If there is a bright side to the downsizing and layoffs at DuPont, Chemours and AstraZeneca, it could be that adventuresome entrepreneurs who want to invest in chemistry and bioscience startups will find a rich talent pool in Delaware, with thousands of highly-educated scientists and researchers. In fact, Delaware has one of the largest number of chemistry researchers per capita in the country. The Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA) is an organization that connects chemists, entrepreneurs, policy leaders and industry stakeholders with each other, and their goal is to support chemical sustainability innovation and commercialization in Delaware. This alliance could be critical in the months ahead as thought leaders and legislators consider their commitment to the life sciences and sustainable chemistry arenas.
Town Square Delaware sat down with DESCA Board President and Chairperson Dr. Bryan Tracy to better understand the DESCA’s mission and vision and asked, can the DESCA help support the future of chemical innovation in Delaware?
Town Square Delaware: Delaware’s chemical giants are suffering layoffs, and the mood appears grim. So what’s the value of fostering chemical innovation in Delaware?
Tracy: Delaware’s chemical talent – technology, business, IP, supply chain, etc. – is second to none in the world. Consequently, the C-level (i.e., CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) talent that is required to champion new chemical innovations from proof of concept to commercial revenues, lives and breathes in Delaware!
This talent base is a HUGE asset to the state that must have start-up business and technology opportunities to remain engaged with, otherwise the talent will to move out of the region. Also, the chemical industry is a multi-trillion dollar industry worldwide that hires a diversity of personnel from highest educated researchers to well paid manufacturing personnel.
Small innovations in chemical technologies, particularly sustainable chemistries, can lead to massive commercial opportunities that create JOBS! It can create a diversity of jobs for which Delaware already has the human capital, infrastructure and history of success to cultivate.
TSD: Does DESCA have programs that can support researchers recently laid off from DuPont and Chemours?
Tracy: DESCA has several resources for folks in transition. First and foremost, DESCA is rolling out their newest initiative called Innovation 2 Invoice (I2I) – http://www.desustainablechem.org/innovation-2-invoice.html. I2I aims to assist entrepreneurs and industrial R&D companies improve effectiveness of R&D by identifying technologies/applications earlier in the development process and to focus on value-adding activites. I2I also helps facilitate innovation by enabling teams to collaborate and exchange ideas on how to solve real world challenges. This initiative begins February 2016.
DESCA also hosts workshops on supply chain analysis, forums on chemical sustainability topics, lunch and learns on a myriad of topics such as how to raise seed investment to how to strategically partner with large multinational companies, and supporting programs such as Inspiring Women in Stem.
Finally, DESCA maintains a network of chemical industry experts who are available to coach, mentor or take on leadership roles in new companies. Our website also provides information on non-dilutive funding opportunities for helping innovators fund early stage chemical technology development.
TSD: Why is sustainable chemistry is good for society? And is sustainable chemistry an expensive proposition?
Tracy: Sustainable chemistry aims to create and implement technologies that allow humans to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This includes all facets of sustainability, namely environmental, economic and social concerns. The world’s developed population will increase of ~ 2.5 billion today to potential 5 – 6 billion by 2050. That growth in developed population will increase consumption of precious natural resources, and can significantly increase the average carbon intensity (i.e., CO2 emissions) of human activity. Chemical production is accountable for ~15% of all oil consumption. Accordingly, small implementations of sustainable chemistry have profound impacts on mitigating CO2 emissions, and reducing our world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
A major misconception is that sustainability has to be expensive. New technologies can often times be more expensive, as they are competing against ingrained, highly optimized incumbent technologies that have reached economies of scale. A sustainable technology replacement may take some time to reach that same state of optimization and scale, which gives a perception that the technology is more expensive, when in fact it is not in the long term. Moreover, sustainable technologies could have an increased upfront cost, such as solar panels or LED lights, but over the life of the product, the user receives the payback, perhaps several fold in cost savings. Lastly, sustainability is not strictly an economic consideration. Economics is only one leg of the the pillars of sustainability. The other two are social and environmental, which often times have tremendous value that is simply more difficult to quantify.
TSD: What are some of the cool chemical products that have been developed or are under development that DESCA has supported?
Tracy: DESCA facilities connections, provides assistance in accessing capital and provides support to fill needs of the technology innovator. My own company, Elcriton, has benefitted greatly from DESCA’s assistance. Specifically, I met one of our most valuable advisors through a DESCA event. In less than two months after meeting this individual, I was signing commercial contracts with one of the world’s largest chemical companies that was developing renewable chemical technologies that needed our assistance. Other technology fields that DESCA has assisted innovators in directly include cellulosic sugar hydrolysis, municipal waste water treatment, corrosion resistant coatings, and novel heat pumps.
TSD: What are the challenges to chemical industry entrepreneurs in Delaware? And does DESCA have plans for establishing shared workspaces in Delaware?
Tracy: Rentable, wet-lab space with flexible lease terms and access to shared equipment is a major challenge in Delaware. Accordingly, DESCA is working with local entities to solve this issue through a scaleable approach that co-locates near other valuable resources such as University of Delaware core research facilities. Plans for such space are not finalized, but we hope to make a formal announcement of such developments and our partners in the next two months.
TSD: What support are you able to offer to chemical engineers from the University of Delaware?
Tracy: Chemical engineers at University of Delaware are encouraged to utilize and all of our resources. In particular though, we hope to see graduate students, post-docs, research associates and faculty members participate in our I2I program. As mentioned, I2I has the ability to connect cutting edge research with industry problems that translate into commercial revenues. DESCA sincerely hopes that our activities encourage more entrepreneurship in sustainable chemistries, with technology emanating out of world-class laboratories in the various colleges at UD.
TSD: Part of your work is in the policy area. But what about education? Does the DESCA ever bring experts together to discuss STEM education and specifically “green” and “environmental” chemistry education in schools?
Tracy: That is an excellent question, and has not to date been a central focus of DESCA. However, this topic is especially near and dear to my heart, as I have the privilege to serve on the board of FAME – Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering. Similar to the approach FAME has taken, DESCA would likely bring green and environmental chemistry topics to the class through collaborations with other non-profits that are already offering STEM education options to students.
Dr. Bryan Tracy, PhD, is the CEO and co-founder of White Dog Labs, Inc. which focuses on inventing and commercializing biochemical technology to produce renewable chemicals and biofuels. He is a primary inventor on multiple patent applications, an author on numerous scientific publications, a guest lecturer at the University of Delaware, a technology-to-market consultant for the Department of Energy Advanced Research Program Administration, and board chair for the for the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance.