Q&A with Charlie Riordan – University of Delaware
While there are many centers of research and academic excellence in the state of Delaware, the University of Delaware is undoubtedly the giant that looms over them all. In the past 10 years alone, UD representatives have formed 35 startups and been issued 131 patents. Ten years also just so happens to be the length of time that Charlie Riordan, UD’s vice president for research, scholarship & innovation, has worked in his current position (he originally joined UD as a researcher in 1997). With Riordan getting ready to depart for a new role at Hofstra University, we asked him to reflect on his time at UD, including some of the most exciting changes he witnessed during his tenure.
What does “innovation” mean to you, and how is that definition embodied by the work happening at UD?
When I think of innovation, I think about the creation of a new idea or product that has the potential to impact society. At UD, this is manifested by executing on our tripartite mission of scholarly research, education and economic impact. Innovation and entrepreneurship is also one of the pillars in our current strategic plan. Each day on our campus, our world-class faculty nurtures in our students a curiosity for the betterment of society. Programmatic efforts include the Innovation Fellows [a program that offers enrichment opportunities to students from any major who demonstrate an entrepreneurial mindset], the Horn Entrepreneurship program and our SpinIn Program [which gives students a chance to apply their knowledge to real problems faced by entrepreneurs and startups]. Importantly, we strive to ensure each student, regardless of their major, has a robust entrepreneurial education experience, because entrepreneurship is as much a mindset as anything else.
What are some of the proudest achievements of UD researchers over the past year or so?
Certainly, there is a lot to be proud of. One thing is the renewal and expansion of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals, or NIIMBL. The U.S. Department of Commerce last summer announced new investments that are really designed to ensure that the U.S. maintains a leadership position in biopharmaceutical manufacturing innovation and workforce development. There was one $83 million investment from the American Rescue Plan Act and then, in addition to that, there was a $70 million investment, so $153 million in all. The second one was a five-year renewal of the original NIIMBL five-year award. Those renewed investments really signal the confidence the government has in NIIMBL and will further cement Delaware’s place as an epicenter for manufacturing innovation and workforce development in the biosciences. The second example I would offer is a large-scale project funded by the National Institutes of Health, looking at cardiovascular disease. The university recently received a renewal of what’s referred to as the COBRE [Center of Biomedical Research Excellence] award. It’s designed to build research capacity, both in terms of people and research infrastructure to ensure UD and Delaware are competitive in biomedical research.
How has the addition of STAR Campus changed the kinds of work UD is able to do?
It has really been a game changer. I often say that the STAR Campus has metaphorically and literally changed UD’s engagement with the community, moving it from the stereotypical academic ivory tower to a permeable membrane facilitating the ready flow of people, ideas and products into and out of the university. The STAR Campus facilitates industry coming to the university to develop partnerships and educational opportunities. Furthermore, the STAR Campus has become a signature economic development asset for the state and region. We have physical therapy and speech-language pathology clinics that provide state-of-the-art clinical care for community members as well as robust training environments for future health care professionals. In terms of recent physical construction, we have the Chemours Discovery Hub— Chemours does the bulk of their R&D at the STAR Campus. There’s the Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center, which houses NIIMBL and other UD research projects, and soon to be opened later this spring, we have the fintech building. Those projects alone have added more than 600,000 square feet of space.
You have plans to depart UD this summer, after 25 years working for the university. In that time, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve observed at UD and in Delaware’s science and tech landscape as a whole?
I came to Delaware because I thought the professional opportunity and quality of life were remarkable, and 25 years later, I’m not sure I recognize the campus and the community in certain ways. The industry has transformed. Twenty-five years ago, DuPont was the largest private-sector employer in the state. It remains a vibrant global company with a very different workforce, so that created a lot of opportunities for the state to really transform itself into an environment for innovation and entrepreneurship, where we’re building an ecosystem that allows innovations to become products and products to become companies. I think what strikes me about Delaware and this entire ecosystem is the growth of the entrepreneurial infrastructure — both the places and people and facilities that are available. And what makes Delaware a special place is the ability to collaborate across the private sector, with the county, state and federal government, higher education and nonprofits for the greater good.
What has impressed me over that time is the really steadfast commitment of leadership. I’ve worked with multiple governors and the federal delegation — they get it. They’ve advocated consistently to grow Delaware’s economy so it continues to be a vibrant place to live and work. I’ll give you one example that brings all of that to life: the launch and growth of The Innovation Space. It now sits on the DuPont Experimental Station campus in north Wilmington on 130,000 square feet of world-class laboratory collaboration space. It was launched in July of 2017 in the middle of a difficult economic environment. DuPont had recently announced further downsizing and merging with Dow. In the midst of all of that uncertainty, DuPont and UD leadership and the state government came together and co-invested in this incubation space because we all knew that we needed such a space to provide resources for new companies to grow and launch and succeed. So in just five short years since The Innovation Space has opened, it has supported more than 50 companies. The Innovation Space has created or retained more than 360 jobs and the companies that have been supported or housed there have raised almost three quarters of a billion dollars in capital. So it continues to be a vibrant piece of this collaborative ecosystem.
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