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Innovation

Science & Technology – Innovation to Success at All Levels

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The science and technology industry in Delaware continues to prosper and expand for three important reasons: a collaborative community atmosphere at the corporate, governmental and academic levels; a long, historical record of successful innovation by Delaware-based companies, and a willingness to embrace new opportunities, such as those in biotech and green energy, while maintaining its long-standing strengths in chemistry and pharmaceuticals.

Simon Cleghorn

According to the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the state ranks ninth in the Milken Institute’s 2020 State Technology & Science Index, has the fourth-highest U.S. concentration of PhDs working in health, science and engineering and maintains the highest concentration of chemical engineers of any state.

Delaware’s key employers in the science and tech sector innovate constantly to stay ahead in their burgeoning industry. For example, Adesis, a highly successful chemistry CRO, is providing key support to industries finding cures and treatments for therapeutic areas such as infectious disease and oncology, providing innovations in eye care and advancing work in organic light-emitting diodes and high-performance materials.

Chemours is working to make energy storage and management more efficient by using large-scale energy grids with flow batteries that take advantage of Chemours’ proprietary membrane technology.

DuPont has its eye in the sky with two of its inventions, Kapton and Kevlar, which are being deployed in the James Webb space telescope. Here on Earth, its photovoltaic solutions are making solar energy collection more efficient.

In a world increasingly in need of cleaner water, Solenis supplies specialty chemicals and water treatment solutions, with applications being executed through its more than 6,000 employees and 47 manufacturing facilities operating in 120 countries on five continents.

Datwiler has as a goal its own sustainable productivity, buying electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower, with 40% of its total electricity consumption at all plants coming from renewable energy sources.

QPS, which provides custom-built research services, helped make successful the global clinical study sites and facilities operating during the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are dozens of other examples of innovation among Delaware’s science and technology companies. Here is a more in-depth look at five such businesses of different sizes and at different points in the arc of their growths. Learn how they are creatively finding success in meeting a variety of challenges.

W. L. Gore: Thriving by Means of a Long-Term Vision
W. L. Gore & Associates is a rare business phenomenon— a 64-year-old business with a track record of inventing well-known consumer products such as Gore-Tex as well as high-performance Gore industrial products across many technical fields.It’s also a business with $3.8 billion in annual sales, 3,400 unique inventions and 11,000 employees (known as associates) worldwide, yet one which has nevertheless been able to remain privately owned. In fact, it is a tenet of Gore’s business strategy that private ownership is a key to providing it with the resources and patience needed for successful long-term planning.

One example of Gore’s work that’s of special interest in a world searching for green-fuel technology is the company’s proton exchange membrane (PEM). A thin yet strong membrane, it is at the heart of a fuel cell that conducts protons (hydrogen ions) between the electrodes which convert chemical to electrical energy and serves as an electrical insulator.

“We are exploring new ways to enhance the societal value of our innovations and new ways to support our customers as they research and develop new opportunities,” says Simon Cleghorn, a product specialist at Gore. “Our vision covers not only passenger and commercial vehicles, but also other types of mass transportation, including train, vessel, aerial mobility and more.”

According to Cleghorn, Gore’s fuel cell technology has already enabled introduction of more than 40,000 fuel-cell vehicles, thus eliminating more than 150,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions — “and that is just the beginning.” Already several commercial fuel-cell vehicles have been launched with Gore fuel-cell membranes, including the Toyota Mirai, the Honda FCX Clarity and multiple Hyundai models.

Gore is also actively working on supporting other hydrogen fuel cell applications, Cleghorn says, including applications in commercial and heavy-duty vehicles, forklifts for materials handling and portable and backup power units, among others. The beauty of fuel cells is that they generate electricity and heat using hydrogen and oxygen to drive an electro-chemical reaction instead of one with pollution-inducing combustion. The only byproduct of fuel cells is water.

As Cleghorn notes, fuel-cell vehicles are the only electric vehicles that replicate the age-old driving experience of traveling 300-400 miles on a single tank and refueling in just three to five minutes — without the tailpipe emissions. “The world cannot achieve its de-carbonization goals without taking priority actions today,” Cleghorn says, “and hydrogen fuel cell technology will need to play an important role in a broad mix of clean energy options.”

Gore PEM technology is not only enabling the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles, Cleghorn says, but is also contributing to the transition to clean energy. Since Gore’s entry into the fuel cell industry in the early 1990s, its fuel cell components have been used in thousands of applications worldwide.

Elyte Energy: Banking on Hydrogen Storage
When newly elected President Joe Biden first laid out his national energy proposals, Jalaal Hayes sensed his business was in the right place at the right time. As founder and CEO of Elyte Energy, Hayes and his fledgling firm are focused on making hydrogen’ suntapped energy accessible for off-grid applications, and Hayes saw the President’s clean energy plan, including hydrogen, as a big boost to Elyte’s business plan.

Jalaal Hayes

“The President just yesterday authorized $9.5 billion to hydrogen research,” Hayes pointed out during a recent interview, an authorization with $8 billion slated to go towards creating at least four regional hubs where hydrogen would be made.

Considerable roadblocks remain to hydrogen becoming a clean-fuel alter-native to gasoline, including high production costs and difficulty in producing it without causing additional pollutants. “But we’re not making hydrogen fuel,” Hayes emphasizes. “Our focus is on hydrogen storage usage, and right now we’re looking at applications such as powering all sorts of remote events that need energy, including outdoor festivals.” Last December, Elyte was one of five STEM companies to be awarded an Encouraging Development, Growth andExpansion (EDGE) Grant from the Delaware Division of Small Business to help carry it into the proof of concept.

Hayes received his doctorate in applied chemistry from Delaware State University in 2015 at the tender age of 22 and was awarded a patent in 2017 for the technology that is the foundation for Elyte — a hydrogen storage system comprised of lithium amide-magnesium hydride alloys.

Based in Dover, Elyte Energy was incorporated in November 2020, and in January 2021 it was accepted into The Innovation Space’s Science, Inc. accelerator program. “Right now we are working on research to lower the temperature [of the storage units] as well as finding ways we can better store the hydrogen,” Hayes says. “We’re not talking about big tanks, but very small containers.”

Ernie Dianastasis

The road ahead is one that Hayes has illuminated with challenging markers. “Our current plan calls for us to have a working prototype later this year, most likely in the third quarter,” Hayes says. If all goes well with the testing of that prototype, “then our goal is to have our first product for sale in mid- to late 2023,” he says.

It’s a goal that Hayes and Elyte are confident they can achieve.

The Precisionists, Inc.: Doing Well by Doing Good 
It is a story Ernie Dianastasis never tires of telling.He was running the largest IT company in Delaware when he got a call 10 years ago from then-Gov. Jack Markell. “We always had a strong record of supporting the community,” Dianastasis says, and Markell, the Chairman of the National Governors Association, had a guest from Denmark he wanted the businessman to meet. The subject was autism, and the guest was the founder of a company that had a track record of successful employment of autistic adults.

The two men hit it off and began collaborating on some projects and the guest, Thorkil Sonne, decided to relocate to the U.S. After the initial neurodiverse employment pilot projects proved successful, Dianastas is sold his interest in his former company in 2016 to form a new IT business, The Precisionists, Inc.

COURTESY OF THE PRECISIONISTS, INC./KAREN COWAN

Today, The Precisionists is an exemplary case of “doing well by doing good” and is registered as a Benefit Corporation, meaning a for-profit company with a socially aware agenda. “Seventy-five percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed,” Dianastasis says, and he has an ambitious goal to find employment for 10,000 adults with disabilities, including military veterans, over the next decade. 

The Precisionists’ primary focus is hiring autistic adults for IT jobs, but it also employs them for positions in back-office accounting, business process operations, quality control, light manufacturing and other functions. Today, The Precisionists is a national company with Innovation & Technology Centers (ITCs) in Nashville, Phoenix and Cleveland in addition to Wilmington. The company’s name, Dianastasis says, recognizes the fact that “autistic adults are known for working with detailed operations with precision and accuracy.”

“We’re in a fast-growing mode,” he says. “We’re planning to open two additional ITCs in the next six months and are hiring an additional 40 people in the first quarter.” New job candidates go through a four-week workforce assessment and training program, including learning life and corporate skills, he says. “These are neurodiverse people with a lot to offer.”

Local corporations such as Exelon (Delmarva Power), M&T Bank, CSC, W.L. Gore, the State of Delaware andDuPont, as well as Eaton in Cleveland and First Energy in Akron, are examples of client partners, Dianastasis says. The Precisionists works with these partners to define the project work and deliverables that ensure individual employees and teams will be successful. Once the candidates’ training programs are completed, they are either assigned to a project that is performed in one of The Precisionists’ ITCs or else to a project at one of the client’s sites, working as part of blended teams.

“We have employees where finding a job has meant so much to them,” Dianastasis says. “In addition to employment, they also learn social and life skills. They can use the job to put the rest of their lives together. Some have taken the opportunity to move from their parents’ homes to their own apartments, further allowing them to develop their own circle of friends. One bought his first car and now drives to work.

“Loved ones tell us they are seeing things they thought would never happen,” Dianastasis adds. “They say these adults are no longer being forced to live with constant rejections.”

Denovix: Succeeding in Providing Lab Solutions
Fred Kielhorn has an anniversary to celebrate, but he’s not sure when he will find time to do so — “maybe in the third quarter,” he says.

It was 10 years ago that Kielhorn founded DeNovix, Inc. to develop, manufacture and sell innovative products for the life science community, with an emphasis on higher technology optics and detection instruments. In the decade since, DeNovix has grown to where it has about 30 employees in its Wilmington headquarters. And, Kielhorn says, “In 2019, we launched the CellDrop line of cell counters with a patented design. For us, that was a major development.”

Fred Kielhorn

DeNovix is a good example of a startup STEM company that has found fertile ground in Delaware and, with good management and community assistance, has been able to develop and grow into a prospering business that adds value to the region’s biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industry.

Kielhorn began his career with DuPont and worked in catalysis R&D, process development, logistics and market development until he co-founded NanoDrop Technologies Inc., launching three successful products before that company was acquired three years later. Kielhorn next founded a venture capital firm before getting the entrepreneurial itch again with DeNovix.

In addition to the CellDrop line, DeNovix also markets the DS-11 series spectrophotometer/fluorometer, QFX fluorometer, DS-C spectrophotometer, cell counting assays and fluorescence quantification assay kits. “Today, we are mainly looking for new products that would complement our existing line,” Kielhorn says.

“Considering that most customer labs at least partially shut down during the pandemic, we’re doing better with sales than I expected,” he reports. He also believes that the fight against COVID might have sparked some sales to foreign researchers. Outside the U.S., DeNovix is represented by independent distributors, and Kielhorn says orders from Europe and the Middle East for multiple laboratory devices came during a critical time in COVID-19’s progression and appeared destined for coronavirus research.Inside the U.S., DeNovix instruments are represented by sales groups, and DeNovix then drop-ships orders to their intended user.

“I would say almost that all our instruments are purchased in the life sciences,” he says, “with about 60% being academic, 10% government laboratories, 10% biotech companies, 10% pharmaceuticals” and the rest to various buyers.

The primary headache DeNovixis now facing is one that many manufacturing firms are experiencing— a supply chain that has a few links missing. “We are presently having problems with something as simple as acquiring an injection-molded machine cover,” Kielhorn says, “but we’re also experiencing a circuit board shortage. The supplier has a 12-weeks backlog. Fortunately, we’re small enough that we don’t have the operating constraints of larger companies, and we’ve been able to do some redesigning.”

Which leads back to that 10-year anniversary. “We’re going to do some major celebration as soon as we can get product out the door,” Kielhorn says.“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still inside the tunnel.”

Incyte: 20 Years of Exploring Uncharted Territories
“Most of our research is into fields where no one has gone before, into uncharted territories,” says Hervé Hoppenot, chairman, president and CEO of Incyte, Delaware’s homegrown pharmaceuticals company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In fact, Incyte’s corporate slogan is “Solve On,” which provides both a practical approach and a philosophical positioning.

And there is much for Incyte to celebrate. In the last quarter of 2021, the company launched a new drug product, Opzelura (ruxolitinib), a cream indicated for atopic dermatitis. Nearly 19,000 patients were treated from the time of launch in mid-October until year end, adding depth to Incyte’s growing dermatology portfolio that complements its cancer-treatment line of drugs.Another dermatological cream for vitiligo is under priority regulatory review in the U.S. and Europe.

Hervé Hoppenot

The quarter also saw a 20% growth in revenue and a yearly growth of 17% for a total of $2.891 billion in product sales and royalty payments. Indeed, Incyte’s performance over the past five years has been exemplary — a compound annual growth rate of 25%.

Moreover, Incyte has just opened an additional facility at its Augustine Cut-off campus, a new building that expands the company’s footprint and which is providing additional state-of-the-art research facilities. The six-story structure is now home to various functional teams, including chemistry, clinical and biopharmaceutical development, clinical operations, quality assurance and supply chain.

Incyte’s approach to cancer treatment is indicative of the company’s some-times unorthodox methodology. “Cancer research and treatment has typically been to shoot the cancer cell” through targeted therapy, Hoppenot says.

“The newer approach is to treat the patient by boosting the immune system. Rather than treat the cancer, you treat the patient who has cancer. It’s a big shift.”

The approach will perhaps require a longer response to treatment but, hopefully, lead to a long period of remission.“If you don’t innovate as a company, you die,” Hoppenot says.

“If you allow your-self to go to sleep, you disappear.” Neither appears to be a likely event for Incyte.

Of its seven commercialized drugs, Incyte’s primary product is Jakafi, a cancer treatment approved in 2011 in the U.S. and 2012 in Europe, which now has annual sales of almost $600 million and several years of patent life remain-ing. “Jakafi may answer a number of needs and potential new applications,” Hoppenot says, which would further push revenue growth. “We have a network around the world that can help us develop and commercialize new drugs,” he says. Incyte’s European headquarters are located in Switzerland.

As with many companies in the science and technology environment, finding good employees, especially research scientists, is difficult, and Hoppenot cites several key open positions Incyte is looking to fill. That being said, the company still hired 550 employees last year.

Although most of Incyte’s people are now working onsite and only a handful remotely, Hoppenot reports that the company’s response to the initial COVID lockdown in March 2020 was inspiring.“ Everyone heard they had to go home, and they started grabbing their computers. They began almost immediately to self-organize [around tasks to be done] without missing a beat. None of this had to come from the top down!”

Solve on, indeed.

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