Startups

10 tech and startup trends we didn’t see coming in Delaware in 2021

Were these good things on your Pandemic Year Two bingo card?

The new Delaware State building at 1 S. Orange St. in Wilmington.

(Courtesy photo)

Not much has been predictable in the last couple of years of social calamity, economic instability, climate catastrophe and a continuing pandemic.

2021 started off with an attack on the US Capitol, and that pretty much set the tone for Year Two of COVID-19. Delaware hasn’t been immune to any of it, but there has been progress, too — and some of the biggest surprises have been good things, actually.

So, while things are and will continue to be challenging, in the spirit of the season, here are some of the positive surprises that we didn’t have on our 2021 bingo cards this time last year:

1. Robot custodians

Two Delaware public schools became early adopters of UV light robots that disinfect classrooms, a high-tech weapon against COVID-19 as schools began opening up again. The focus on surface transmission, something that was a big fear in 2020 before it was found that most transmission is airborne, is less of a thing as we go into 2022, but the robot custodians are still pretty cool.

2. Thriving coworking spaces

When COVID hit, it looked like coworking spaces, with their communal work spaces and common kitchen areas, were about to take a massive hit. Outside of Delaware, coworking companies like Philly’s 76 Forward (formerly 1776), Regus and, most infamously, WeWork have all struggled over the last 20 months. While the lockdown itself was challenging to Delaware coworking spaces, we might even have more of them now than before the pandemic, with the addition of CSC Station, and the ones we already had, including The Mill’s two locations, are still hot.

CSC Station's lobby

CSC Station’s lobby in November 2020. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

3. A bookstore on the West Side

Since the closing of 9th Street Book Shop in 2018, it seemed that the days of small local bookstores were over, at least for Wilmington. The Delaware Art Museum’s bookstore took on the mantle of the city’s sole brick-and-mortar indie bookstore, and now there’s the standalone Books and Bagels in West Side Wilmington, at the Launchpad incubation space at the corner of 7th and Harrison.

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4. Sussex County’s growing high-tech rep

Sussex County isn’t known for technology. Its broadband is still developing, and it’s mainly farmland, small towns and beaches. We explored downstate agtech in 2019, and found that tech was in everyday use on the farms. But in 2021, we learned that where Sussex County is really a — dare we say — tech hub is the Blue Tech space. Thanks to the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes, Sussex has an impressive number of autonomous surface vessels, also known as “robot boats,” and has used them to help the Coast Guard.

5. A Delaware State University campus downtown

Del State, Delaware’s HBCU, has its main campus in Dover, with a Wilmington campus on Kirkwood Highway outside of the city proper. In August, Capital One donated its 1 S. Orange St. building on the Riverfront to Del State, bringing the school right into the heart of the city. No, it won’t be a traditional campus with dormitories and such like in Dover, but The Warehouse teen center will have a space there for high school students, it will expand the school’s master’s programming, and there will be a focus on adult workforce development — all easily accessible from city neighborhoods.

6. Three vaccination shots

We hoped for a vaccination as we rang in 2021. Most of us got two. Now many of us are on our third. No complaints here — three shots within the year just wasn’t on the bingo card last December.

7. Hybrid events really work

From the Millennial Summit to Futures First Gaming’s Fall Brawl (and this weekend, the return of Pandamonium), 2021 showed that hybrid events can be a success — so much so that plenty of events going forward will likely have some kind of virtual aspect to reach the maximum number of participants.

Super Smash Brothers tournament at Fall Brawl 2021

Futures First Gaming’s COVID-safe hybrid Fall Brawl in September 2021 featured an IRL Super Smash Brothers tournament. (Photo by Holly Quinn)

8. The success of Startup 302’s pivot

Startup 302 was conceived as a pitch competition that would draw entrepreneurs from all over the country (and maybe the world) to Delaware’s NeoFest, a startup event that has had its inaugural indefinitely postponed. When the pandemic made the concept of people traveling to Delaware for a competition a nonstarter, it was reimagined for 2021, focusing on local entrepreneurs from marginalized groups. The virtual event not only helped several Black and woman owned startups, it also spotlighted them, bringing several dynamic entrepreneurs from around the state to our attention for the first time.

9. Riverfront boom

The recreational, “touristy” part of the Riverfront, including the Purzycki Riverwalk, Constitution Yards and Tubman Garrett Park, has become a really nice place to hang outdoors, and the new lab space coming to Riverfront East is going to be a big deal. But by 2020, the train station area had fallen from its thriving ING Direct days of the ’00s. Just last year, those buildings, including the Pennsylvania Railroad Building, sat vacant.

In 2021, the PRB became CSC Station, Tech Impact has moved into the former B&O Station, and that Del State building will be opening in the near future. It’s an evolution from corporate ruins to a small corridor of education, entrepreneurship and workforce development, with other impactful organizations including Code Differently, the Delaware Data Innovation Lab and The Warehouse among them.

10. (Some) people are still talking about equity

In 2020, at the height of the global George Floyd protests, everyone and every company said that they supported Black lives and were going to commit more to equity. It was the thing to do. It was easy to do. And not everyone and every company stuck to it. But those that have have taken it seriously.

That includes Chemours naming racism as a safety hazard, M&T increasing its Spanish language services and services to its disabled customers, WSFS looking to hire locally through programs like Return Ready and, again, CapOne and the Del State building. We really didn’t see that one coming.

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