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Viewpoint: Delaware’s bioscience sector is critical to its future

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By Michael Fleming

Michael Fleming | Guest Columnist

The extraordinarily successful initial public offering by Prelude Therapeutics (PRLD) last month made clear investors’ immense confidence in prospects for the Wilmington biopharmaceutical company.

Prelude’s market capitalization quickly shot past $1 billion, giving it rarefied “unicorn” status in Wall Street parlance. That’s a historic, and probably unprecedented, achievement for a homegrown Delaware startup.

More importantly, Prelude’s IPO is promising news for cancer patients, as the capital raised will advance the company’s groundbreaking work on novel, precision medicines to stop the growth of difficult-to-treat tumors. These efforts will mean significant investment in clinical trials, people, and facilities.

Founded by CEO Kris Vaddi in 2016, Prelude is a supreme example of both the momentum of Delaware’s bioscience sector and its exciting future potential.

Vaddi started his career in Delaware as a researcher with DuPont Pharmaceuticals. From there he was part of the team that helped make Incyte – another remarkable local success story – a global leader in oncology, inflammation, and autoimmunity.

Prelude’s early success is owed to Vaddi’s singular vision and leadership. But he will also tell you that being in Delaware – and the state’s dynamic bioscience community – helped get the company to this point. Key factors include the availability of highly skilled talent, incubation labs at the Delaware Technology Park at University of Delaware STAR Campus and Prelude’s current operations at Delaware Innovation Space. Strategic grants from the state provided important early funds to invest in employees and research and development.

The visibility of Prelude’s IPO will help shine a bright global light on this vibrant Delaware ecosystem and we need to take advantage of it.

I wrote in June that the value of the bioscience industry – from both an economic and public health standpoint – has never been clearer. Across the state we have multiple companies on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, developing and producing an array of products to combat the virus recently showcased at our bi-monthly BioBreakfast.

The sector provides over 7,000 good paying jobs in Delaware in research, business roles and manufacturing. And hundreds of millions in both private and public money are invested here in cutting-edge commercial and academic R&D. Beyond that direct economic impact, the bioscience sector drives significant benefit to scores of Delaware law and accounting firms, consultants, industrial service providers, contractors and other businesses large and small.

Despite the severe economic challenges caused by COVID-19, the bioscience industry is growing, even thriving, because the demand for our lifesaving innovation has never been greater. Given the devastation wrought by the pandemic and tragic job losses particularly in small businesses and the service sector, the state has a rare opportunity to use this moment to build on and leverage our bioscience momentum and help ensure more Incytes and Preludes start and grow right here.

This means nurturing new businesses through programs that mentor and train entrepreneurs – precisely what a newly-awarded $1.5 million federal grant to the Delaware Innovation Space will accelerate.

Delaware also needs to ensure that companies expanding beyond small incubation settings don’t leave the state for lack of the next level of ready-to-go lab space. That will require the continued collaboration of the state, economic development, real estate, and industry leaders.

Fortifying a qualified workforce that includes both those with advanced degrees and individuals with manufacturing skills is also essential. With the strategic need to strengthen the domestic supply chain – and NIIMBL, the federally-funded National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals right here in our backyard – Delaware can and should be a leader in piloting new manufacturing technologies and creative 21st century partnerships with our universities and technical training institutions.

More broadly, the state must maintain a smart, positive approach to business growth, which includes investing in infrastructure – such as work underway on WiFi access and transportation networks – along with STEM education.

During a recent Delaware Business Times webinar, chief JPMorgan Chase & Co. economist James Glassman noted that the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are actively driving businesses to the Mid-Atlantic region and the south thanks to policy missteps and high taxes. When asked what Delaware can do to enhance our economic future, his answer was blunt: do the opposite of those states and welcome these businesses with open arms.

Indeed, Delaware treasures like AstraZeneca, Prelude and Incyte should never be taken for granted. With great companies like those and others and our innate advantages – location, cost of living, a regional talent pool and a business-friendly climate – we will become an increasingly powerful magnet for bioscience investment and life-changing innovation. 

Michael Fleming is the president of the Delaware Bioscience Association.

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