he said.