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Delaware Offers Support to Help Businesses of All Sizes Thrive

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The Mill | MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY / JIM COARSE

“We never push them out. We help them grow.”

That’s how Mike Bowman summarizes the philosophy that has helped the Delaware Technology Park boost more than 150 companies, creating some 16,000 jobs and triggering more than $1 billion in grants and investments in the past 25 years.

From humble beginnings on University of Delaware property east of the main campus, the technology park, directed by Bowman, has steadily expanded and now includes a building on UD’s STAR Campus, the science-technology hub that has risen from the rubble of a former Chrysler auto assembly plant.

Bowman’s guiding principle, however, is not confined to the technology park, or even to STAR Campus. Rather, it’s a commitment shared at business incubators and accelerators throughout the state, making Delaware a desirable location for entrepreneurs who want to start and grow their new ventures.

Another Delawarean committed to supporting businesses is Bill Provine, president and CEO at Innovation Space, the biotech launching pad housed on the grounds of the DuPont Co.’s Experimental Station outside Wilmington. Besides lab facilities, The Innovation Space offers a trove of advice, mentoring and connections, he says. “With a startup, you want to learn what you don’t know as early as you can. All those things that entrepreneurs think about later, they should be thinking about now, and that’s how we help.”

Such needs for new businesses aren’t confined to the science and technology fields.

Rob Herrera, founder of The Mill co-working space, offers a similar message. For a startup, “to prepare your own workspace is a project in and of itself. Here, you just come into a turnkey situation,” he says. And there’s more. “It’s hard to build a business in a silo. Here you get a network of people that help each other, to bounce ideas off, to share experiences, to ask for help and find it,” he says.

The Mill doesn’t offer lab space at its sites, but it’s a destination for budding marketers, graphic designers, lawyers, accountants, business coaches and fintech entrepreneurs. The same is true for the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Emerging Enterprise Center (EEC), located on Wilmington’s Riverfront.

Not only does the EEC offer desk space and typical office supports, it provides access to a much larger network of connections. “You’re walking into a community of entrepreneurs in an organization that has helped businesses collaborate for 100 years,” says Cathy Holloway, the center’s program manager.

The Number-One State to Do Business

Such expressions of support and collaboration are music to the ears of Regina Mitchell, who recently took over as director of Delaware’s Division of Small Business. “Our goal,” Mitchell proclaims, “is to make Delaware the number one state in the nation to start and grow a business.”

As entrepreneurs make their start, many reach out to her office in early stages of development, Mitchell says, “to learn how to navigate, to figure out how to set up and grow.” The office’s regional managers guide new businesses to the appropriate contacts within state and local governments and to the various incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces.

In addition, Mitchell’s office will have a hand in distributing some $60.9 million in federal funds available to open credit lines and provide access to working capital for small businesses. The money is part of the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) and the spigot was opened by the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The feds will distribute the funds in three equal tranches of $20.3 million each, to be used over the next 10 years, Mitchell says.

The funds will be used to continue the state’s Capital Access Program (CAP) and the Loan Participation Program (LPP) created with SSBCI funding 12 years ago and to launch an earlystage venture capital program and an accelerator and seed capital program.

Mitchell says her office aims to allocate at least 30% of the SSBCI funds to startups led by underserved owners and managers — minorities, women, veterans — or those located in rural or geographically underserved communities.

Details on applying for the funding should be available in early summer and the first distributions should be made late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter of the year, she says.

EDGE Grants and Other Funding Opportunities

SSBCI is but one of the loan and grant programs available through the Division of Small Business. Businesses that have fewer than 10 employees and have been operating for less than seven years may also qualify for the state’s EDGE Grants, Mitchell says. (EDGE stands for Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion.) The state has two award cycles each year. In each cycle, five STEM companies can receive grants of up to $100,000 and five entrepreneurial companies can receive grants of up to $50,000. More than $4 million in grants have already been awarded through this program.

While money is important for startups, it’s not all that matters. Incubators and accelerators have created an array of programming to help jumpstart new businesses.

Innovation Space, for example, offers three programs for science entrepreneurs in the early stages of development:

  • Spark Factory provides 10 to 20 hours of mentoring over two months as founders learn how to pitch their businesses.
  • The Science Inc. accelerator is a 14-week program to help startups achieve business milestones, build a network of peers and entrepreneurs and pitch their businesses to investors.
  • First Fund provides early-stage startups with up to $200,000 in cash (via a convertible note), lab space and support services.

At the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, science and fintech startups not only find state-of-theart office and lab space, they can also tap into an innovative ecosystem of students and faculty, says Tracy Shickel, UD’s associate vice president for corporate engagement. Undergraduate students provide a pool of interns and future employees; graduate students and faculty can provide advice and support as growing companies encounter new challenges.

As one example, Shickel points to a program called “Spin In,” part of the university’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships. Spin In partners interdisciplinary groups of students to work with emerging businesses for a semester, or even an academic year, to solve problems in areas where the startup is lacking expertise — say, a life sciences startup that needs help with its accounting or a marketing plan. Spin In has meeting space on the STAR Campus, so student teams and businesses can work together 24/7, not just during regular work hours.

Other UD assets that entrepreneurs can access include government relations specialists at the Biden School of Public Policy & Administration and business and entrepreneurial experts at the Lerner College of Business & Economics and the Horn Entrepreneurship program.

Many of the entrepreneurs setting up in Delaware already have connections to the state, either through one of its universities or from employment at DuPont or other large businesses, according to the experts interviewed for this article. But The Innovation Space has attracted entrepreneurs from throughout the mid-Atlantic; both the Delaware Technology Park and The Mill have hosted entrepreneurs from overseas.

One reason for Delaware’s popularity, The Mill’s Herrera says, is that costs in the state tend to be lower than elsewhere on the Interstate 95 corridor. “Think about the burn rate of capital,” he says. “If you were starting out in New York City, you’d burn out quickly. Here you can have New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., clients at Delaware prices.”

Equally important, most Delaware advocates say, is Delawareans’ willingness to share their talents, programs and connections. Patrons at one facility will likely find themselves welcomed at any other.

“It comes down to a lot of warm, genuine attention,” the Technology Park’s Bowman says. “We’re not competitive. We’re complementary.”

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