Dora Cheatham has a pretty simple explanation for what Delaware’s chemistry sector was like pre-2000.
“It used to be just DuPont,” says Cheatham, the operations manager for the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance.
Not long after the turn of the 21st century, the chemical giant was joined by other large players, like Hercules, ICI and Rohm & Haas in a collection of large companies that dominated the state’s chemicals industry.
But over the ensuing decade-plus, things have changed drastically, to the point where breakups and buyouts have created a much different collection.
“We have gone from an industry filled with companies that were focused on commodities but weren’t hugely profitable to one that contains firms more like those in Silicon Valley that are looking for higher profits,” says Bryan Tracy, co-founder and CEO of Newark-based White Dog Labs. The company develops microbiome-driven solutions that aim to increase food sustainability and improve the quality of human health and animal nutrition, while also helping to minimize emissions that contribute to climate change.
It is part of a landscape that has undergone a profound shakeup this century and has produced a climate with significant potential.
Big players still remain
Shakeups notwithstanding, giants remain across the landscape — like DowDuPont, which is the world’s largest chemical company in terms of sales. At the same time, its Specialty Products Division is producing cutting-edge research into the human microbiome.
Solenis, which has been formed from remnants of Hercules and Ashland, has 30 different manufacturing locations worldwide and in late January merged with BASF’s wet-end paper and water chemicals business. The company’s recent innovations include a new process to recycle starch that aims to make paper more sustainable.
Chemours is the world’s largest producer of titanium dioxide, which makes paints shine brighter and also makes for more durable automotive and aerospace coatings.
W.L. Gore in Newark continues to provide products created from polymers and is one of the largest privately-held companies in the country. Gore is also at the forefront of efforts to improve smartphone and laptop insulation.
The entrepreneurial spirit prevails
Over the past 12 months, STRIDE (short for Science, Technology and Research Institute of Delaware) has grown from a good idea to a company that employs 26 people and has expanded its focus to Silicon Valley and globally. STRIDE works with startups, growing and established companies who need help with their R&D. For example, STRIDE can help clients who work with recycled plastic detect contaminants that could come in contact with food products.
“We take building blocks created by other companies and try to make products from them that can go to market,” says Seetha Coleman-Kammula, STRIDE’s CEO. “Our people have been successful commercializing building blocks.”
Most of the companies STRIDE works with are populated by younger Ph.D.s who don’t have industrial experience. Although STRIDE was founded as recently as 2017, the majority of those who work there have decades of seasoning in that area, so the company is well-suited to accelerating the process.
A key to the growing collection of smaller companies that is helping energize Delaware’s chemical marketplace is the infusion of talent from larger companies that have either merged or broken apart. And thanks to the continued growth of the industry, there are jobs available for those with skills but also the ability to direct their knowledge to specific end results and to feed the entrepreneurial instincts of founders. As smaller companies grow and try to gain traction and — most importantly — funding, their leaders should be looking up for guidance.
“We need more interaction between early-stage, smaller companies and the big boys, so they can get direction,” Tracy says.
At the same time, transformation in Delaware’s chemical industry is driven by cutting-edge research at the University of Delaware. In February, researchers at UD’s Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation announced they had successfully synthesized renewable oils made from biomass, such as wood or switchgrass. These sustainable oils can potentially be used in lubricants to power anything from plane thrusters to refrigerator compressors.
The bottom line
There are several ways in which Delaware’s chemical companies are making impacts on daily lives. One is in nutrition. In the past, much of the work done in the state was to serve pharmaceutical companies. Now, firms are focusing on improving food quality — for humans and animals. White Dog Labs does that. Cort
So do DowDuPont, BASF and Croda, which is headquartered in Edison, New Jersey, but has a plant in New Castle. Their goal is to provide better ingredients, such as antimicrobials and antioxidants, that improve taste, nutritional quality and shelf life.
Another area that is getting some attention is the consumer sector. Firms like Adesis are helping to create materials that are more durable and can lead to stronger clothing fabrics and other products, such as tires.
Newark-based SAS Nanotechnologies has gained renown and won the 2018 New Castle “Swim with the Sharks” competition, thanks to its line of corrosion inhibitors that increase the lifetime of material coatings and help the environment. And 4th Phase has created a liquid crystal concentrate that removes pollutants from water and makes it more pure.
The products are impressive, and the work to develop more continues. But it’s not all about the sale. Efficiency in everything has become vital, and an example is Corteva Agriscience’s use of precision pesticides and fungicides. The DowDuPont agriculture company is allowing farmers to be more targeted in their pursuit of better crop yields, and while the more exact applications may result in lower sales volume, it and other firms are looking elsewhere to enhance bottom lines.
“They are gathering more data and using better analytics to make sense of client needs,” Tracy says. “They want to be leaders. They may sell less, but they are emphasizing service to help clients make better decisions.”