In 1802 Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours, a 31-year-old French aristocrat just two years in America, started a powder mill on the banks of Brandywine Creek outside Wilmington, Del. Since then the company he founded has become virtually synonymous with the state. Du Pont, who had studied explosives with Antoine Lavoisier, a founder of scientific chemistry, began producing gunpowder superior to any previously available in the new country. His company quickly became the nation’s leading gunpowder manufacturer. In the late 19th century it expanded beyond explosives; in the 20th century it became one of the world’s major chemical companies, still synonymous with products based on leading-edge industrial research.
Both of these aspects of DuPont’s heritage are now in doubt. In recent months the company has announced both a planned merger with another chemical industry giant, Dow Chemical of Midland, Mich., and that it is shrinking its presence in Delaware. Various parts of the two companies will be combined and realigned into three separate entities, two of which will have headquarters in Delaware. Ahead of the reorganization DuPont laid off 1,700 of its 6,000 Delaware employees, including hundreds of scientists, other researchers and technical workers.
The impact is “huge,” says James Butkiewicz, an economist at the University of Delaware. “Delaware…was once virtually dominated by the DuPont corporation,” which in the 1970s and ‘80s employed 30,000 in the state. Since then the company has undergone “significant change, significant cost cutting, layoffs, reductions in staff,” Butkiewicz continues. “How the restructuring of the merged company will work out and how research will be integrated into it are currently matters of speculation.”
The state government has moved to mitigate the losses, says Andy Lubin, who is president of Wilmington-based real estate consulting company Delaware Financial Group, and spoke to Scientific American as a representative of the governor’s office. Soon after learning of the decision, “the governor put together a small group that included our Congressional delegation and some business leaders,” adds Lubin, who heads that group. Efforts have “focused on the human capital side,” he says—especially the laid-off scientists, engineers and other research and technical people. “Our first goal was to preserve that human capital and try and get it repositioned and reengaged with other companies in this area,” he notes. They contacted laid-off workers and companies that may have openings, providing leads and training in job hunting, entrepreneurship and more. “Within reason we’re doing quite well in terms of relocating these people into other positions [while] keeping them here in the Delaware area as well as assisting start-ups and attracting new businesses,” Lubin says. Of 600 to 700 researchers, scientists and other technical people laid off, “we have at this point found positions for somewhere around 450 people in this immediate area,” he says.
The financial services industry, which has grown in Delaware in recent years and “is using a lot of mathematicians and people with a science background,” may provide opportunities for some, Butkiewicz says. “It’s definitely possible that many of these scientists may try and start companies here,” he adds. “There is capital available for ventures that make sense.”
Perhaps 50 to 75 people—“I’m speculating here,” Lubin says—are in various stages of creating start-up companies, many using both DuPont intellectual property and facilities negotiated case by case. “A lot of these ventures won’t succeed,” Butkiewicz notes, “but a few of them will and may turn out to be very lucrative.”
DuPont real estate is also being repositioned. Work has slowed at the DuPont Experimental Station, a 60-hectare facility founded in 1903 on Brandywine Creek, where much of the company’s most historic research has taken place. The site will not only “retain the research that DuPont and Dow are doing but also [be used to] to attract external companies that would come in and make this into a true research park,” Lubin says. “Because of the willingness of DuPont to make a lot of their research space available to third-party companies,” incoming employers can establish science-based operations there “at very reasonable cost.” Plans foresee “an innovations center [with] both an incubator and an accelerator” in about half of the Experimental Station’s space.
The losses, however, go far beyond economics. The renowned DuPont Central Research and Development organization (CRD), called “one of the most prestigious and accomplished research organizations in the chemistry world” by Chemical & Engineering News, is another victim of the reorganization—a development causing widespread dismay among chemists, the magazine reports.
“Especially in the area of polymers, but not exclusively, [CRD] has been an extremely creative and innovative organization,” says Abraham Lenhoff, a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, which ranks among nation’s top 10. Lenhoff notes the long list of products with “brand names that have become part of our daily lives” include: Nylon, the first synthetic fiber; plus other fibers, Orlon, Dacron and Lycra; Neoprene, the first commercially successful synthetic rubber; Tyvek, for uses including indestructible envelopes and moisture-proofing buildings; Kevlar, used in body armor for protecting soldiers and police; Corian, for counters; and Mylar, for packaging and decoration; and many more.
Beyond creating such epoch-making “better things for better living…through chemistry,” as the longtime DuPont advertising slogan went, CDR was professional home to such eminent scientists as Nobel laureates Charles Pedersen, a lifelong DuPont employee, and Paul Flory, who worked early in his career under CRD group leader Wallace H. Carothers, “inventor of Nylon and Neoprene, and a scientist of extraordinary breadth and originality,” according to Flory’s Nobel Prize biographical statement.
Pedersen was first to synthesize crown ethers, “molecules that can ‘recognize’ each other and…mimic the mode of action of enzymes”—work “of great importance” for several fields of chemistry, according to the press release announcing the prize. “Even when it was evident that, at least initially, my work might not have a significant practical impact,” DuPont encouraged him, Pedersen said in his Nobel lecture. “Another company,” he added, might not have provided “such encouragement and latitude.”
“The innovative, blue-sky research that used to be done in industry for many years just has largely faded away now,” Lenhoff laments. “That's a significant loss to science, but it's a reality of business, unfortunately.” Also threatened is DuPont’s “really extraordinary…engineering expertise,” he adds. “DuPont engineers have had exceptional depth of knowledge of fundamentals of engineering as well as the experience and expertise of applying those engineering principles, and that organization will presumably be broken up…an enormous loss to engineering.” Lenhoff adds, “I’ve heard from chemical engineering faculty from all over the country who are really distressed about what has happened at DuPont.” Due to the company’s “historical role in the chemical engineering profession, the concern is much, much broader and is very widely felt.... Building a science-based company is a long-term enterprise, and that's what I fear is the big loss,” he says.
Recovering from the loss of such longstanding, respected and stable science-based firms also takes years, as shown by the experience of neighboring New Jersey, long a leader in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. A wave of mergers, closures and moves out of state by major pharmaceutical companies displaced thousands of workers, including many scientists, in the first decades of the 21st century. Employment in the state’s important life sciences industries fell by more than 12 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Meanwhile the number of establishments in the pharmaceutical sector rose by 90 between 2009 and 2014, perhaps in part reflecting start-ups by laid-off scientists.
Like Delaware, New Jersey has suffered, along with job losses, the destruction of a venerable and celebrated research institution and its deep scientific culture. In 2013 Roche disbanded its renowned Nutley research center where for over 80 years prominent scientists such as chemist Leo Sternbach and biochemist Sidney Udenfriend, along with thousands of other local residents, worked at the 45-hectare campus. Their accomplishments include Valium and Librium, the benzodiazepine drugs that launched pharmaceutical psychiatry; the tuberculosis drug isoniazid; and advances in molecular biology, oncology and other fields. A new medical school founded by Seton Hall University in partnership with the Hackensack University Health Network will bring science jobs back to part of the campus starting in 2017, but most of the research buildings still await redevelopment.
So can Delaware and its scientific and technical workforce rebound from the losses? Butkiewicz is withholding judgment. “Right now,” predictions are “just speculation,” he says. “We’ll have to see in five or 10 years what happens there.”