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Northern Delaware Is Growing Its Own Life Sciences Industry Rather Than Waiting For Overflow From Philly

As the life sciences demand in Philadelphia has created a race to develop space or risk losing tenants to places like King of Prussia, Northern Delaware has largely not been a contender. It just happens to be thriving anyway.


“I’m always surprised at how separate the Wilmington area is from the city and the Pennsylvania suburbs,” Buccini/Pollin Group co-President Chris Buccini told Bisnow. “Especially considering how many people live in Philly and work in Delaware and vice versa, Wilmington always is considered very separate … It’s the funniest thing.”

What Northern Delaware does have is two reliable sources of talent and startup companies: The University of Delaware and DuPont, the leftover company from the 2017 merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical and subsequent spinoff into three separate entities. Just as the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia birthed the cell and gene therapy boom, Delaware’s own growth in life sciences resembles its major pillars.

At Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, researchers have pioneered genomic testing for rare genetic disorders — disorders like those that Spark Therapeutics and its competitors seek to treat and cure with gene therapy, Nemours Enterprise Chief Scientific Officer Mary Lee said. Several spinoffs from DuPont make technological products and materials that are used in the development and production of advanced biotherapeutics, Delaware Biotechnology Institute interim Director John Koh said.

“Whether you’re talking about [supporting] early discovery stages, development or manufacturing, those are all pieces of the biotherapeutics space, and Delaware has been very strategic about not duplicating what’s happening in Philadelphia,” Koh said. “We’re always trying to find a place where we can have a unique edge.”

DuPont’s pending sale of much of its Chestnut Run headquarters campus to MRA Group, which converted the former Dow complex in Montgomery County to Spring House Innovation Park, paves the way for a redevelopment that can produce nearly 500K SF of leasable life sciences space, aside from what DuPont is leasing back from MRA to maintain its operations there. MRA Group claims that its first available space will be up and running next summer, Delaware Prosperity Partnership Director of Innovation Ariel Gruswitz said.

In Newark, Delle Donne & Associates has developed multiple phases of UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research campus, where academic research sits alongside startups, midsized companies and organizations like the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, in addition to research space devoted to gene editing for Christiana Care, the largest healthcare employer in the state, Gruswitz said. It also contains 150 more acres available for further construction.

Another tenant at the STAR campus is also an example of where Delaware can possibly take advantage of what Philly lacks: the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals, or NIIMBL, which was awarded $153M in new federal funding on Thursday.

A building at DuPont's Chestnut Run headquarters complex in Wilmington, Delaware.

Created out of an Obama-era policy to boost domestic manufacturing, NIIMBL functions as a contract development and manufacturing organization, trade advocacy group and workforce development operation all in one. The organization is funded by a combination of industry dollars and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a sub-agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“It’s about industry finding ways, rather than working independently on various projects, to come together to work on fundamental projects that could transform the industry,” Koh said. “It’s always led by industry saying what they want to look into.”

Biomanufacturing is a dire need for gene and cell therapy companies trying to grow from startup to midsized, and even more so for those attempting to make the jump beyond that. If Northern Delaware manages to fund biomanufacturing construction faster than Philadelphia, it may not draw companies away, but it could plausibly create a niche for contract development and manufacturing organizations. 

Wuxi Apptec, the Chinese CDMO that has expanded rapidly at the Philadelphia Navy Yard servicing the city’s cell and gene therapy needs, announced in late June it will build a 1.7M SF facility on a 190-acre site in Middletown. That municipality in New Castle County also is home to a 1M SF Amazon fulfillment center, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Though the facility will produce traditional pharmaceuticals, Wuxi’s decision exemplifies two key advantages Delaware has in luring more life sciences manufacturers: a multifaceted support infrastructure and available land.

From Gov. John Carney to the state legislature to its business community, Delaware is a more focused and unified engine for business recruitment than Pennsylvania, multiple experts told Bisnow. The state awarded Wuxi $19M in funding for infrastructure, construction and workforce development, an incentive package that was approved unanimously by a committee of state legislators, the Inquirer reports.

“There’s a special strength in Delaware in terms of access to partnerships,” Delaware Innovation Space co-founder, President and CEO Bill Provine said. “People take you more seriously in Delaware than they would in a larger state. Harrisburg is pretty different in terms of how it interacts with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.”

An aerial view of the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware taken in 1997.

Nearly four years ago, the Delaware Innovation Space was created by a partnership between the state government, DuPont and the University of Delaware as an incubator for early stage life sciences companies. Its 130K SF footprint at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington is 99% occupied, but one of its success stories, Prelude Therapeutics, held its initial public offering last fall and is set to graduate to a larger space, Provine said. When that happens, over 50K SF will become available for the next wave of startups.

The other advantage Wuxi’s announcement demonstrated is the readily available land for development, cheaper in most cases than what one can find in Philly or its western suburbs. There are several greenfield sites dotting Northern Delaware similar to the one Wuxi chose, if a bit smaller, Provine and Gruswitz said.

BPG, which only has one lab building in its Delaware portfolio, will include life sciences in its forthcoming mixed-use development on the east side of the Christina River in Wilmington, as well as in a redevelopment of the former Concord Plaza office complex in North Wilmington, Buccini said.

“Going forward, I think you’ll see more life sciences in our portfolio,” Buccini said. “I wouldn’t say a ton more, but considerably more. We’re a mixed-use development firm, so it’s just going to be part of what we do.”

As it stands, there isn’t much life sciences space to speak of in Wilmington proper, which aside from the DuPont Experimental Station, is dominated by office space on the commercial side. But unlike the stark divide between University City and King of Prussia, for example, Wilmington is just a part of a Northern Delaware landscape with some small urban, suburban and even rural space surprisingly close together.

“If you want to live in downtown Philly or Wilmington, you can do that, or you can also live on a farm in rural New Castle County and work wherever,” Provine said. “The flexibility and the optionality is the strength of the area.”