Research Engine

The academic research enterprise lifts off in Massachusetts

What lessons Rhode Island can learn from the launch of the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst as it ponders developing its own innovation institute

Photo courtesy of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences website

The new Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a new academic research center that could serve as the kind of model for Rhode Island to consider in developing an innovation institute.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/7/16
The launch of the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst offers some tangible lessons in how Rhode Island should be talking about its plans to development new innovation centers. It is unclear if anyone at CommerceRI is paying attention.
Are Gov. Gina Raimondo and Stefan Pryor planning to tour the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences in Amherst? What kind of research and analysis has been conducted about the potential to launch an mHealth initiative in Rhode Island? Has Brown University, with its plans to create a Brown Institute for Translational Sciences to be located within the new proposed development by Wexford, explored developing the kind of test bed that UMass Amherst has created as part of its new Institute? Has the leadership at the University of Rhode Island, with potential funding through Question 4 on the ballot dedicated to creating an innovation center on its campus, made plans to visit the new UMass Amherst institute?
There is still no accessible transparent database tracking ongoing academic research in Rhode Island as a function of economic development. There is still no Index of the Rhode Island Innovation Economy to develop the kind of longitudinal data and benchmarks for how the state’s economy is performing compared to other leading technology states. There is no evidence of any desire by either government or philanthropic interests to develop a quality of life index for Rhode Island, an idea welcomed by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. There is no existing database to measure the growth and demographics of the gig economy in Rhode Island as a function of the labor market. There is no commitment by the R.I. General Assembly to make large enough state matching grants in collaborative research by academic research centers to spur the development of future technologies.
Without these kinds of data tools, analysis and investments, there is an absence of evidence-based strategies to grow the future Rhode Island economy in a collaborative fashion. It is not about making commercial real estate deals.

PROVIDENCE – In case you missed it, the University of Massachusetts Amherst just opened up its new $150 million life sciences institute on Oct. 21, known officially as the Institute for Applied Life Sciences.

The home for the new institute, a 275,000 square foot building, is a research driven academic enterprise focused on spurring the regional economy and promoting public health.

The institute, as reported by The Daily Hampshire Gazette, is divided into three parts: the Center for Bioactive Delivery, which is focused on a variety of ways of applying new drugs, such as developing synthetic molecules that can fight infection; the Models to Medicine Center, where basic protein research will develop new therapeutic targets; and the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring.

“What is occurring in the high-tech laboratories is not only training the next generation of scientists, but also creating medical devices with intelligent sensor systems for personalized health care, and developing strategies for delivering drugs and therapies that can be marketed,” the newspaper reported.

Within the six-story building that houses The Institute for Applied Life Sciences are shared spaces for 16 companies to work alongside more than 150 faculty from 28 departments in what Peter Reinhart, director of the new institute, called “co-laboratories.”

As Reinhart described the challenge, as reported by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “How do we translate it into something that matters?”

Lessons to be learned
As Rhode Island prepares to develop its own version of an innovation institute on the reclaimed Route 195 land, with CommerceRI in negotiations with Wexford and Brown University to build a three-phased development on the parcel located next to Nabsys 2.0, there are some big lessons that could be learned from the genesis of the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences – if anyone at the economic development agency is paying attention.

The first lesson is that investing in research is a long-term approach, without immediate gratification for political gain in an election cycle. The development of the new institute took more than a decade to bring to fruition, and it involved three different gubernatorial administrations – Gov. Mitt Romney, Gov. Deval Patrick, and Gov. Charlie Baker, whom all deserve some amount of credit.

The roots go back to a decision made in 2004 to change the state’s economic development strategy, to invest in the state’s innovation economy. The new strategy put the focus on making matching state investments in collaborative academic research centers. To do so, the state created the John Adams Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, with the Legislature appropriating some $35 million to fund such matching research investments.

One of the very first investments made by the John Adams Innovation Institute helped to create the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield, focused on apoptosis – or the natural process of programmed cell death – in cancer, diabetes and other diseases. That investment grew into a partnership between the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Baystate Medical Center, which has now become a major partner in the new Institute.

The second lesson is understanding the evolution of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, an initiative that grew out of discussions hosted by the John Adams Innovation Institute in 2005 that brought together leaders of the biotech industry in Massachusetts with key legislative leaders to explore what was needed to make the industry more competitive within the national and global economy.

It’s hard to imagine today that the Massachusetts biotech industry, now a global powerhouse centered in Boston/Cambridge, but in 2005, the industry cluster was floundering and unsure about its long-term commitment to stay in Massachusetts.

For more than a year, the conversations continued, bringing together high-level executives from companies and university presidents who were able, despite being fierce competitors, to find common ground in developing a collaborative approach to the research enterprise.

Those discussions led the formation of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative, which in turn served as the forerunner of the $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. More than a commercial real estate deal, it was based on reaching a consensus of what was required to spur the public-private partnership to provide the industry with a competitive advantage.

A third lesson is the way that the new Institute for Applied Life Sciences has shaped its focus to include mHealth, also called digital health, one of the fastest growing sectors that connects personal health care, public health and medical devices.

In 2014, venture funding for digital health companies surpassed $4.1 billion, a record amount, nearly the total of all three prior years combined. In 2015, venture funding for digital health companies surpassed the 2014 record, reaching a total of $4.5 billion, a 7 percent increase, offering proof if not validation that the attraction of digital health market was not based on novelty.

The new institute’s Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, in its description of its core functions, seeks to accelerate “the development and commercialization of low-cost, multi-function, wearable, wireless sensor systems for personalized health care and biometric monitoring.”

In particular, the work at the Center will focus on conducting basic and translational research across the technological roadmap for advanced personalized health monitoring. It will also seek to train the current and future workforce in key skills need for the emerging digital health industry.

It may sound a bit geekish, but the Center said that it will “establish a robust, vertically integrated ecosystem enabling rapid design, prototyping and human interface testing under real-world conditions.”

Translated, the Center will create its own test bed for the translational research it undertakes and move it forward to an advanced manufacturing platform of flexible sensors.

On the ground here in Rhode Island
Not surprisingly, many of the recent pitches made at the most recent Health Hack gathering at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on Nov. 2 involved digital health platforms. They included:

• Vitamine, an app that calculates how much of specific vitamins that you need to take each day, and then communicates that to a machine that disperses the vitamins.

• Care Connect’s mobile app that allows caregivers in assisted living to log into patient info about meds and meals, and then share that information with loved ones through updates via texts.

• Response RT, a wearable app device that auto responds in real time to a range of emergency situations, providing info for EMTs before arrival.

• CEIN, a virtual reality system for exposure therapy, to help treat anxiety disorders.

While there is a growing recognition by entrepreneurs of the potential to launch successful mHealth enterprises in Rhode Island, that kind of intelligence has not yet become a part of the platform of innovation defined by CommerceRI, as best as ConvergenceRI can ascertain.

Disruptive innovation
The health care delivery system, in its move to adopt the mantra of value over volume within the accountable care equation, has put its focus on developing the metrics around a continuum of care as a way to determine reimbursement, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes and patient satisfaction.

Medicare and Medicaid are driving such changes in the reimbursement strategy, with an aggressive timetable the majority of reimbursements to be transformed into bundled payments by 2018.

Translated, no longer will payment for health care delivery be about performing a service, plugging in a code, and getting paid; it will be about measuring the patient’s continuum of care – both inside and outside of the hospital or the doctor’s office.

The explosive growth of mHealth products promises to further disrupt the landscape, creating a different kind of patient-centered, patient-driven relationship to health and health care.

More than an equation to determine the value of such products in a disrupted health care landscape, what is needed is a way to incorporate mHealth products into improved public health.

The question remains: where is the leadership and vision on mHealth in Rhode Island, seeing it as more than a medical device industry platform but a key public health platform?

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