By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times
If you’re trying to promote the growth of one of Delaware’s most promising industries, it helps to have a space where budding entrepreneurs and startups can learn and collaborate together.
That’s the experience of the Delaware BioScience Association, a trade group that recently moved its headquarters to the AstraZeneca campus in north Wilmington. The new space is taking advantage of a favorable location to further its goal of nurturing the biotech industry in Delaware.
With more than three times as much space as at its previous location in Newark, the association is offering its approximately 125 members facilities to meet, network and grow their business.
In part, the space serves newer entrants to the industry who can use the building’s conference room for up to four hours a month and work in the building for up to 10 hours a month, said Helen Stimson, president and CEO of the association.
Members will also soon have access to a mail room that will allow new companies without a Delaware address to apply for grants in the state.
The building itself is a former security office for AstraZeneca. Though inconspicuous, the squat standalone building matches the forward-looking approach of its new occupants. It features a roof lined with solar panels, four heating and cooling zones, construction with recycled materials, and LEED certification. Inside, occupant can see but not hear U.S. 202, just yards away.
“We call it the biodome for Delaware Bio,” said Stimson, who was previously senior vice president and general manager of Agilent Technologies’ chemistries and supplies division.
The association is responsible for maintenance of the facility, but it received three years’ free rent from the property owner, Delle Donne & Associates, which is developing 1 million square feet of mixed-used real estate on the adjacent campus.
In addition to making space available for its members, the new building will allow the association to run programs and provide a forum for the industry — which employs about 8,000 people — to meet government officials and lawmakers who may want to address the concerns of the growing sector.
They include a shortage of “H-1B” visas that allow them to hire non-U.S. citizens who are favored candidates for top jobs but who can’t remain in the U.S. legally without the visas.
That’s standing in the way of expansion plans for some biotech companies who would like to keep highly qualified people who may have already worked as interns but are unable to continue as full-time employees unless they have the visas, Stimson said.
“A lot of our members are finding that there’s excellent talent coming out of U.S. universities but they need visas so they can keep them in the U.S. and they can employ them,” she said. “We do a lot of work to educate people and then export them back to their own countries where they can compete against us.”
The association can’t change immigration law but it can, and does, make clear to elected representatives that some of its members are unable to hire the people they want because of the visa problem, Stimson said.
The association is also helping its smaller members find ways of paying for health insurance for their employees — a major concern that stands in the way of growth for some companies.
“The cost of health care is stunting the growth of small companies in the state,” Stimson said. “They are having to decide whether they want to invest in R&D or whether they want to provide health care for their employees.”
A possible solution, she said, is for small companies to create pools with other employers to obtain the lower rates that insurers may offer for larger groups.
“If you don’t provide a competitive package for your employees, they’ll walk,” she said. “It’s a very tough space to be in. I spent my entire career working for corporate America and I did not appreciate how severe this problem is until you have to run a small business yourself and you see what it really costs. It’s outrageously expensive.”
To help address the industry’s challenges, Stimson is working with U.S. Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and Rep. Blunt Rochester, all of whom have shown a willingness to nurture Delaware’s business-friendly climate, Stimson said.
“They are genuinely interested in making sure that if a company puts its roots down here that it gets what it needs to succeed,” she said.