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How Delaware Uses Its ‘Superpower’ To Advance Biopharmaceuticals

The University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus is home to both NIIMBL and DBI.

Kelvin Lee recalls a recent visit to the East Coast from a foreign trade group interested in advanced biopharmaceuticals manufacturing. To a casual observer, the group’s itinerary might have seemed unremarkable.

The group visited Boston, widely considered the preeminent biotechnology research and development hub in the United States, and Philadelphia, a top center for cell and gene therapy. But the group also made a point of visiting Delaware, where Lee is the director of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals — known as NIIMBL — and the Gore professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware.

“That surprised me in a pleasant way,” Lee said. “It meant that when they are thinking about this industry and where the opportunities are, Delaware is now on the map in ways that we certainly weren't 10 or 15 years ago.”

The data backs up Lee’s observation: 1 out of 6 U.S. pharmaceuticals workers is located in the Delaware region, and its concentration of biotech R&D workers is 1.5 times greater than the national average, according to the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, an economic development resource for the state.  

It is unsurprising that in a state long associated with DuPont, chemicals remain Delaware’s No. 1 manufacturing sector. The state also ranks ninth in the Milken Institute's State Technology and Science Index.

“The biotech industry is rapidly growing and expanding its domestic investment in manufacturing, and I think we have a lot of opportunities to capture some of that for our state,” Lee said. “We've already seen recent announcements of companies investing in Delaware, and I think there's a lot of opportunity to grow from there.”

NIIMBL’s work covers half of the biotech industry equation: manufacturing. Another group, the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, concentrates on R&D, the other important segment of an industry that depends on a continuous flow of scientific advances. Both NIIMBL and DBI are located on the University of Delaware's Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, known as STAR.

John Koh, DBI director and a professor in the University of Delaware’s chemistry and biochemistry department, agreed that the state has made strides to become an important industry player. He credited this success to the state’s talent base and efforts by both private and public institutions to raise its biotech profile.  

But Koh also pointed out another advantage often mentioned by members of Delaware’s business community.

“On the one hand, we're smaller than some other biotechnology hubs,” he said. “On the other hand, I always like to say that’s really Delaware's superpower because it's about how incredibly connected and cooperative the community here is. It means that from academia to businesses to our elected officials, it's not uncommon to get on a phone call with all three of those stakeholders to figure out how to assist a new company in getting off the ground here.”

Koh said that one of DBI’s core missions is to support a world-class life sciences research sector in Delaware that is dedicated to the improvement of agriculture, human health and the environment. It supports state-of-the-art research using disciplines such as bioimaging, genome sequencing, bioinformatics and flow cytometry. The knowledge generated by these efforts is accessible to all academics and business partners in the state, he said. 

Supporting the state’s scientific community is the DBI’s other major goal.

“We're talking about creating and training an advanced scientific and engineering workforce,” Koh said. “That allows us to attract world-class talent, who in turn can provide both scientific leadership and innovation in the region.”

Koh said the efforts of DBI and partner groups such as NIIMBL have led to more biotech companies moving to or starting up in Delaware. More than 3,300 science and technology companies call the state home, including Prelude Therapeutics, which was launched in Wilmington in 2016 to create next-generation precision oncology medicines.

“How quickly they got off the ground is really a testament to the fact that we have the resources and the talent here,” Koh said.

Another feather in Delaware’s cap was China-based WuXi STA’s decision to build a $510M pharmaceuticals manufacturing campus in Middletown. Once fully operational, the plant is expected to create nearly 500 jobs. He said that Delaware Technical Community College will work with the company to create programs to train associate-level scientists.

“When a company can get that kind of responsiveness to its needs, I think that's what makes Delaware so attractive to biotech companies,” Koh said.

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and the Delaware Prosperity Partnership. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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