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Don’t Be Discouraged from Trying Something New

William Provine, President and CEO, Delaware Innovation Space, explains why you should view these experiences as ‘learnings’ vs. success/failure
Industry Matters Newsletter
Skill training concept
Image credit: iStock by Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  1. Ways the pandemic impeded Delaware Innovations Space’ mission
  2. William Provine shares his assessment of the level of government support that has been available for small business so far in 2020
  3. Provine reflects and predicts the evolution of DuPont

In what area - or areas - has the pandemic most impeded the mission of Delaware Innovation Space this year?

Actually, the pandemic has not dramatically impeded the mission of the Delaware Innovation Space but conversely has provided more of a rallying cry to the important work that is needed to confront the world’s challenges. In some ways, the pandemic has created a work environment that may have supported our mission by giving emerging entrepreneurs more time to reflect on their true passion and spark their creativity on the formation of that next venture or startup.

Even within the Delaware Innovation Space as an organization, we have been able to double down on our strategic objectives and have just launched two new programs: Spark Factory™ for early concept mentoring and Science Inc™, which is a six-month part-time cohort accelerator (applications just opened for the accelerator program). Both of these programs were enabled with funding provided through the EDA’s Build2Scale national competition, where we were awarded a grant of $1.5 million in September of this year.

Additionally, in 2020, under our First Fund program, we were also able to invest $265,000 in science-based startups resident in the Delaware Innovation Space. All of this could have not been done without the great work and dedication of the entire Delaware Innovation Space team and our supportive community and partners. 

How would you assess the level of government support that has been made available so far in 2020 to small businesses?

The overall decimation of small business in the United States and around the world due to the pandemic should not be underestimated. It has been tragic. More support to small businesses, especially restaurants and travel and entertainment businesses and their employees, needs to be authorized.

Fortunately, most of the government support at the federal level for science startups (e.g., SBIR grants, R&D grants, and economic development programs) has continued. In addition, new programs to support companies during the pandemic, most notably the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and emergency support to small business development centers funded by the EDA across the country, were given additional funding under the CARES Act legislation. 

What are some common personality traits you have seen among successful entrepreneurs?

The best and most successful entrepreneurs that I’ve witnessed are very inspirational and passionate leaders who have a high level of grit and determination, with a touch of arrogance. Success is derived from creating a vision and plan that employees, partners, and investors believe will deliver upon its promises, have a good return on investment, and hopefully change the world for the better. Then, the successful entrepreneur gets it done through the maze of challenges and roadblocks that will ultimately appear, or he/she/they quickly kill that venture and start a new one with minimal wasted effort.

In an interview in ACS Industry Matters earlier this year, you wrote the following: “My career has been mainly dedicated to working to create new ventures and businesses as part of a team on the high risk/high reward category of R&D and business development.” How did you stay motivated when you experienced failure at DuPont? And how do you advise your entrepreneur clients to stay motivated in the face of failure?

I think a key to success and well-being while creating new ventures and working in difficult but rewarding sectors is to treat everything as a learning versus success or failure. I advise myself and others to constantly reflect if roadblocks create a fundamental no-go condition, or ultimately can be confronted in a timely and cost-effective manner. I also seek out constructive criticism and treat that as a gift, not an attack, and learn from others in parallel industries or other companies and organizations large and small.

In the end, both entrepreneurs and those in new ventures in larger organizations need to be incredibly self-motivated, as many people will tell you what you can’t do or what can’t be done, and the entrepreneur needs to be the one to show how it can be done. The entrepreneur also needs to be the one who keeps the team motivated, and in reverse, the team helps to keep the entrepreneur motivated.

What non-technical skills were most responsible for your advancement at DuPont? Are those the ones you would recommend that today’s early career chemists develop? 

Most of the time, in a science-based innovation company like DuPont, it is hard to differentiate or separate the importance of the technical and non-technical skills in one’s successes, as success or progress either in projects, business, or one’s career is built upon the integration of such skills in solving a challenge or puzzle, or making progress towards a business objective.

When I find myself in my most impactful or productive state, I’m definitely actively learning, assessing and integrating information, connecting and listening to others, and studying the fundamentals at play in the internal and external landscape. I find that I’ve had the most success in my career from being adept in my ability to work across functional, cultural, and technical domains; creating strategic plans and objectives and driving for results and impact in very complex landscapes.

I would encourage all early career scientists and engineers to be an active learner, connect and listen/learn from others, and learn to constantly adapt to new information and keep focused on making progress, even when there exists large aspects of ambiguity and many moving parts. 

Talk about the metaphorical “one that got away”.  Is there a project that eluded you during your career at DuPont?  Why? And if you could return to it, what would you do differently?

The one project that got away from me was the work we did at DuPont in creating the next generation of biofuels. On the heels of the transformative work in industrial biotechnology with Bio-PDO, I had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented scientists in the world applying world changing metabolic engineering and process development expertise to create new biofuel molecules and manufacturing strategies that could transform the transportation fuel market and assist in curbing climate change. The magical trifecta of working on cutting edge R&D, meeting market needs with new products, and confronting climate change. What could be better? The answer: more reliable policy frameworks.

The issue that kept the industry away from adopting more aggressive change was the revolving door on the renewable fuel standard and other policy frameworks around the world. DuPont and its partners aggressively resourced the effort, swung for the fences and built the project and development team to work on multiple risk elements, both on the market side and technical side in tandem. As a result, the overall investment in the effort got ahead of the risk reduction and never fully accounted for the policy risk.

If I could go back and wave a magic wand, I would still have done the project, but would have done it focused on a quicker early market entry. The good news is one of the major efforts with bio-isobutanol did reach the market with Butamax Advanced Biofuels LLC – DuPont’s joint venture with BP.

The DuPont of today is very different from the DuPont of just three years ago, when you started the Delaware Innovation Space. How would you predict that DuPont will evolve over the next 10 years? What do you see as the company’s greatest opportunities?

DuPont, at its core, is a science-based innovation driven company, and it is that innovation engine which lays the foundation and differentiates the company from its competition now and into the future. Over the next 10 years, I would expect DuPont will remain a science-based innovation driven company as it has been over its entire 212-year history. I would also expect DuPont will continue to evolve, adding to its portfolio of products and businesses from both internal and external sources, and adjust its business portfolio over time with M&A, as demonstrated by the on-going plans for the spin-out and merger of DuPont’s nutrition and biosciences business unit with International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) in early 2021.

I believe DuPont’s greatest opportunity is to take its renewed foundation of strength built with lean, strong businesses along with cash from the IFF/DuPont N&B merger, and fuel the next generation of growth through increased investment in innovation, venture investing, and M&A – changing the world with driving science from the laboratory to markets around the world.

Based on your experience at DuPont, and with Delaware Innovation Space, would you support requiring chemistry and chemical engineer majors to take at least one business course during their undergraduate studies? Why or why not?

No – as one course will not materially change perspectives or needs. Also, in the industries and segments that I’ve worked in as a chemical engineer, I believe such business expertise is better taught in practice versus in coursework. A better idea to me is to require internships and co-op experiences as part of the journey towards a bachelor’s degree.

What’s the one personality trait that was most essential to your career success? What personality trait would have been most helpful, were you to have possessed it in greater supply?

If I chose only one, then grit or perseverance would be the one, as anything that has been an important success in my career has required an extreme level of determination and commitment. This does not endorse being the proverbial ostrich with your head in the sand but rather having the ability to create a strategic plan of attack, proceed forward with vigor, then continuously learn and pivot on your way to success or failure with a project.

On the lack of supply of a personal trait, I wish that I had a stronger ability to fully see failures as learnings, and could better let go of the feeling that it could have gone better or turned out differently if I only did this or that – but that is also partially how you learn more from your failures than your successes.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style?

My parents taught me early on that you need to enjoy your work, the work environment, and the people that you work with to survive and ultimately prosper. This has led me to connect with people as people, not just as employees, colleagues, vendors, partners, or customers. Everyone has a story, passion, or drive that is well beyond what they do for work. The goal is to work to draw synergy from these personal passions and apply it to progress the business forward.

You serve on the Board of The Resolution Project, whose mission is to develop socially responsible young leaders and empower them to make a positive impact today. Generally speaking, what are some of the top priorities for this generation of leaders?

Simply put – making a difference in the world is a top priority. The Resolution Project is a great organization, which now supports over 500 social entrepreneurs around the world working on new ventures/startups that drive social change.

As part of the Resolution Project, in addition to being on the Board, I currently mentor several teams: Team Hydroquo+, which collects data in Bangladesh from water pipes to create machine learning algorithms to efficiently treat non-potable water in poverty stricken residential areas; meanwhile Team Sparky has developed and manufactures a novel food dehydrator that dries a diverse array of farm produce ten times faster than the conventional sun drying method. It uses bio-fuel as a source of energy, and it reduces post-harvest loss, which is the leading cause of food insecurity in Uganda.

Every Resolution Fellow that I’ve met and worked with has inspired me with their passion, drive, and commitment to positive social change, and they all remind me that we are all part of the solution.

What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

I have learned that I undervalued the importance of diversity in my life and the simple things of everyday life. I miss the broader world, its charm, character, and culture. Please come back and visit sometime soon.

William D. Provine, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Delaware Innovation Space
William D. Provine, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Delaware Innovation Space

Dr. William D. Provine is a founder and serves as President & Chief Executive Officer for the Delaware Innovation Space, where Bill is presently on loan from DuPont. The Delaware Innovation Space is a mission-driven non-profit organization formed in 2017 in partnership with DuPont, the University of Delaware, and the State of Delaware to incubate and accelerate science-based startups, and is located on the renowned Experimental Station campus in Wilmington, Delaware.  

Prior to his role in the Delaware Innovation Space, Bill led DuPont’s global operations for science and engineering as well as guiding DuPont’s open innovation best practice and engagement processes. Bill has also served in a variety of research, marketing, business development, joint venture, and manufacturing leadership roles over the course of his career. Bill is an active volunteer and has served on many government and university advisory committees and presently serves as a Director on the Boards for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Resolution Project. Bill also has been recently recognized as an AAAS fellow.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2020 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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