Andrew Cottone will be the first to tell you he built his present-day success on a single, risky move: At 26, when the chemical firm for which he was working faced bankruptcy, instead of looking for a new job elsewhere he bought the floundering company himself.
He’s also the first to admit that doing so put tremendous pressure on him as a professional, a husband and a dad. But today, after 17 years at Adesis, the company he founded, he looks back with few regrets.
“I’m an entrepreneur first and a chemist second,” he says. “I know this because I’ve always had a vision—I wanted to grow something remarkable. Breaking the cycle meant disrupting the status quo.”
That status quo—large companies maintaining their own labs and manufacturing—had already started breaking down at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, Cottone envisioned Adesis as a different sort of company—a contract research organization, which provides top-tier chemical research, development and manufacturing to anyone who needed it.
“I think of us as the best chemists in the world for hire,” he says. “By solving our clients’ complex chemistry problems and accelerating their research and manufacturing goals, we make ourselves invaluable.”
Today, Adesis employs more than 150 people and maintains 80,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space. The company is widely regarded as the most highly qualified organization in the industry, Cottone notes.
“We are known and respected for our genius,” he says.
While Adesis’ client list is confidential, the company’s chemists have built molecules for applications as diverse as organic LED (OLED) lighting and display technology, contact lenses and cancer drugs.
“We have clients from around the world, and every day we play an active role in finding cures and treatments for some of the world’s worst diseases,” he says. “During COVID, we were the reason many of our pharmaceutical clients were able to keep their drug development schedules on track.”
The path to success
Going from potentially being laid off from a company to buying it, then selling it (to the company’s biggest client) for $36 million didn’t come easily, Cottone emphasizes. And maintaining his level of performance as CEO at Adesis comes with lots of daily work both for the success of the company and his own peak performance.
For example, he is a firm believer in surrounding himself with people who share his vision. Among the most important and influential of those, he says, is his wife, Jennifer (also a PhD chemist). Not only has she given him a new perspective on the inequality that exists in the chemical industry, but she has been his biggest booster.
“It’s important to surround yourself with people who believe in you and for you to recognize your supporters,” Cottone says.
With team members, he notes that colleagues “sharing his vision” isn’t code for an entourage of yes-men and-women, but rather a description of those who have faith in your ability.
On taking risks to build a business
Cottone is also a believer in striking out at opportunity as soon as it presents itself without overthinking the potential consequences. In retrospect, he notes how disastrous his purchase of the company that became Adesis could have been had it not been successful. Still, he believed that despite the company’s instability before he bought it, Delaware’s need for scarce research labs would ensure success.
“When I reminisce, I was literally putting our lifestyle on the line,” he says. “But I didn’t waiver in my commitment to make Adesis happen.”
One misstep, he says, was his initial overreliance on the potential for partnerships with other chemistry companies located in Delaware.
“Don’t overestimate the support of domain-sharing industries,” he says. “Big corporations are like giant ships – they can take a long time to turn. I wish I had understood that better. But I worked on strengthening the relationships we had, and Adesis was eventually purchased by our largest client.”
His experience is also a notable example of why he believes Delaware should work harder to foster a business environment rich in venture funding and collaboration opportunities to give a boost to companies ready to enter the next level of growth.
When reaching out to new prospects once he formed Adesis, Cottone says knowing the company’s value to potential clients—the ability to solve complex problems to help them develop, improve or manufacture their products—was its prime selling point.
“Innovation must make sense,” he says. “We went after our clients’ biggest pain points and worked out solutions.”
On building a culture
That innovation doesn’t come without hiring the right people to do the job and then giving them reasons to stay. Cottone attributes the success of Adesis entirely to his employees, who he intentionally hires from diverse talent pools to attract strong people who evaluate the company’s ideas and work tirelessly toward goals.
“Our culture is similar to that of an Italian family—we look out for one another, we challenge each other, and while we don’t always agree, at the end of the day we have each other’s backs,” he says. “What I’m especially proud of is that our chemists could get a job anywhere in the world and they choose to stay at Adesis. That retention says so much about the importance of company culture.”
Part of that culture is maintaining Adesis as a nimble organization where employees won’t get bogged down by phrases like, “We’ve always done it this way,” Cottone says.
“We’ve built a culture that believes all ideas are great ideas until proven otherwise, and ideas can and must be improved by workshopping them together with diverse perspectives and expertise,” he says. “We also know it’s important to learn from our mistakes. One chemist from Adesis’ early days, Radu Denes had a mantra: ‘There is no such thing as a failed reaction,’ because he learned something from it and applied those lessons to our next innovation. As a result, Adesis is one of the few companies in the world that can turn a difficult whiteboard chemistry concept into a physical product.
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