Supplement: First State Innovation

First State Innovation By Mike May ARTICLE EXTRAS A Region Defined Bridging the Gap Ben Franklin Technology Partners Keystone Innovation Zones NJIT's Enterprise Development Center Rowan University's CIE The Science Center Although well-known companies such as DuPont and AstraZeneca call Delaware their home, the state has lacked a reputation as a high-tech area. Consequently, Delaware has not always attracted new life science companies. "It s

Jan 1, 2008
Mike May
First State Innovation
By Mike May

Although well-known companies such as DuPont and AstraZeneca call Delaware their home, the state has lacked a reputation as a high-tech area. Consequently, Delaware has not always attracted new life science companies. "It struggled to be successful in the entrepreneurial environment," says Ernest Dianastasis, managing director at Computer Aid, Inc. Toward the end of 2004, Dianastasis and a couple dozen business leaders focused on making Delaware a desirable home for life science entrepreneurs. Such an improvement would help the state, as well. "If we got the right group of people together," Dianastasis says, "I thought we could improve Delaware's economy."

After a quarter of a century of experience at Computer Aid, which solves information-technology problems for companies, Dianastasis knows how to tackle challenges. He grew that business from being the first employee to today's team of more than 750 associates. Leveraging that kind of experience, Dianastasis and others formed First State Innovation (FSI) in November 2006. Dianastasis, who serves as FSI's chairman of the board and interim CEO, says, "It's a nonprofit led by the private sector, and its goal is to accelerate the entrepreneurial economy of Delaware and the surrounding region through the proper use of people, ideas, and capital." Although FSI received some funding from New Castle County, most of its operating money comes from foundations and the private sector.

"If a company needs seed money, we can help them raise it," Dianastasis says. FSI has developed a list of more than 150 angel investors to put new entrepreneurs in touch with capital, but it's not a venture fund itself. Instead, says Dianastasis, "Our role is to help eliminate any constraint that an entrepreneur or organization might face in launching or growing their business."

In one approach that facilitates networking, FSI runs quarterly breakfasts, called showcases, where entrepreneurs and potential investors meet and share ideas. James Roszkowski, president and CEO of Patria Services, says, "We recently used one of those showcases as a forum to present the unmet needs that Patria can fulfill in our marketplace and to solicit incremental operational funding from angel investors to continue to fuel the growth of my company." Patria's soon-to-close round of Series A funding will likely approach $2 million, in large part due to the FSI showcase. Roszkowski also participates directly with FSI by serving on its board.

Patria Services develops customized programs that help large corporations continue to work with customers and gain new customers when they relocate. Roszkowski sees academic institutions as a growth market for Patria. By helping a university keep track of alumni when they move, to continue the flow of publications and fund-raising letters. Also, Patria could work with large life science companies to facilitate employee moves, even by simplifying changes in insurance or offering move-related offers, whether a company moves an employee across town or across the country. "It becomes a human-resources benefit," says Roszkowski. Patria represents just one of the many kinds of companies that support the core life science industry.

FSI, though, also works with companies directly involved in commercializing life science technology. "If someone has a great idea or concept," says Dianastasis, "we can connect them with the university research environment or R&D arms of companies."

In less than a year, FSI helped raise funds for three companies, and provided other services, such as building management teams, for a couple dozen more. "If we do this right," says Dianastasis, "everyone wins - universities, large business, starting entrepreneurs."