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The Dupont Legacy

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How corporate layoffs kickstarted Delaware’s innovation economy

When the DuPont family and its company transformed Delaware in the 1800s and 1900s, it seemed as though the company’s legacy would lie in gunpowder or chemicals. 

Ben duPont | Photo c/o duPont

But serial entrepreneur Ben duPont, for one, has posited that the company’s legacy may in fact be found elsewhere: with the number of new companies that have been formed since corporate layoffs began at DuPont in the early ‘90s.

As far as Wall Street is concerned, the most important part of the DuPont corporate family tree involves the 2015 merger with Dow and subsequent split into firms specializing in agriculture (Corteva), specialty products (DuPont) and material science (Dow). But the legacy of companies created from DuPont or by DuPonters dates back much earlier, with companies started by energetic entrepreneurs offering immense potential for Delaware’s economy.

DuPont’s downsizing, selloffs and massive restructuring “created many small spinoff companies, plus innovative scientists and businesspeople who left to start their own new businesses,” says Mike Bowman, president and CEO of Delaware Technology Park, who counted 31 such ventures as far back as 2007. “That is not all bad, as it becomes a ‘reseeding’ of the economy if they stay local — as did Incyte, QPS, GE Aerospace and others.”

“My ancestors were entrepreneurs, and one of the remarkable things about the company was its ability to change,” Ben duPont says, referring to the firm’s pivot from gunpowder to chemistry to science. “There was a combination of chemistry and an entrepreneurial way of thinking.”

Through its field engineering program, the company nurtured Ben duPont and several hundred new hires a year on their career and mindset. The program, which involved postings in different cities and departments, developed generalists capable of creative thinking, he says. “DuPont wanted to make the world a better place, and Delaware a better place in the process.” 

That philosophy thrives today among former employees who are leading and creating companies in and near Delaware. 

Spinoffs keep innovation going

The legacy of companies coming from DuPont goes back to at least 1912, with the creation of Hercules and Atlas, after the government forced DuPont to split up its explosives business. Following mergers and new names, Hercules does business as Ashland Global Holdings on Hercules Road, and Atlas works on pharmaceuticals as AstraZeneca in Fairfax.

Another early DuPont spinoff is W.L. Gore & Associates, founded in 1958 by ex-DuPonter Bill Gore and his wife Vieve. Gore, headquartered in Newark, is known for Gore-Tex and other innovations in polymers, backed up by 5,500 patents. 

Siemens Healthineers, with opera-tions south of Newark, and Agilent Technologies, with operations outside Wilmington, both have DuPont roots.

Chemours spun off from DuPont in 2015. Today, the company is known for its “world-class, problem-solving chemistry,” says Erich Parker, once DuPont’s global director of corporate communications and now Chemours’ senior vice president for corporate communications and chief brand officer. “It is the foundation of our own research and development now centered in our new Discovery Hub adjacent to the University of Delaware campus.”

The $150 million Hub keeps 330 research jobs in New Castle County, Chemours says. It’s a long-term partnership with the university, and it helps Chemours fulfill its promise to meet emerging customer needs, satisfy new market demands and deliver higher-value chemistry.

Paula Swain | Photo c/o Incyte

Incyte is a biopharmaceutical firm that set up Delaware operations in 2002 and is now based just outside Wilmington. “DuPont Pharmaceuticals’ focus was on research and development and innovation,” says Executive Vice President of Human Resources Paula Swain, a founding member of Incyte. Swain was one of many ex-DuPonters who wanted to stay in Delaware when DuPont Pharmaceuticals was sold. “As we started Incyte, we sought to continue [DuPont’s] drive and commitment to innovation. We built a first-class drug discovery engine based on how we had conducted research at DuPont; we hired, and continue to hire, very experienced chemists and biologists who feed the product pipeline we have today; and we maintain the belief that good science drives the discovery of good medicines that ultimately lead to new and pioneering treatments for patients.”

Incyte’s impact on Delaware’s research landscape has been tremendous. “Incyte is frankly bigger than Gore,” says Bowman. Incyte leader Paul Friedman, he adds, “is a genius in drug discovery and had a team that followed him.”

  “As with many organizations, as DuPont Pharma grew, so did its infrastructure and processes,” says Swain. “At Incyte, our aim has been to establish a culture and structure that fosters creativity, innovation and risk-taking [while eliminating] bureaucracy. By working in cross-functional teams and reducing layers of management, Incyte has remained nimble and able to successfully drive innovation.”

STRIDE began as a Delaware nonprofit in 2016, started by a group of 100-plus scientists from DuPont’s central R&D; it now also has a for-profit subsidiary. STRIDE CEO Debra Massouda, a 25-year former DuPont employee, says an important lesson from DuPont rose from handling disparate projects. “It’s a way of lateral thinking. How is this new project like what we did before? It’s also a way of bringing different ideas together to be inventive.” 

STRIDE — which stands for the Science, Technology and Research Institute of Delaware — operates out of a DuPont Experimental Station building run as an incubator by Delaware Innovation Space. As a smaller concern, “we’re closer to the customer than DuPont,” Massouda says, and therefore faster to adapt to the market. “And the market is telling us there’s growing interest in materials science.”

Entrepreneurs apply DuPont’s lessons 

Beyond spinoffs, DuPont’s legacy can be felt in the lessons learned by the many First State entrepreneurs who cut their teeth there.

QPS, a Newark-based contract research organization supporting drug development, began in 1996 with three people, all DuPonters, and today employs 1,200. Zamas Lam, senior vice president and global head of business development at QPS, says he learned disparate skills during four assignments and eight years at DuPont, all helping him to lead QPS as it grows. 

Lam says DuPont called itself “lean, green and mean, yet it was none of them.” By contrast, QPS is “lean, green and focused.”

Jeff Fetterman’s 18 years at DuPont taught him three types of know-how: leadership, domain-specific and general business. “DuPont had great people, and I learned a lot from them. Not all other businesses work with the same degree of professionalism,” he says, adding that those skills included conceptualizing a project and getting it done, and navigating regulatory agencies. He used those skills to co-found and sell two companies, Empower Health and ParagonRx. Since then, he’s been consulting, leading a private equity firm and volunteering those business skills.

Scott Peacock, who began at DuPont Central Research & Development in 1984, started an analytical chemistry business as a side gig in 2010. “With the upheaval at DuPont in 2017 and the year-over-year growth of [my company] First State IR,” the Hockessin resident chose to retire from DuPont and devote his time to his firm.

“I learned so much during my tenure at DuPont, it’s tough to put into words. I had the privilege of working with brilliant, world-class scientists from all over the globe who taught me more than could ever be learned in an academic setting,” he says. “Beyond that, the continuing development of ‘soft skills’ was priceless. Problem solving, troubleshooting, data-based decision making, juggling multiple priorities and appreciating diverse cultures are just a few of the skills that I will always carry with me.”

Rashi Akki credits her 20 years at DuPont with the broad skill set she needed in 2014 to found Ag-Grid Energy, which ferments manure and food waste to produce power. “The only reason I could do it was my experience at DuPont,” she says, ticking off sales, project management and business plans.

CECON was founded in 1985 by DuPonters, mostly engineers, according to ex-DuPonter Sam Waltz, who bought the Newport-based consultancy in 2019. Whenever he’s with a group of former DuPonters, he recognizes “a similar behavioral pattern built on direction, built on an engineering mandate and built on a planning ethic. It’s part of the water, part of the culture.”

By Ken Mammarella

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