Innovation Ecosystem

MedMates launches its latest version of itself, dubbed 3.0 by some

In its latest incarnation, the medtech industry group is positioned to serve as an accelerator for new startups and entrepreneurs, supported by the state’s economic development agency with workforce training funds

Photo by Richard Asinof

Kelly Ramirez, CEO of Social Greenhouse Enterprise, the new home of MedMates, at the event on Feb. 17 to welcome the medtech group as a new accelerator to help promote new entrepreneurs in the sector.

Photo by Richard Asinof

David Goldsmith, board member of MedMates, talks at the Feb. 17 event that celebrated the launch of the organization within the umbrella of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/22/16
The evolution of MedMates and its struggle to define its mission moves to the next phase, as it transitions to serving as an accelerator to produce more, better entrepreneurs as part of the state’s investments in workforce training. The story of the group’s struggles over the last three and half years captures the limits of public-private sector relationships in Rhode Island, and how they offer devolve into unhealthy, co-dependent relationships.
When will the creation of an intermediate stage fund in Rhode Island become a priority? When will economic clusters be redefined in Rhode Island within the context of Michael Porter’s work? At what stage will economic development in Rhode Island expand to include investments in places, neighborhoods and communities and not just in corporations? What can Rhode Island learn from the efforts undertaken by the John Adams Innovation Institute in Massachusetts in cluster-based economic development?
The health care delivery service industry is the largest private employer in the state. The most recent data story developed by DataSparkRI, based upon statistics from the last quarter of 2015 in Rhode Island, showed that employers looking for in the following occupations may have difficulty finding experienced workers in the current environment: physical therapists, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, clinical counselors and school psychologists, emergency medical techs and paramedics, recreation and fitness teachers, physician assistants, physical therapy assistants, occupational therapists, licensed nurses, dietetic technicians, and pharmacists.
The lack of an economic development strategy that addresses the workforce needs of the state’s health care delivery system promises to exacerbate the existing trend of consolidation and colonization of Rhode Island’s hospitals by out-of-state systems.

PROVIDENCE – The latest reincarnation of MedMates, call it MedMates 3.0, was officially launched on Feb. 17 at a gathering held at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse headquarters at 10 Davol Square in Providence, where the nascent industry cluster group focused on medical technology industry sector in Rhode Island appears to have a found a new home, for now.

The genesis of the latest version of MedMates has its roots in the successful award of $175,000 a year for three years under the R.I. Department of Labor and Training’s Real Jobs RI program.

DLT Director Scott Jensen described the funding award to the crowd of about 50 people attending as a grant to increase “incumbent worker training for job creation,” in what he termed the made-up language of “development-ese.”

Translated, under the umbrella of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, MedMates will now refocus its energy on serving as an accelerator for new companies in the medical device sector in Rhode Island – to train people to become better entrepreneurs, according to Jensen, and in the process, spur job creation.

In turn, MedMates is looking to hire a new executive director, with new resources provided by the Rhode Island Foundation, according to board member David Goldsmith, managing director of Aspiera Medical, who also spoke at the event. Goldsmith said that there was already one very strong potential candidate in the mix.

In addition, MedMates and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, or SEG, are looking to recruit a new, invigorated network for mentors to assist the next wave of entrepreneurs and startup firms, according to Kelly Ramirez, the CEO at Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

The design of programs at SEG is to build “a pipeline of talented social engineers, help them build business acumen, make markets by improving the visibility of these services and aggregating demand for their services, and drive collaboration,” according to its website.

Aidan Petrie, founder and chief innovation officer at Ximedica, then talked about the way in which his firm had been expanding rapidly, now with more than 200 employees and offices in Hong Kong, Minneapolis, San Francisco and its headquarters in Providence. Yet, he continued, the firm did not have a single Rhode Island company as a client, demonstrating the need for there to be greater investment in startup entrepreneurs in this sector.

Finally, Delta Dental of Rhode Island will serve as a private sector backer of the effort, seeking to increase its investments in startup companies in the health care sector, according to Blaine Carroll, vice president of Strategic Initiatives.

[At the gathering, it was announced that Maeve Donohue, who had been a principal in helping to organize MedMates from the very beginning, and who had served most recently in the capacity of the executive director at MedMates, was moving on to pursue new personal opportunities. No further explanation of her apparent abrupt departure was given.]

What a short, strange trip it’s been
The history of MedMates during its short three and a half years of existence provides an insightful look at the push-and-pull between the public sector and private sector in Rhode Island in the attempt to organize a medtech industry cluster, and why that effort has often fallen flat, like a recipe for bread that is missing the requisite leavening agent needed.

What an industry cluster is, how its competitive members can find common ground in collaborative strategies to improve competitiveness, and what is the appropriate role for government to play – somehow these were basic questions that were never fully explored or answered.

The origins of MedMates go back to the .fall of 2012, when the idea for such an organization was pitched during the private industry leaders’ confab known as “Make It Happen RI” by Stephen Lane, then the chairman, chief venture officer and co-founder of Ximedica, a Providence-based firm that had successfully married design and innovation to the world of regulated medical devices.

The “Make It Happen” initiative was envisioned as a way to harness the energies of the private sector in a positive response to what was perceived as an economic malaise hanging like a fog over Rhode Island, organized in part by The Rhode Island Foundation.

With Lane playing the role of key organizer, and backed by an initial $50,000 from the Rhode Island Foundation, MedMates moved forward, holding gatherings in 2013 at Ximedica headquarters, at the Founders League headquarters on Chestnut Street, and at Brown University, with the discussion fueled by free beer, wine and sushi.

During the initial stages of forming MedMates 1.0, ConvergenceRI had reported on a number of such get-togethers, which attracted an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs, angel investors, life sciences start-up firms, scientists, engineers and researchers from Brown and URI, and officials from what was then known as the R.I. Economic Development Corporation.

At the group’s second organizing meeting, held on Jan. 17, 2013, the watchwords were connectivity, collaboration, and opportunity, according to Lane. “We accomplished a lot,” Lane told the group at the end of the session. “I’m eager to read the written statements on purpose and mission [offered by the participants] about what this group can achieve, to further help to define who we are and where we’re going.” Nothing, Lane continued, “is set in concrete; we’re all in the business of discovery.”

Yet, by the next large session, three months later, held on April 24, 2013, the concrete had been poured and the foundation had begun to cure. The “point people” of the MedMates initiative were identified as Lane, Goldsmith, Katherine Brown, managing director of the Technology Ventures Office at Brown University, and Barrett Bready, president CEO of Nabsys. R.I. General Treasurer Gina M. Raimondo, about to launch her campaign for governor, spoke briefly to open the event, with Joy Fox, her top aide, handing out business cards. [The intrusion of electoral politics into a private sector event seemed to strike an awkward chord at the time for many who attended.]

Denice Spero, who was then serving as the co-director of iCubed, also spoke briefly at the event. Spero was the co-founder, along with URI’s Edward Bozzi, of a newly launched group called R.I. BioScience Leaders, a group of about 20 CEOs seeking to create a similar presence in life sciences in Rhode Island. She described the relationship between her group and MedMates as a kind of new math, a series of circles that overlapped, intersected and collaborated. Spero also announced a new legislative proposal to create a series of matching state grants for SBIR award winners, which would win approval from the R.I. General Assembly in July.

In an ICYMI email from Hope Hopkins, director of Communications at Ximedica, sent out a few days after the event, she recapped what the MedMates organizers saw as the important facts: Treasurer Raimondo had opened the evening, the new MedMates logo and website had been unveiled, a MedMates parade of “inspirational folk” from the industry sectors had been staged, a “true illustration of the rich tapestry” right here in Rhode Island, concluding with the messaging that “momentum abounds” – as a well as a Twitter handle and a LinkedIn page.

On July 24, 2013, at a MedMates networking meeting held at MacMillan Hall at Brown University, the public sector was afforded a prominent role with the featured presentation by Marcel Valois, the newly named director of the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, soon to transition to CommerceRI, which Valois described as the R.I. General Assembly having “blown up and reinvented” the agency. Valois described his view of economic development as a simple concept: “How we work with our public, private and nonprofit companies to create conditions for companies to grow and thrive in all sectors, creating new jobs and a higher standard of living for all Rhode Islanders.”

Valois said that the EDC was working in partnership to develop a marketing campaign to rebrand Rhode Island in a positive vision, promising that the effort will lead people to be “amazed by what happens in our little state,” presaging the “All in Our Backyard” campaign.

In addition, a presentation was made about the planned economic development mission to Israel being planned and coordinated by EDC.

Afterward, among a number of attendees, there were significant grumblings about what they saw as the intrusion of the state’s economic development agency’s agenda into the MedMates networking event.

The next leap forward
The final big event under MedMates 1.0 was a showcase of companies held at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in February of 2014, where some 20 entrepreneurs made a five-minute pitch for their new products, under the name, “For the Love of Entrepreneurship,” organized by Lane. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Attendance at the event was marred by an unexpected snow squall that organizers said interfered with plans for many who had been scheduled to attend, according to Lane.

In June of 2014, at the event held at Ximedica, MedMates launched its 2.0 version, attempting to transform the initial enthusiasm into a more structured approach going forward.

At the event, Laine Mashburn, the principal of VentureMedica, a health care venture development firm, was introduced as the director of MedMates’ new “Launch” initiative. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Mashburn, along with Dan Bacher, founder and executive director of the Speak Your Mind Foundation, led a discussion about how Rhode Island could create its own signature event, in the model of a hackathon, or a make-a-thon, moving beyond software and coding to create and design a product.

Lane voiced his enthusiasm for the concept, saying that it was his belief that Rhode Island was the perfect place for such an event, because of its “ability to fabricate anything out of anything.” The future of medicine, Lane continued, “will be attached to you,” promoting the concept of wearable technology as a new frontier.

Carroll of Delta Dental also addressed the gathering, detailing the insurance company’s new strategic direction of investing in early stage and mid-stage companies, in order to acquire its own stable of startup businesses.

Those plans, however, were put on hold when Mashburn decided to leave Rhode Island a few weeks later for a job opportunity.

Lessons in entrepreneurship
In the wake of Mashburn’s unexpected departure, MedMates tweaked its 2.0 version to create a series of learning lectures by top entrepreneurs in the health tech and med tech industry to share their stories.

The series, focused on telling the story of the “journey of health tech startup,” begun on Oct. 8, 2014, once again hosted by BetaSpring, was conceived as an interactive story-telling session by CEOs, following the narrative of “ideation> organization> funding> traction> exit.”

A crowd of about 100, including many students that were attending a MedMates event for the first time, got to hear the breaking news about a Rhode Island success in the biomedical industry sector – FDA approval for a clinical trial. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Disruptions in the force
A month later, in November of 2014, Lane, one of the driving forces behind the formation of MedMates, departed from Ximedica in a buyout, as the iconic Rhode Island was purchased by SV Life Sciences, a Boston-based venture firm.

In May of 2015, following the election of Raimondo, MedMates, under the leadership of Donahue and Hopkins, staged a listening session to introduce the Raimondo team to the players within Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem in the medtech, life sciences and biotech sectors.

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., was hosted by MedMates. It had been billed as a “Meeting of the Minds,” with many of the leading entrepreneurs in the innovation ecosystem around biotech and medtech engage in dialogue with Raimondo’s economic development team. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

It didn’t quite turn out as planned, with the Raimondo economic team more interested in talking rather than listening. But it did mark the beginnings of MedMates 2.5, with the cluster group organizing around obtaining workforce grants and potential cluster grants from the Raimondo administration.

[The ConvergenceRI story, it turned out, had been suggested reading for many on the staff of The Brookings Institute team in preparation for their study of Rhode Island’s future economic strategy.]

Back to showcasing products
Three weeks later, on June 11, MedMates hosted an event at the Founder’s League, having 10 Rhode Island company executives showcase their products in front of a team of executives at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

The event demonstrated the moving target that had marked MedMates’ first three years: envisioned first as a place for networking; then concretized with a leadership team that represented the successful ventures, with a website and a Twitter handle and a political tilt; then merged in part with the agenda of state’s economic development agency; then serving as a showcase for potential new companies looking for venture investment; then relaunched as a way to channel initial enthusiasm into a more structured approach; then serving as a learning forum for beginning medtech entrepreneurs; then positioned as a facilitator for engagement between Raimondo’s economic team and the biotech and medtech industry sector; then back to showcasing new health tech firms before a panel of insurance executives.

The basic analyses of what an industry cluster is and what it can do, based upon Michael Porter’s seminal work on clusters, have not seemed to have influenced or informed MedMates’ evolution.

The innovation highway
Fast forward to today: MedMates has new digs at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse; and its new mission is to serve as an accelerator for new medtech entrepreneurs and startups, with some $525,000 in CommerceRI government funding over the next three years in workforce training. Congratulations.

As much as The Brookings Institute study identified the target areas of opportunity for Rhode Island’s economy moving forward, and provided action steps on how best to move forward, it still remains unclear if the economic team at CommerceRI has fully embraced what was said.

[CommerceRI’s Stefan Pryor’s embrace of the Slater Mill as the archetype of Rhode Island’s future innovation ecosystem is not very encouraging.]

There are three basic competencies that the Raimondo administration has invested in during its first two years: running successful PR campaigns to promote its reinvention agenda; employing professional consultants and think tanks to develop public policy strategies and public relations agendas; and hiring professional expertise in commercial real estate development as the backbone of its economic development strategy.

As such, the vision appears to be that Rhode Island needs to build an off-ramp on the Innovation Highway [ecosystem] that runs between Boston through New Haven and New York: create the right incentives and new companies will relocate to Rhode Island; build the right kinds of new innovation hubs of advanced industries and put cranes in the sky with new buildings, and prosperity will follow with good, high-paying jobs.

What’s not so clear is what the on-ramp to that Innovation Highway looks like and how it might be built. Much of the efforts – from workforce development to educational initiatives – appear geared toward creating the workers to serve the new companies that will relocate in Rhode Island.

What is Rhode Island’s sweet spot in that innovation ecosystem continuum? How do you strengthen the existing entrepreneurs in Rhode Island, many of whom have had to build their own sophisticated on-ramps?

Perhaps, more importantly, when do these experienced entrepreneurs get invited to participate in the ongoing conversations?

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