By Pete Kennedy
Andrew Cottone nearly failed high school chemistry.
“Go do something else,” his teacher said. “You’re not cut out for chemistry.”
He didn’t listen. Instead, he got a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry, started a chemistry solutions company, grew it for 11 years, then sold it but stayed on as the chief executive.
“It’s the story of my life,” Cottone said. “If someone tells me I can’t do it, I’m going to go and do it.”
Cottone, 46, is the CEO of Adesis, a chemical research company with about 150 employees – mostly chemistry Ph.D.s – and 50,000 square feet of lab space in New Castle, plus another 30,000 square feet of new lab space eight miles down the road at the DuPont experimental station.
“I try to run the company like an Italian family, where we don’t all get along but we look out for one another,” he said.
Cottone’s own Italian family traces back to Sicily, Calabria and Naples, where his four grandparents emigrated from.
“If you want to know what real guts is – when you’re 8 or 9 years old, you have $5 in your pocket, and you get on a boat to a land where you don’t know anybody and you don’t speak the language, that’s guts,” he said.
Growing up in Roxborough, Cottone was focused more on baseball than chemistry.
“I was certain I was going to play shortstop for the Phillies,” he said.
But with his parents’ encouragement, and after his teacher’s unwitting challenge, he decided to major in chemistry and biochemistry at La Salle University. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Florida in 2000, where he met his wife, Jennifer, also a chemistry Ph.D.
“A good Ph.D. to me is a degree in problem solving,” he said.
Cottone is always trying to see the big picture – or at least a new part of it.
“I see the world in positive and negative charges. Where are the electrons moving around?” he said. “I don’t just see green leaves – I’m looking at the chemistry of the chlorophyll that’s in the leaves. I look at the physical chemical properties and I can see it. Now, I might miss something [else] because I’m seeing that.”
In 2001, he left his postdoctoral research at University of Delaware and went to
work for CB Research as a process chemist. By 2004, he had risen to vice president
of chemistry. Eventually, the owner asked Cottone if he’d like to buy into the company. Cottone, in turn, asked for his wife’s blessing.
“‘Can I have all of our money and buy a company?’” he said. “My wife looked at me with this confidence. I had to look behind me to see who the hell she was seeing.”
With that, Adesis Inc. was born. Cottone said his strong marriage was a vital counterbalance to the intense work needed to create Adesis, a contract research organization. Married for 24 years, he and Jennifer live in Centreville, Delaware, with their three daughters.
In 2016, Cottone sold Adesis to Universal Display Corp., which is publicly traded on the NASDAQ. It was a clear-cut decision, he said, because it allowed Adesis to grow. The company now works on a mix of projects for its parent company and for outside contract clients.
“We provide services in early-stage research, scale-up, and manufacturing. We solve chemistry problems,” he said. “We do so quickly and safely, while protecting the intellectual property.”
These days, Cottone spends about 10 percent of his time on science, and the rest on business.
“Much of my day is spent working on where Adesis will be in three or four years,” he said.
The fact that he’s been able to stay on as CEO five years after the acquisition is a testament to a great work environment and an exceptional team created by thoughtful hiring processes, he said.
A fan of refined processes, Cottone wakes up each morning at 6:15 a.m. exactly. His wife makes him one egg white, and he drinks one cup of coffee. He gets to work, reviews the prior day’s financials over another cup of coffee, and heads into meetings.
At 11 a.m., he has an Atkins bar and at 1 p.m. another egg – hard-boiled this time. For dinner, though, anything goes, including full Italian feasts. He plays piano for at least 30 minutes a day and enjoys golfing with his wife. He juggles a few books at a time.
Each year, Cottone heads to the American West for a few days of camping – intentionally way outside his city-kid comfort zone. This year, he’s chosen Yosemite, where he plans to take the path less traveled.
“Everyone wants to hike Half Dome. I’m going across to the other side of the valley,” he said. “The physical challenge is the same – probably worse, because it’s not as traveled – but you get better views.
“That’s kind of a metaphor for how I like to approach science. I like to go where no one else is and look at it a completely different way.”