The Innovation Space
5 years of tackling the world’s biggest problems.
In the five years since scientists using The Innovation Space in Wilmington first turned on the lights in the labs, the 130,000-square-foot campus has given them the tools needed to get closer to curing cancer and curbing climate change.
“It was set up to tackle the world’s more pressing problems,” says William Provine, founder, president and CEO.
The Innovation Space, located at the DuPont Experimental Station, isn’t just all laboratories, though. It also includes office space and rooms for collaboration, business-building and mentor program opportunities, a direct connection to service providers and raw materials and even funding.
Since its founding as a partnership between the state, DuPont and the University of Delaware, the space has helped connect new companies to about $720 million in funding, supported about 350 jobs and helped dozens of companies grow. Startup companies focusing on biotechnology, chemistry and material sciences can rent labs that are up to 1,200 square feet, with access to a slew of scientific equipment and customizable spaces.
“We’re a very fluid environment,” Provine says. “People come in, innovate, grow up, get large, get ready to graduate and move out.”
The Innovation Space’s original idea was to offer the technical support science and technology startups would need but may not necessarily be able to afford when they’re just starting out. The nonprofit model means Provine and his team are just one part of the puzzle. With board members representing state government and industry, they’re able to pull resources together to support business growth, he says.
“We can get companies up and running within days to a week,” Provine says. Each year, about 20 companies participate in The Innovation Space’s accelerator program, while the entire building is typically hosting anywhere from 15 to 25 companies working in the rented space.
Prelude and Versogen: Notable Success Stories
One of the first companies to take up residence was Prelude Therapeutics. Today, with over half a billion dollars in capital, the company is arguably The Innovation Space’s biggest success story — at least so far.
“The ecosystem that we are fortunate to be apart of, which is The Innovation Space and the DuPont Experimental Station, is truly a big part of what we’ve been able to do so far,” says Kris Vaddi, Prelude’s founder and CEO.
Vaddi, the same founding scientist behind Incyte Corp. and its successful Jakafi blood disorder treatment drug, says the support he received from the state and business ecosystem in Delaware during his 15 years with Incyte inspired him to build something new once again. Vaddi says he started Prelude with five people who had a vision of “creating a rich pipeline of optimized small molecule therapies for patients with underserved cancers.” Goals included treating a brain tumor, for example, with something far less harmful than chemotherapy.
Now, the team has four molecules in various phases of clinical testing, and is pushing the envelope in cancer treatment research, he says. But before his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in, Vaddi worked for DuPont, and actually spent a large portion of his career working in the same DuPont Experimental Station where Prelude has blossomed.
“It was actually pretty incredible that so many things have happened around us that allowed us to get back to the Experimental Station, to be part of The Innovation Space, and to slowly grow to where we are today with over 100 people,” Vaddi says. “Through COVID, and through all the challenges we’ve had, being part of an existing research ecosystem was incredibly important for us to be able to continue to thrive and survive and grow.”
Prelude is just one of dozens of companies that have taken advantage of The Innovation Space to get their start and proceeded to outgrow the space. In late 2021, the now-publicly traded company announced it will move to the Chestnut Run Innovation & Science Park west of Wilmington.
While Prelude has been working on curing cancer, another Delaware-based startup at TheInnovation Space aims to curb climate change.
Versogen, a company formerly known as W7 Energy and created in the University of Delaware laboratory of professor and engineer Yushan Yan, recently joined The Innovation Space thanks to winning the first Fast Pass Award in 2019 providing free lab space. For Yan, the space was critically important to Versogen’s growth. Not only did the space have the technical equipment needed for the green hydrogen research and development the tech company explores, but also professional support staff to offer assistance and carefully manage everyone’s safety.
“We didn’t do anything but buy a few reactors and glassware. And then we began,” the company’s CEO and co-founder says, adding that he saw entrepreneurship as a way to bridge a widening divide between academic research and real-world companies. “In our local area, we have always been strong in chemistry, with Gore and DuPont and now Chemours. We really need to play to our strengths.”
Provine says The Innovation Space is currently working with the state and others to build strong venture capital opportunities to support more successful startups like Prelude and Versogen. Provine says he expects to be able to offer another million dollars to invest in innovation through The Innovation Space next year.
“We’re not done by any stretch of the imagination,” Provine says. “The short game we’ve already been successful at: We’ve built companies that are becoming successful. The long game is to do that time after time.”