First state moving toward technology’s forefront

Aurthur Taggi, Ph.D., of Lightwave Logic, works in a wetlab at the Dealware Technology Park

It’s a weekday in New Castle County, and the tech startups of downtown Wilmington are finessing the expanding details of their infant businesses, ideas borne from a “we-should-really-do-this” attitude and the hope that investors might see potential.

Fewer than 15 miles away, in the offices of the Delaware Technology Park, four separate buildings are home to 54 tenants — science and tech based businesses flourishing in an infrastructure intended to accelerate success.  It includes private funding resources and a vital relationship with the University of Delaware.

In the meantime, nurses at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children are getting ready to integrate a new app into their system of care that will streamline communication between them and reduce the assembly of noises that can frustrate families and patients.

It is these innovators, entrepreneurs and academics that drive the technology landscape in Delaware. Business leaders and investors hungry to advance and utilize emerging technologies bolster the state’s reputation as one that’s serious about progress. Throw in tech giants like AstraZeneca, duPont, Gore and ILC Dover as a backdrop, a state government that’s paved the way for Cloud-based technology — it’s little wonder that others have taken notice.

Delaware In the Clouds

Every so often, officials from the Department of Technology and Information (DTI) send emails to state employees that they shouldn’t open.  The exercise is a security assessment to track how many state employees open emails they don’t recognize.  With the biggest risk to most state agencies an internal one, DTI Interim Secretary William Hickox said that security remains the top issue for the state, a focus that will continue to dominate its list of priorities.

Last year, South Carolina’s Department of Revenue reported a massive security breach where millions of SSNs were stolen along with thousands of credit and debit card numbers. Their point of entry was an email opened by a state employee.

“Security is an ongoing scenario,” said Hickox.  “Two years ago the failure rates (of the email test) were in the double digits.  Now they’re not.”  Efforts also include information sharing with the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center, a focal point for cyber threat prevention, protection, response, and recovery for the nation’s state and local governments.  A Security Threat Response Manager is in the planning stage, an initiative that will increase the ability of officials to see and stop cyber attacks much more quickly than before, according to Hickox.

As the first state to move into Cloud services in 2009, consolidation of IT resources has been key as the department answers to Governor Jack Markell’s 2010 executive order.  According to DTI records, the department is responsible for delivering a full range of information and communication technology for roughly 33,000 state employees, including school districts and branches of government.

To date, roughly 85 percent of the servers in the state have moved into Delaware’s private cloud system as part of its “Cloud First” policy. In addition, state IT techs have been rolling out Software As a Service solutions, a cloud based delivery business model, as part of their massive plan to integrate its services into one application.

“With the IT consolidation effort, it’s going to result in reduced cost and better service,” said Hickox.

DTI is also pursuing Geographic Information System (GIS) Infrastructure Consolidation, an enterprise information plan to manage and disseminate geographic information, and then to house it in a single hub to be utilized among state agencies, departments and counties.

“It’s about efficiency,” said Hickox.  “We want citizens to have the most up to- date data.”  The state has also announced plans this summer to expand broadband to Sussex County and will soon award a $2 million grant to one or more private companies that offer the best use of the recently completed Middletown-to-Georgetown fiber line. Applications are currently under review.

Meet-ups, Startups and Technical.ly Delaware

If there’s strength in numbers, then Wilmington’s tech scene is thriving.  In the last five years, tech-based startups have cropped up through the city, adding substance to its growing reputation as a vigorous hub.

Christopher Wink - “Any subculture --whether it’s arts or food– needs to start with a lot of experiments and connections because that will improve standards,” he said. “We want to put ourselves on a national stage and you don’t do that without welcoming a lot of new faces to the conversation.’’

Christopher Wink, founder of the tech-news website Technical.ly Delaware, said the state’s growing tech culture was good reason for his team to expand his efforts in this direction.  (He also publishes Technical.ly Philly and Technical.ly Baltimore.)  Wink successfully aggregates trends, tech information and emerging businesses for Technical.ly Delaware and insists that Delaware has an opportunity to position itself as a “crown jewel” in the technology startup community.

But what’s booming here will ultimately dot a much broader landscape.

“Our central belief is that we’re in a time where every community of value is going to have a tech community,” said Wink.  “Some are moving faster than others.”

He said work by the University of Delaware as well as Delaware Technology Park amply round out the state’s offerings, and added that the “innovation corridor” downtown that includes tech and entrepreneurial startups, more established businesses, incubators and co-working spaces – the “bricks and mortar” that that build the industry.

There’s not only room for everyone, there’s a need for everyone, according to Wink.

“Any subculture — whether its arts or food – needs to start with a lot of experiments and connections because that will improve standards,” he said. “We want to put ourselves on a national stage, and you don’t do that without welcoming a lot of new faces to the conversation.”

Wes Garnett

Wes Garnett

It’s a subculture with a social component, according to Wink, who sponsors a meet-up group to keep the conversation moving. Wes Garnett, an entrepreneur and tech mainstay in Wilmington co-sponsors another – Delaware Tech Meet-up (http://www. meetup.com/Delaware-Tech-Meetup).

Delaware Tech Meet-up is a monthly gathering where companies at any stage can demo new ideas, passionate thinkers and doers lead discussions about various technology related topics and people connect to move ideas forward.

“The easiest way to think about this is: Think about the technology you use every day — that is what we’re involved in,” said Garnett. “We’re solving for human error. We live in a time where we leverage technology to help solve human problems.”

Some are looking for feedback; others are hoping for partners or even investors.  But there’s a misconception among the meetup and even the startup scene of Wilmington, and Garnett is quick to point it out: Participants are not all under 30, and they’re pitching more than apps.

“Most people think we’re young with no responsibility and no kids, building dinky apps that don’t provide value,” explained Garnett.  “In reality, it’s a wider spectrum of tech entrepreneurs, business people, we give thought leaders and start-up companies and people that have quit their jobs to try something new, time to demo their product.  Our community is giving people feedback and seeing what we can do to help.  We’re a room full of designers, we’re in technology and we’re professionals.”

Garnett is no stranger to startups.  In 2010, he helped found popular Market Street co-working space the coIN Loft, recently re-launched as the Loft.  Now he’s working on a web platform called Kurbi a private support-networking app for people living with Multiple Sclerosis, their family, and their care-providers.

Currently in the testing phase of development, Garnett and his team are working with a national advocacy and research organization, as well as several prominent comprehensive care centers to perfect the app before general release to the MS community.

Delaware Tech Meet up has more than 500 members, some from larger companies, many from small startups and others that simply that feed off the synergy of like-minded people. But the distance from pitch to successful business is wide, and investors don’t pour money into businesses that don’t yet exist.

But the occasional success story is a palpable incentive that drives tech passions.

“It takes hard work, grinding work,” to refine details of the projects and pursue funding, according to Garnett.   Delaware is great for start-ups that have some traction, have a business model  that is working, added Garnett.   Most people will invest as a team or through a fund.  As a start-up, you just recognize that it’s going to be hard to get off the ground.

“It mirrors any time there’s a new scene,” said Wink, regarding the interest of investors. “People think it’s not serious, not real.  Then a few people break through and do something spectacular.”

Delaware Technology Park

J Michael Bowman is a big fan of small ball versus home runs.  As founder and president of the Delaware Technology Park (DTP), the non-profit technology hub that is home to more than 50 different tech-based companies, he has a front row seat to the steady, diligent process of growing great ideas –many with life-changing potential.

The research park, currently housed in five separate buildings on a 40-acre spread in Newark, provides access to resources and connections to development-stage life science, information technology, advanced materials and renewable energy companies.

Three of the buildings house various tenants.  The others are the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and the Fraunhofer USA Center for Molecular Biotechnology, a contract research institution working in the area of pharmaceutical biotechnology, for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders.

A strategic alliance between DTP, University of Delaware, the state and the private sector have propelled it to the forefront of research in the region – a spot that exceeds Bowman’s initial vision.

“The quality and impact of what we’re doing is bigger than anything I could have imagined,” he said.

DTP has had a hand in some well profiled success stories, including SevOne Inc., EM Photonics and Quantum Leap Innovations.

A former chemical engineer at DuPont, Bowman knew that Delaware, home to chemical and tech giants like his employer, was fertile ground for future technologies and the science minds to grow them.

“We knew we had a lot of talent to birth new companies to do new things,” said Bowman.  “We have specific resources here and a connection with the U of D, services like microscopy, aids, labs – things affordable but necessary.”

But each story got its beginnings from a concept – maybe a corporate spinoff, intellectual property from the University of Delaware, an international entrepreneur looking to get a foothold in the U.S. – and every one vetted by Bowman.   Most come by word-of-mouth. Bowman looks at their defining ideas and asks them what makes them a great contender for DTP space.  He assesses their financial profiles, their potential as an entrepreneur, and their understanding of the generous U of D resources.

“We get smaller companies and organically grow them in very competent ways,” said Bowman. “For Delaware, that’s the best segment of our economy for our future.   ”Companies accepted into the DTP gain access to specific resources offered by the University of Delaware as well as resources for state funding and more.

To date, DTP companies housed at the park have received more than $600 million in grants and funding.

As for a growth model, each company sets its own – many of them morphing into a bigger version of themselves very quickly, and others take their time, with no pressure from Bowman or others.  “We don’t take equity in a company and they just seem to find their own pathway,” he said.

SevOne, Inc. is one of ANP’s more notable success stories.  The Newark based company provides the fastest and most scalable data collection, analysis and reporting solutions available in the market.   They went from a garage based start-up to a 2,000 square-foot space at DTP.   The 2,000 square feet became 4,000.  The company has since graduated from the facilities.

Other local companies with ties to DTP include:

• Quantum Leap Innovations Inc., an advanced software technology company that is  working on    complex analysis and intelligent decision making programs, thanks to a government grant.

• EM Photonics, computer hardware company that is a leader in the acceleration of complex scientific computing and image processing.

• ET International, a high-performance system software solution company incubated by UD.

• A research team at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, part of DTI, announced new findings on the mechanism of platelet formation that could lead to accelerating their production using stem cells from bone marrow.

Like Christopher Wink, Bowman insists there is room for everyone in the tech landscape.  While the Wilmington start-ups may focus more on the retail market, Bowman said that a diverse tech economy is in Delaware’s best interest.

“You can just go so many directions with that and it’s a magnet for people coming in,” Bowman said. “There’s just good old science and engineering that takes you to products that takes you to distribution.”

Currently, Bowman is a member of the STAR (Science, Technology and Advanced Research) Campus team, the U of D’s highly anticipated expansion project that houses the College of Health Sciences and other tenants.  Bowman is hoping to utilize some space at the campus for several Incubation projects.

“We’re like a farm team looking for the next big thing,” he said.

More than 1,000 people work at the Delaware Technology Park and Bowman estimates that roughly16,000 Delaware jobs have been created since the Delaware Technology Park became fully operational in 1998. A recent U of D study found that its economic impact on Delaware is more than $1 million per year.

Delaware State University and UD Horn Program

Delaware State University is currently constructing its Optical Science Center for Applied Research (Oscar) Building.  The four-story 70,000 square-foot building will house the university’s Optical Science program.  The initial 27,000 square-foot first phase will house state-of-the-art advanced optical research laboratories and will provide for the full spectrum of research needs, according to Delaware State University officials.

The Center for Research Excellence in Optical Sciences and Applications is key in development of DSU’s Optics program.  It has established master and doctoral optics programs at the school. DSU is the only school among historically black college and universities with a Ph.D. optics program.

At the University of Delaware, the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship promotes innovation and supports the startup activities of entrepreneurs from the community and UD.  The program offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in Entrepreneurship & Technology as well as signature programs and related competitions, including Hen Hatch, VentureOn and Startup eXperience.

By Christi Milligan

Senior Staff Writer