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Innovation

Delaware Biotechnology Institute

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Breaking new ground in chemistry and education.

John Koh is proud of what the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), of which he is the director, has accomplished to advance science in the state — but he wants the 21-year-old research center to do even more.

His goals for DBI include: 

  • Making advances “with our partners not only to do research, but to drive innovation,”
  • Serving as an integrated resource for startups, but also being a closer partner with Delaware’s major science-based companies and healthcare organizations,
  • Acting as a driver for STEM education among the state’s students at all levels and
  • Better serving the needs of research in down-state Delaware in conjunction with its partners in all sectors in that part of the state.

    John Koh

Koh also wants to square DBI’s past direction to where it will go in the future. “Since we began working with NIIMBL [the National Institute forInnovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals in Newark], we have pivoted our focus — not really pivoted, but broadened — from our background in working with molecular and cellular biology in agriculture, environment and health,” Koh says. “We’re looking at chemistry as well, because we want to play a larger role working with our legacy of regional chemistry talent to support innovative business opportunities. I believe there can be a great synergy between life sciences research and chemistry.”

Now housed on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, DBI works to further academic and industrial research partnerships and to support the area’s bioscience industry, from startups to multinationals, in partnership with the Delaware BioScience Association. The institute is home to about 120 resident faculty, affiliated faculty and staff, in addition to graduate students, who are working on problems related to agriculture, human health as well as energy and the environment. The institute also houses a wealth of advanced research laboratories and scientific instruments, which are made accessible for use by those in the life science community in Delaware and the nearby region.

Access to Technology and Access to Talent
It is difficult, in fact, to describe all the functions and relationships DBI has because they range from open-access arrangements for use of its facilities to collaborative research guided in part by its faculty and staff. Its official research partners include such institutions as the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, ChristianaCare Health System, Nemours/AI DuPont Hospital for Children, Wesley College and Delaware Technical Community College.

“Officially, we are an institute contained with-in the University of Delaware [for administrative purposes], but with state support, our mission is statewide,” Koh says. Although UD faculty members and graduate students work at DBI, no classes are taught there except for workshops and seminars.

“We try to help provide two of the three things all research-based companies need — access to technology and access to talent,” Koh says. Assistance with the third need — physical space— can be found elsewhere.

Within DBI, there is the Delaware Core Facilities Network which provides researchers looking to work with DBI a centralized listing of state-of-the-art equipment, technologies and services that can be shared. Additionally, core directors and technical staff scientists can provide the expertise necessary to conduct experiments to advance these research projects. Core centers include bioinformatics, bioimaging, and DNA sequencing and genotyping.

Like any institution, DBI is proud of its graduates. Although it doesn’t consider itself to be an incubator, the institute has been instrumental in getting young biotechnology companies off the ground and into production. One example is Prelude Therapeutics, which recently announced plans to move into the Chestnut Run Innovation & Science Park as soon as facilities are completed.

“Prelude started here at DBI,” Koh says. “I asked Kris [Vaddi, Prelude founder and CEO] why he wanted to start up here, and he said he wanted to stay close to high-end equipment available next door. They’ve grown rapidly.” Indeed, the six-year-old clinical-stage precision oncology company, which is focused on “discovering and develop-ing small molecule therapies optimized to target the key drivers of cancer cell growth, resistance and survival,” is already fully staffed and is listed on Nasdaq (PRLD). Koh also cites the work DBI has done with the former White Dog Labs, now Superbrewed Food, whose cultured protein is the world’s first anaerobically fermented, whole-food protein made from a microbe found in nature.

Life sciences education at all levels is also a primary function of DBI, and that includes the advancement of science literacy, fostering of research training and the support in schools for training job candidates needed for advanced research positions in industry, academia and government.

One such program, which seeks to engage and inspire a corps of next-generation scientists, is the Science for All Delawareans (S4DE) initiative. S4DE includes a professional development program geared to helping K-12 teachers in Delaware stay up to date on the latest technologies and to offering ideas on how they can adapt these updated concepts in the classroom. One successful project worked with educators to incorporate into their curriculum topics such as sustainability, systems thinking, biomass feedstocks, liquid biofuels, bioheat, biopower, bioproducts, and public policy on bioenergy and bioproducts.

“We’re very enthusiastic about promoting academic-industry relationships to enhance work-force development,” Koh says. “Right now, industry is struggling to find employees with suitable train-ing needed for advanced scientific research. We’re trying to help make those connections.”

Finally, even in a high-tech world with exquisite research instruments, sometimes the best starting point is much more basic — someone to provide helpful counsel. “Lots of our staff do consulting with clients,” Koh says. “Our people are eager to share their expertise.”

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