WILMINGTON — Two and a half years after cost-cutting merger managers swept through the DuPont Experimental Station, severing scientists to prepare for DuPont's investor-backed marriage with Dow Chemical, DowDuPont is spending over $200 million to update the historic complex.
It's for a reorganized DuPont Co. that will be spun off as a publicly traded electronics, food-additives, biochemicals, military-protection and safety-consulting firm next year.
Across the college-size station, where 43 buildings with 1,500 lab benches enclose 2.3 million square feet — bigger than Two Liberty Place or the two Comcast towers that dominate the Philadelphia skyline 30 miles north — crews have been tearing out walls, installing cellphone and WiFi service, and adding sophisticated clean rooms, robotics, and sensor systems in the two- and three-story brick buildings above the Brandywine.
The business was once known for inventing blockbuster materials like smokeless gunpowder, nylon fabrics, Teflon coatings and Kevlar bulletproofing, and later for spending fortunes on grand acquisitions and construction projects to revolutionize drugs, energy, and other new business lines. Now it is returning to basics, at least in the scale of its research ambitions.
To speed cheaper lighting, decay-resistant produce, degradable plastics, and other products to market, DuPont is installing better tools and lab automation. It is spending about as much as it paid before the merger for a farm-waste ethanol plant in Iowa, one of the large projects that DowDuPont CEO Ed Breen has canceled or sold.
New equipment includes CRISPR genome-editing machines, labs that grow animal biomes for testing enzymes to make new livestock antibiotics, fast "cell factory" fermentation labs to process foods with longer shelf life, and other custom- and mass-production systems.
The station hosts 2,000 science and technology staff, including 1,600 of DuPont's 4,800 local employees. It also houses 400 from tenants including DuPont spin-offs Axalta, scheduled to relocate to new labs in Philadelphia, and Chemours, which plans its own labs in Newark. Instead of shrinking or shutting the labs as Delaware officials had feared, executives of the new DuPont expect the total working here will grow to 2,600 by 2020. (DuPont also has researchers in labs at Stanford University and at other sites.)
From Pennsylvania, DuPont plans to move 160 Dow Chemical scientists and staff to the station from labs in Collegeville, including microbial control specialists and others who support businesses DuPont is taking over from Dow. (Hundreds of additional Dow R&D staff will remain in Montgomery County.)
Dow staff from Collegeville were escorted across the station in groups to see their prospective homes on June 8, as Delaware Gov. John Carney, members of the founding du Pont family, and other guests gathered to celebrate the updates. "The construction you see is only the tip of the iceberg," said Chris Koelsch, DuPont facilities director, in Building E353, the first of the renovated buildings to fully reopen.
Compared with DuPont before the merger, the new company will be shorn of its pesticide, seed and performance-materials units, but also beefed up due to changes from the original merger plan urged by investors and regulators, with additional parts of Dow (and Philadelphia-based FMC Corp.) that complement DuPont businesses. The farm sales businesses are being combined with Dow's to form Corteva, which will also have a Delaware head office, but its main U.S. R&D will be in Iowa and Indiana. Materials businesses based at Dow's headquarters in Midland, Mich., will be spun off into a new Dow-branded company next year.
Building E353, which Koelsch said had been "undercapitalized" before the renovations, now houses Industrial Biosciences, one of five businesses reporting to Marc Doyle, chief operating officer for the specialty products business group that is to form the new DuPont Co. It was previously work space for genetically modified seed researchers (some who kept their jobs agreed to move to the Corteva labs in the Midwest), and to the late Charles Pedersen, the Korean-Norwegian DuPont chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1987.
After letting go of 1,700 of its 6,100 staff in Delaware at the end of 2015, the company pledged "great labs and great offices" for "the best and brightest researchers in our company," Koelsch said, and Biosciences was the first to respond with plans.
Something is missing from the fermentation, microbiology and enzyme labs: With robotic arms and other equipment performing repetitive measurements and other tasks, there are fewer technicians. DuPont managers say there are more job openings upstairs from the labs, for data scientists, to manage the floods of information unleashed by the new sensors monitoring reactions and controlling processes, and using it to better target products and manage production.
Some company veterans privately grouse that DuPont's remaining businesses — along with Industrial Biosciences, these include Electronic Technologies, Nutrition & Health, Protective Solutions, Sustainable Solutions — will have no more in common than they did before sluggish growth provoked investors to force DuPont into the Dow merger. They expect groups may be sold off, as Breen sold the pieces of his previous company, the former Tyco International.
Marc Doyle, chief operating officer for the business group, currently known as DowDuPont Specialty Products Division, promised the new DuPont will be "a premier innovation-driven leader delivering highly specialized products and solutions that transform industries and improve everyday life."
Delaware's largest city, Wilmington, which is about the size of Upper Darby, has struggled with job cutbacks at DuPont and other private-sector employers that have merged and laid off thousands since the late 2000s.
Carney, who helped persuade the state and county legislatures to give DuPont tax breaks worth over $30 million a year so it wouldn't leave town, said the station's upgrades prove Delaware remains a place to "grow and create jobs."