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A Hub for Science and Technology

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Delaware offers unique opportunities for researchers, entrepreneurs

The Optical Science Center for Applied Research (OSCAR)
at Delaware State University | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/ MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

State-of-the-art equipment, attractive funding options, space for collaboration and brilliant minds to analyze data — those are just a few of the perks of Delaware’s science and technology scene. More scientists, educators, entrepreneurs and nonprofits are learning that every day. 

Kathleen Matt

Delaware is “a great hub for discovery” as well as the perfect place for innovation and collaboration, says Kathleen Matt, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences and one of the biggest boosters of UD’s STAR (Science, Technology and Advanced Research) Campus. 

For entrepreneurs, Delaware is a no-brainer. There is an educated workforce, good quality of life and economic advantage, says Patrick Callahan, CEO of Wilmington data analytics firm CompassRed. He likes to tell the story of trying to start his first company in California. His wife had to drive the permit applications to another city because no one would answer the phone at the closest government office. Then, when he tried to hire a scientist, he found out the local starting salary was $300,000 due to the high cost of living. 

Patrick Callahan

Callahan has since become one of Delaware’s most enthusiastic advocates. He’s the Chair of the Science & Tech Advisors, a group convened by the First State’s economic development agency, the Delaware Prosperity Partnership. The Science & Tech Advisors were founded last year to gather the sentiments of science and technology leaders in Delaware and allow them to speak with one voice as they advocate for federal funding that could come back to Delaware.

Also last year, Callahan founded the Delaware Data Innovation Lab (DDIL), an interdisciplinary research lab encouraging representatives from many different, and sometimes disparate, areas to get creative in finding solutions for the pandemic. Through that approach and $2 million in CARES Act funds, DDIL was able to hire 22 scientists and technicians, the majority of them from out of state. The group came up with models predicting evictions during the pandemic and looked at how students were being affected. For 2021, they’ve expanded their reach into areas such as augmented reality and transportation innovation. 

Connecting Researchers with Instrumentation, Lab Space

Partnership and collaboration are key to DDIL, but those values are also exemplified by several other Delaware institutions. For example, there is no better place to see the spirit of working together than the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) in Newark. 

The core groups at DBI have amassed an incredible array of instrumentation and technical assistance for use in the life sciences areas of agriculture, energy and environment, and human health. 

“Job creation in life sciences is joined at the hip with very expensive instrumentation,” says Alok Patel, associate director, external relations for DBI, which helps join entities doing research with that expensive instrumentation. For example, the DNA Sequencing & Genotyping Center at DBI is one of the only labs on the East Coast with all the equipment needed for complete DNA sequencing. Companies and researchers from all over the world send samples to DBI for analysis every day, says Patel. 

John Koh and Alok Patel | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/ MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

“The Delaware Biotechnology Institute plays a critical role in serving the life science research ecosystem across the state by connecting scientific talent and resources with the needs of the local industry and partner academic institutions” says John Koh, director of DBI. 

Delaware’s small size fosters the sharing of space and resources, which reduces costs and increases creativity, says  Melissa A. Harrington, director of the Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research at Delaware State University (DSU).

Melissa Harrington | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/ MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

“Because we are small, we’re a pretty close-knit community of researchers,” says Harrington. Through $20 million in recent funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, DSU is giving a boost to new scientific initiatives by providing researchers time and space to develop their work before having to seek additional funding. Projects underway at the school include research in nanotechnology, neurodegeneration and quantum sensing.

If those initiatives turn into new businesses, they need places to locate. Nonprofits like the Delaware Innovation Space are there to help. Based on the site of the DuPont Experimental Station campus, the Innovation Space is 100,000 square feet of multi-use lab space for industrial biotech, advanced materials, chemical ingredients, renewable energy, nutrition, and health care science-based businesses and ventures. 

For relatively low cost, startup companies can set up shop, using the equipment and space already there, says Bill Provine, founder and CEO. Currently, 18 startups are working in areas as diverse as aquaculture and DNA libraries. The space can also provide investment dollars. In 2020, it gave out a total of $265,000 to three startup companies through the First Fund program. 

“There are so many elements that are important. What science-based innovation gives us is that bedrock to support many other things,” says Provine. Early-stage companies have limited cash, and Delaware is a good place to make funding dollars go further, he says.

Proximity Creates Innovation

Sometimes those dollars go further be-cause things are so much closer together. 

Tracy Shickel | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/ MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

“Good things happen when you put people in a space together where they can collaborate,” says Tracy Shickel, director of economic development for the STAR Campus.

UD’s STAR Campus brings private business, academics, nonprofits and the community together in an ever-developing hub of innovation in health, energy, the environment and financial technology and services. 

The campus’ design is intentional, says Matt. Research labs are placed across from clinics in the health sciences building so that different groups can work together. Business offices are in the same building as classrooms. It’s all set up to build more opportunities for different groups to interface. Having the community involved inspires new work, she says.

Michael Smith | PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM COARSE/ MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

“There’s really nothing like this in the country,” says Michael Smith, director of strategic initiatives for UD. The 272 acres of the STAR Campus are open for companies to come in and build what they need. There is no other property adjacent to a university campus that has the same kind of space and potential, he says. “We have top people in the country in their field who want to be here because of the access they have.”

The biggest problem with Delaware, according to several sources interviewed for this article, is that it doesn’t toot its own horn enough. Callahan swears he’s going to take out billboards on I-95 to tell people all the great things invented in Delaware.

“Did you know the technology for the touch screen in your smart phone was invented here?” he asks. “We have those stories. They just have not been talked about a lot.”

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