G. Dennis O’Brien gets up some days at 4 a.m. to catch business hours in China. He says he’s a retiree, but at 75, having founded or acquired 46 companies, he still has a lot of business in him.
One of the Delawarean’s latest and most striking ideas is to 3D-print thousands of “unbelievably inexpensive and rapidly produced” homes for battered neighborhoods in Wilmington and Baltimore.
Such newfangled housing is just one business for this co-founder of InfoVest, a Wilmington venture capital firm; economist, who’s created a 2,000-equation model to optimize the chemical industry and another model concluding why Delaware should legalize marijuana; trend-watcher, who sees a new opportunity connecting blockchain and sports betting; and traveler, with 107 countries visited and paychecks from 67. That’s after stints as a Marine, a monk in Rhode Island, a teacher in Harlem and a missionary in Appalachia. “You learn how the world works and get involved in a lot of issues,” he says, referring not just to economics but to his own life.
The 3D project came out of his concerns about decay in Delaware’s largest city, a few miles from his home. “I want to rebuild Wilmington,” he says. “I want to leave something of value behind.” He’s learned from other, flawed attempts at rehabilitation that ignored overall communities, so his plan would create jobs in a 3D-printing factory and on housing sites, and only briefly disturb residents.
“A house is not a community,” he says. “I can build a nice house for you in a bad area, and it’s not going to help you and retain value. A community is a sense of belonging and pride.”
O’Brien’s community is the world. He was born into an Irish family in New York City. He has earned a doctorate and a master of arts in economics; a master of public administration in political economics; and a bachelor of arts in economics, philosophy and mathematics. With his earliest degree from 1965 and postgraduate studies in ancient military history, classics, Latin and Greek, he calls himself a lifelong student.
O’Brien built his career as an industrial micro-econometrician, “looking at connections, how one thing affects another.” At one point, every Fortune 500 company was a client. He “has developed a proficiency in the design and application of quantitative models for use in asset allocation, industrial product line forecasting and microeconomic pricing systems,” his résumé says. Or, as he explains in an interview, he’s “an economist who understands engineering.”
Decades in number crunching have included multiple C-suite jobs and work with the world’s largest economic database and the world’s largest private data network. Since 1989, he has been running InfoVest. It specializes in investments in second-stage startup companies that have significant intangible assets, such as patents, copyrights, unique data, proprietary engineering or econometric models, proprietary software and data collection systems, O’Brien says on his LinkedIn bio. It also provides sales, marketing, customer service, legal representation and banking services to such startups.
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Since 1993, he has been drawn to China, a stunning about-face, considering family history. “My adopted brother was killed by the Chinese in 1950. I feared them,” he says. Yet in 2000, when one of his firms—nurtured from startup to 2,000 workers—was sold, he “kind of retired to study Chinese economics.”
The semi-retiree renewed relationships with Chinese colleagues. He joined China Daily as a U.S. correspondent and became an executive at the paper’s China Business Weekly. With senior Chinese economists and officials, he studied Chinese industrial economic policies and built simulation and forecasting models. He served as chief American economic adviser to the People’s Republic of China State Information Center, China’s largest think tank.
“He knows a bunch of things that go together. He knows the Chinese economy. He knows the Chinese culture,” says Stephen Browne, a serial entrepreneur, president of The Stanton Group in Massachusetts and O’Brien’s partner for four decades, who has traveled with him to China 30 or 40 times. He notes this dramatic difference between Chinese and American business culture: “The first thing on a trip to China is a dinner, talking about everything but business, just to get to know you.”
Browne stresses strong knowledge of China. “On the negative side, it’s where all the jobs are going. But it’s also where all these things are made. It’s a growing superpower, a force to be reckoned with. How can you deal with a country you hope is more partner than enemy without understanding it?”
Family networks were also key to O’Brien’s acceptance of China. In the 1990s, a Jesuit told him he remained a bigot following his brother’s slaying and must learn about China. Off he went, and on his last night in China, a woman came up to him, saying she prayed to become an American. He helped her: “It was the right thing to do.” She helped him: Her sister was an editor of China Daily.
Browne, who describes O’Brien as his first boss after graduate school, praised O’Brien’s decades of mentoring. “He wants to help the next generation, not just individuals.”
O’Brien is attuned to the politics of business as well. “All my partners in China are communists,” says the Republican defender of the American legal system, particularly its First Amendment rights. “Capitalism, left to its own devices, will lead to economic or true slavery.”
In 2004, O’Brien’s wife, Valerie J. Sill, got a job as CEO of DuPont Capital Management, and they and their three children moved to Delaware. The new base exposed O’Brien to new opportunities, such as an offer to buy the Claymont steel plant (now promoted as a site for a new train station) and a plan to build towers for Bluewater Wind’s offshore windmills. Both come out of his Transformative Technologies, a firm where John Carney worked before becoming governor.
The housing project formally began in January as UrbNvest, under a new Delaware code that allows a public benefit corporation to consider good deeds as part of its mission.
“We’re doing this to strengthen the community,” says Chris Counihan, one of the board members of UrbNvest. Stressing that they want to get buy-in from people and squelch concerns about gentrification, he adds: “We’re building better homes, not pricing people out.”
O’Brien, Counihan, UrbNvest board member Fred C. Sears II (formerly president of the Delaware Community Foundation) and others from O’Brien’s vast network have been developing the idea for more than three years. For months they studied modular construction (made in a Chinese factory, shipped in standard containers and quickly erected on site) before pivoting to 3D printing.
“He’s always got some great ideas and some great connections,” Sears says of O’Brien. The 3D printing venture “needs a lot of legs—like government approvals—and open minds to happen.”
They’re checking out 3D printers in North America, China, Russia and the Netherlands, and the front-runner is China’s Winsun, which can print an 11,800-square-foot house in a week for $160,000. Such a stick-built house—“a house that looks like mine,” O’Brien says—would cost $3.5 million.
Winsun adds fiberglass to concrete, but UrbNvest board member Harley McNair, who owns a New Jersey firm specializing in innovative chemistry, recommends urethane polymer concrete. “It’s beautiful chemistry,” McNair says, noting “we can make it look like almost anything we want.” It’s strong and nonporous, and it also offers fireproofing and soundproofing protection.
Urethane polymer concrete is “advanced engineering and chemistry and is on the frontier of how future houses can be built,” he says. “This has great promise and could revolutionize inner-city housing.”
O’Brien figures the project needs a few printers (at $500,000 to $600,000) set up in the Wilmington area, where there are “terrific” sites with water, rail and highway access. The venture builds on Delaware’s assets both intangible (America’s largest per capita number of Ph.D.s and its long history of cutting-edge intellectual property law) and tangible (location, location, location) to help improve needy areas as far away as Boston, Atlanta and Cleveland.
“We would rebuild the city using workers from the inner city,” says O’Brien, who also foresees working with local engineering, chemistry, materials science and coding students.
UrbNvest is targeting 1,600 sites in Wilmington’s land bank, which would clear the physical land and the legal title, smoothing the way for in-fill development. The land bank in Baltimore (where Browne grew up) has 16,000 such sites, often in cleared whole blocks.
“The economics [of poverty] are crazy,” O’Brien says. “The government gives families on average more than a $1,000 to live in substandard [areas]. They’re covering the wound, not treating it. We have to address the underlying cause: pride in community and jobs. Income leads to wealth, and wealth leads to a piece of the American dream. The value of a house is in the value of a neighborhood. They’re not going to have crime in the street because they own it.”
Increasing the number of homeowners “increases the hope in the community,” Counihan says.
3D printing is the buzzy and speedy concept, but O’Brien and his team are also working hard to conquer the boring and lengthy bureaucracy to fit all sorts of building codes and financing. Those goals called for meetings with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Wilmington Housing Authority. Also helping is John Legaré Williams, a Wilmington attorney who patented a technique to cheaply create individual registered limited liability companies for each house, a technique that would give each house a discrete legal identity that reduces both flipping and economic risk to other houses on the block if a deal goes awry, O’Brien says.
They’re also thinking hard about prototypes. “You can’t just show pictures,” Sears says.
O’Brien has “a charitable background,” Browne says. “He wants people to have a leg up.”
O’Brien says a Chinese official recently told him that such charity—coupled with a willingness to forgive—will ensure that “America will always lead the world.”
Demographics also help. The Chinese labor force peaked in 2014, and its population will peak in 2030. Many Chinese have been educated in America and have adapted or been attracted by Western practices and values. So, if all China’s political and economic limits on immigration were removed, the Chinese would pour out to other nations that offer greater potential. “The Chinese know that they will not rule the world,” he says.