Innovation Ecosystem

Learning a lesson in how to listen

A planned meeting of the minds between Raimondo's economic team and leaders of RI's medtech and biomedical industry sector shows that there is room for improvement

Photo by Richard Asinof

Marcel Valois, left, Scott Jenson, and Erik Godwin, key members of Gov. Gina Raimondo's economic development team, promote the economic development plan known as The WAVE at a MedMates meeting at the Tech Collective on May 21.

Richard Asinof
Posted 5/25/15
MedMates attempted to bring together biomedical and medtech industry sector leaders in Rhode Island with the state’s economic develop team for a meeting of minds. The Raimondo team, unfortunately, used the event as a way to cheerlead for their economic policy agenda, not to engage in conversation or listen to what the top talent in the state’s biomedical and medtech cluster had to say. It was a missed opportunity, reflective not of MedMates, but on the Raimondo team’s tin ears.
What is the way that Rhode Island can become the most nimble state and turn its small size into a competitive advantage? How can this be leveraged in growing and supporting the biomedical and medtech industry sector in Rhode Island? Would a map of health innovation in Rhode Island – for health, health care delivery, life sciences, and medical devices – become the state’s calling card to attract new investments, new companies and retain talent? How does the proposal for a new biopark fit in with discussions around a central building for collaborative brain research and engineering in Rhode Island?
As documented in the recent Water Technology Industry Roadmap, prepared by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, there is an emerging cluster of water tech companies in Massachusetts, 93 companies and some 5,200 employees. The Center has targeted the sector as one having a high potential for growth, a sector that already has a multi-billion-dollar impact on the state’s economy.
Clean water technology is an industry sector could fit very well within the emerging Rhode Island knowledge economy clusters, drawing upon the existing talent, research and resources at the state’s colleges and universities, particularly as access to clean, affordable and safe water sources becomes less plentiful as a result of climate change. It is the kind of smart technology that has great potential as a global export, tapping into Rhode Island’s strengths in design, innovation and engineering.

PROVIDENCE – The gathering on May 21 at the new digs of the Tech Collective at the redeveloped Rising Sun Mills, once the factory complex that was the largest producer of worsted wool in the U.S., hosted by MedMates, had been billed as a “Meeting of the Minds.”

The plan was to have many of the leading entrepreneurs in the innovation ecosystem around biotech and medtech engage in dialogue with Gov. Gina Raimondo’s economic development team: Stefan Pryor, the secretary of the R.I. Commerce Corporation; Marcel Valois, senior economic development advisor; Scott Jenson, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training; and Erik Godwin, director of the R.I. Office of Regulatory Reform.

If all had gone as planned, the evening was to be a triptych of conversation: initial networking over food and drinks, followed by the Raimondo team’s sharing of their plans about their economic strategies, and then, breaking down into smaller groups for in-depth conversations. The walls of the conference room contained a preliminary but elaborate effort at mapping out the sector.

There was an impressive array of entrepreneurial talent from Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem that attended the event, eager to talk with the Raimondo team. From a cluster-building perspective, it was reaffirmation of the potential of MedMates to bring together the sector as a connective tool for growth.

Among the people attending were: Jeffrey Morgan, professor of Medical Science and Engineering and co-director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering at Brown University; Michael Cunningham, a research and planning analyst at Delta Dental of Rhode Island, part of a new entrepreneurial venture at the insurer; Steven L. Metzger, president and CEO of Phoenix Medical Technologies; Barbara Schoenfeld, an investment banker; Anthony Marcello, a biotech business development entrepreneur; Andrew Mallon, CEO of Calista Therapeutics; Charlie Tate of Synchronized Sales; Chon Meng Wong of Care Technology LLC; Andrew Calore of BCI Computers; A.J. Vincelli from EpiVax; Andrew Shearer, co-founder and chief technical officer at Care Thread, designer Colin Murphy, Rich Horan from the Slater Technology Fund, and Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation.

A tin ear
Unfortunately, the Raimondo team displayed a tin ear, which was not the fault of the MedMates organizers.

The Raimondo team viewed their mission as a sales job, to promote their economic development package known as The WAVE as “revolutionary” progress, and spent the evening talking at the audience, proselytizing their plan.

The team was not there to listen; they were there to sell. They weren’t looking for dialogue or new ideas; they were looking for affirmation.

When Dan Bacher stood up and asked the last question of the evening, it seemed to capture the problem with the Raimondo team’s approach.

Bacher, a former engineer with BrainGate at Brown University and head of the Speak Your Mind Foundation, and now with Ximedica, had been involved with the effort to help a woman with brain stem stroke regain the use of a limb through an implanted brain device. Bacher has also been a constant presence in many of the MedMates events, promoting the importance of conversation and convergence, often bringing students with him to events.

Bacher turned the premise of the Raimondo’s team argument – that the state needed a new economic toolbox to compete – on its head.

Instead of lamenting Rhode Island’s small size, Bacher asked, why not turn the state’s small size into a competitive advantage? “Shouldn’t we be the most nimble?” he asked. Good question.

The sales force
Why the lack of effort to engage, to talk at, and not with? Perhaps, the Raimondo team believed that they already knew all the important players in the Rhode Island business community in the state. Or, that they didn’t need to know who was actually in the audience, beyond the faces they were already familiar with.

The Raimondo team could have begun by asking everyone in the room to briefly introduce themselves, and say why they had come – as a sign that they were truly interested in engagement.

Instead, Jenson, a recent import from Maryland, began the evening by admitting the fact that he used to be a college professor, as he assumed the role of lecturer. He joked about being from the government and that he was there to help.

Jenson quickly turned the show over to Marcel Valois, the soft-spoken former executive director of CommerceRI, formerly known as the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, who was a holdover from the Chafee administration.

Valois then walked everyone through The WAVE – from workforce development to tax credits to tourism to cluster development – all focused on bringing industry and prosperity back to Rhode Island, to rebuild Rhode Island.

Godwin, the director of the R.I. Office of Regulatory Reform, then took the stage, front and center. In contrast to Valois, Godwin spoke in a pumped-up bravado about his role, rooting out harmful regulations to business.

When he was hired, Godwin said, his mission was made clear about taking on unnecessary regulations that were thwarting business growth: “If you do not leave blood on the floor, we will fire you,” Godwin said he had been told. And, further, he continued, he was told: “If anyone stands in your way, we will fire them.”

Godwin exhorted the audience to provide him with potential targets of unnecessary and bad regulations. “I need targets; I need good intelligence,” he said.

Godwin, who said that he had inherited “a great staff,” added that, given their work, most directors of regulatory reform have a “limited shelf life of about 18 months.”

Godwin's tone of voice seemed out-of-tune with the audience; it exemplified the missed opportunity to connect in honest dialogue with the top talent in a key cluster – the biomedical industry sector.

Real jobs
Jenson took up the cheerleading baton from Godwin, promoting the Real Jobs agenda of The WAVE, improving the skills of the state’s workforce and matching them to what the actual industry needs were.

“I and my agency cannot do it alone,” Jenson said, saying that Rhode Island was in a competition with other states. “Our very best ambassadors are you all,” he said, falling into a Southern dialect.

Jenson promised to do all that he could to “hustle” economic development opportunities for Rhode Island. “Our boss is a hustler,” he said.

Pryor, who was about an hour late in arriving to join the conversation, talked about the importance of having a professional team in place.

“The brokers [of economic development deals] want to deal with a professional team if there’s not a professional team, they will stop calling,” he said.

Small nuggets
In response to a question about greater access to capital and the potential of the state to invest in the Slater Technology Fund, Valois pointed to the fact that Slater had finally received $4.3 million in federal funds “a few weeks ago” from the U.S. Treasury. Actually, it had been about four months ago.

The money, part of the State Small Business Credit Initiative, created under the federal Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 and awarded in September of 2011, was actually the second payment of funds that had been held up by a federal audit of the program. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story from Feb. 9, 2015.]

Once 80 percent of that $4.3 million is deployed in equity investments by Slater, another $2.8 million in funding – the third and final traunch – will be forthcoming.

Pryor revealed that he had been in conversations with Slater to discuss the deployment in just the past week.

A company executive who ran a small company talked about the difficulty of recruiting qualified engineering employees. He asked what could be done to improve the level of high school education in the state, particularly in basic mathematics.

In his response, Pryor touted the new $125 million engineering complex at the University of Rhode Island, replacing the five existing engineering buildings. The person sitting next to ConvergenceRI nudged him and asked: Did he forget about Brown’s new engineering school? As if right on cue, Morgan, the co-director of Brown University’s Center of Biomedical Engineering, chimed in to remind Pryor that Brown had recently broken ground on its new engineering building.

Moving ahead
In the parking lot at Rising Sun Mills, following the event, the consensus among participants who talked with ConvergenceRI, lingering in the twilight of an early summer evening was that there had been missed opportunity by the Raimondo team to listen to what they had to say– it had been a sales job rather than a dialogue.

One topic of conversation that did not come up, which surprised many in the parking lot, was the new proposal by a major biomedical real estate developer to build a new 1 million square-foot biopark on the former Route 195 land.

At the beginning of the evening, there had been a lot of positive energy at the gathering, fed by a sense of community among those active in the biomedical and medtech industry sector, a recognition of the talent and drive that existed, and a renewed undercurrent of hope and optimism of how an invigorated cluster could propel the aspirations of an emerging innovation ecosystem.

The approach taken by the Raimondo team seemed to let some of the air out of that balloon; the folks in that room did not want to be recruited to be cheerleaders, they wanted to engage in substantive policy design around investment and retention of talent.

Perhaps there is a good reason why the state motto of Rhode Island is "Hope." The future of MedMates still appears to be bright, as does the industry sector's. The question is: when will the Raimondo team be ready to listen to what they have to say?

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